Chapter 2 opens with Paul reminiscing about his earlier life, but it is
surreal because this world now seems so vague and distant.
Paul and his schoolmates feel isolated from the normal world because they
have gone straight from school to the Front Line. Some of the others in their group, like Deterring, have something to look forward to when the war ends, but Paul and other 19 year olds have not had the
opportunity to develop their careers, start hobbies and begin families. All they know is the bleak landscape on the Front Line.
Paul muses that he has learnt far more in the ten weeks of military training
than he learnt spending ten years at school. From being and astute schoolboy, Paul has reverted to an unthinking cog in the war machine.
Whilst they were at the training barracks they were commanded by Corporal
In civilian life he was a mail man, but he relishes the power given to him by the onset of war. He treats the new recruits sadistically, trying to break their spirit. During their training, all the recruits hated this Corporal, but now they recognize that his training has been essential for their survival. At the training barracks they developed a camaraderie, which endures with them still.
In Chapter 2 we learn more about Paul.
He may have had a promising literary career, for he had written poetry and had attempted being a playwright. He is still capable, of course, of having strong feelings, illustrated to his reaction to Kemmerich’s unnecessary death. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his own desire to survive is so strong, because of the experiences he has had with death.
Paul is, of course, Remarque’s mouthpiece and we are conscious that he is
trying to present these experiences as honestly as possible.
In the end Paul realizes that in order to survive both physically and
mentally, he has to shut himself off from his feelings. He is powerless to do anything about his situation. He must stay sharp and survive and not let his feelings interfere with his performance as a soldier.
The reader soon learns that life has no value.
This is underlined by the fact that Kemmerich’s boots become an important symbol. They signify the cheapness of life.
The main purpose of these Chapters is to set the scene and provide the
atmosphere on the Western Front.
Historically speaking, we are approaching the end of the war and Germany is on its back foot. The initial stream of German victories has now dried up, and the reinforced Allies now threaten to overrun the German positions.
Although this story is told from a German point of view, the message is
clearly universal and can easily be applied to the Allied side. As we have said before, this is not an adventure story; it is a tale of death, destruction and desolation.
In this setting toil the soldiers who have lost all hope.