Describe an important conflict in the written text. Explain how the conflict helped you to understand an important message.
War is dehumanizing. Throughout the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, the theme of the horrors of war is shown through Paul Baumer—an 18-year-old German soldier—during the second world war. An important conflict used to understand the theme of the horror of war is when Paul Baumer kills a French soldier—Gerard Duval.
Erich Maria Remarque wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front” after his own experiences as a soldier in world war I. He fought in the Great war between 1917 and 1918. When World war 2 happened, the Nazis burnt the novel as it was such an anti-war book—not what they wanted people to read. The result of this was Remarque was declared undesirable and they even went on to execute his sister.
Remarque’s purpose is to show the theme of the horror of war. After Paul takes shelter in a shell hole in no man’s land, a French soldier—Gerard Duval—falls in with him. Instinctively, Paul stabs him until he falls limp. Paul then has to listen to Gerard slowly dying beside him. As Paul is left in his own thoughts, he is guilt-ridden and rushes to help him. Unfortunately, his efforts were unsuccessful and Gerard dies. Paul is left in the shell hole with his countless thoughts echoing around his head.
Remarque uses this scene to show the effect of young soldiers killing men face-to-face in war. Gerard was Pauls’s first face-to-face kill. Before this, the enemy had no face—the enemy was just silhouettes in the distance. Now, however, it would be impossible for Paul to erase Gerard from his mind. Paul had previously been firing guns mindlessly and he didn’t worry about the affected lives but now he is forever scarred. He is personally connected to the enemy because of Gerard. Paul thinks “he has an invisible dagger to stab me with: my own thoughts.” This metaphor tells the reader that even though Gerard is dead, what Paul did to him will stick with him forever—like a scar. This develops not only the theme of the horror of war but also the theme of the lost generation. Paul and other men who fought in the war are too changed by their horrific experiences to return back to civilized life. They can’t go back to normal society because the events have changed them.
Paul et al have to act like savages to survive the deadly realities of war. Before Gerard falls into the shell hole, Paul thinks “If anyone were to fall down beside me I will stab them immediately.” This is not a normal thought for a teenager—on anyone—to have. To survive the horrifying experience that is war, Paul has to shut off his civilized thoughts and rely on his animal instinct. The harsh realities of war means that there is no time for Paul to have reasoned thought because they have to think in the moment they are in. Remarque does this to show that there is simply no time to second guess their choices as that could result in death. This is a horrible way to live. Paul should be out partying, experiencing first love and doing normal 18-year-old activities, and not planning to kill the next person he sees. This demonstrates the horror of war because the men will do anything to survive. This event helps the reader to understand how the soldiers behave in war. If Paul didn’t act like an animalist savage, sadly, he would get killed instead.
The conflict of Paul killing Gerard results in something changing in Paul. While Paul is still in the shell hole with Gerard’s lifeless body, Paul looks through his things. He sees a photo of Gerard’s family, learns he is a printmaker and worst of all, Paul sees Gerard’s name. At this moment, Paul gets hit with a wave of guilt. Gerard’s name makes him a person and makes the event of Paul killing a human being real. It also makes him relatable and human—something that he was taught the opposite of. Paul then thinks “My state of mind is getting worse all the time and I can’t control my thoughts”. An example of Paul not being able to control his thoughts is when he dedicates his life to looking after Gerard’s family if he survives the war. He makes these false promises to make good out of the bad situation. Choosing to look at Gerard’s name relates to the theme of the horror of war. It helps the reader understand how war turns innocent men into murderers, and leaves their souls crushed. Paul finally realised the impact of killing men and how it affects him personally. It affects other innocent men’s lives. Consumed with grasping into living, Paul forgets that the enemy are just like him—terrified, innocent men. This is the true horror of war that Remarque helps the reader to understand through this conflict.
Paul can’t accept the situation he is in. Paul et al are normal humans that get swept up in the utter chaos that is war. No one chose the deadly, animaistic lifestyle they are curerntly in. Paul is so guilt-ridden by his killing Gerard that he repeats the phrase “Forgive me Camarade”. Camarade is a word-meaning friend/companion. This is the opposite of what Paul should be calling the enemy. When they were drafted for war, they thought that war was a glorious ‘good thing’ but they could never have been fully prepared for the horrors they faced. Paul et al have all been brainwashed to hate the enemy but at this moment this is anything but what he feels. Instead of hatred, he feels sorry for the enemy. This relates to the lost generation theme as the men are shouldn’t be fighting. Underneath the uniform, guns and bombs Paul and the enemy are the same. Humans. Innocent humans. Innocent humans who should not be in this situation. Unfortunately, the government is the true enemy.
In conclusion, Remarque uses the conflict of Paul killing Gerard Duval to emphasise the key themes—the horror of war and the lost generation. This conflict helps the reader to understand the themes because the reader gets a detailed insight into Pauls’s feelings and guilt-ridden mind, even though he is meant to hate the man he just killed. Remarque’s purpose of this event is to show the animal instinct nature of the soldiers in WW1 because of how changed they are. Paul’s only mindset is to kill or be killed. Unfortunately, wars still go on—an example being between Russia and Ukraine. Fighting in wars is a complete waste of time; it just leaves soldiers lost, dehumanised and scared.