Paul’s company eventually returns to the huts behind the lines and they pass
the time killing lice. Corporal Himmelstoss is due to arrive shortly and there is much anticipation.
The men engage in a common pastime of “What would you do if peace were
declared tomorrow?” Tjaden would like to spend the rest of his life torturing Himmelstoss.
Deterring, of course, just wants to return to his family. Haie, surprisingly, wishes to remain in the army because it is better than digging peat. No doubt similar discussions take place behind the Allied lines. Kropp has little enthusiasm. The war has crushed all ambition in him. Paul concludes that they are all running scared. They did not have the opportunity to love life and the world. They have had their existence shot to pieces. The first bomb explosion dashed all their hopes. They are cut off from any sort of advancement or from any realistic ambitions until the war finishes.
Himmelstoss appears and there is a strange role reversal. He is now a
raw recruit so far as the Front Line is concerned, and Tjaden openly insults him. Himmelstoss storms off to the Company Commander, Lieutenant Bertinck, and he is conscious that discipline must be preserved,
even although he sympathizes with Tjaden and Kropp, who was also insubordinate. The pair is given light sentences of Open Arrest.
The resourceful Kat manages to get his hands on a goose and Kat and Paul
enjoy a square meal for a change. For a brief moment they can escape the horrors of war and enjoy the feast. Once they have had their fill, they share the rest of the goose with Kropp and Tjaden.
Chapter 5 is the middle portion of this 3-Chapter set.
It is framed on both sides by harsh Chapters that describe the full fury of trench warfare.
Remarque purposely places this mild scene between the horrors of Chapters 4
We can almost feel the warmth from the fire where the goose is roasting and we can imagine the sumptuous taste of the fowl enjoyed by Kat, Paul and the others. Remarque’s purpose, of course, is to provide maximum emotional effect on the reader when engulfed by the full fury of war.
Shakespeare was adept at providing contrasts like this, and it mirrors what
life was actually like during the First World War. Between the actual battles there was a strange peace with only the odd reconnaissance and sniper’s bullet to worry about.
It is almost as if both sides agree that they require a rest at the same time.
Also in this Chapter, Remarque emphasizes a theme previously introduced
concerning Paul’s lost generation.
Those that entered this theatre of war at a young age were to suffer the most both in casualties and success in rehabilitation after the war. At a time when most young men are struggling to obtain an adult identity, these young adults were thrown into a world where they were given the same non-identity. The little they had when they arrived was taken away from them. They were forced to act on their instincts or die. The longer they survived, the harder it became for them to visualize any world outside their lives as soldiers. This is highlighted by Haie’s view that after the war he will remain in the army. The only member of the group who has a definite plan for the future is Tjaden, who wishes to exact revenge on Himmelstoss. Of course the older Detering has clear plans for after the war, but he is much older and he has a chance of rehabilitation because he will presumably have his loving family to return to.
The older generation in authority does not come out of this novel with any
credit. We have previously seen how the school teacher Kantorek, duped by propaganda, urged his students to enlist for the slaughter. Himmelstoss would have lived out his life as an insignificant figure,
but war has promoted him to a position of importance and he has become power mad and arrogant.
Of course, Himmelstoss is in for a rude awakening at the Front Line. Up until now he has been involved in training new recruits and has been guided by a clear set of rules that he has slavishly followed. These rules will not be of any use to him at the Front Line.
Faced with the common evil of war we note how Paul’s close group of comrades
becomes like a family. The way they interact with one another and form social bonds would not have been possible in the peacetime world.
This type of closeness between men is perhaps the only good aspect to come out of this war situation. The way Remarque describes these relationships is the only romantic feature in the entire novel.