He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
This is the last paragraph from ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,” which I just finished reading this weekend. It’s about a 20-year-old man named Paul Baumer, who enlists in the German army in World War One, and about the hardships he endures in the fighting, the friends he makes, and the stupidity of war.
Near the end of the novel, the Germans are losing and running back home to Germany. The war, which has costed the lives of millions of young men, is nearly over. Paul has seen all kinds of men, French and German, old and young, fathers, sons uncles, and brothers pummeled with bullets, go ballistic in the trenches, and face some of the greatest horrors in the history of humanity.
Forget the foolish notion that war is a romantic adventure, with swashbuckling heroes and valiant acts of courage. After Paul’s first day on the job, he learns that idea could not be further from the truth-
“When we went to the District Commandant to enlist, we were a class of twenty young men, many of whom proudly shaved for the first time before going to the barracks. We had no definite plans for our future. Our thoughts for a career and occupation were as yet of too unpractical a character to furnish any scheme of life. We were still crammed with vague ideas which gave to life, and to the war also, an ideal and almost romantic character.”- Paul
However, he soon learns the reality, this quote being an example once he is taken to a hospital-
“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought when such things are possible. It must all be lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”
It’s ironic, that Paul hadn’t died during a massive bombardment, when he lost his comrades in No-Man’s Land, and not in the hospital; But on a still, relatively peaceful day, nearing the end of the war.
Some readers might say “Why didn’t he live, reunite with his family, and live happily ever after?” Again: War is not a romantic adventure, with heroes and their valiant deeds. Paul’s death was not out of courage, strength, resilience, nor suffering, but inner peace and self-satisfaction. Throughout the book, he show himself to be a fighter, fighting the Enemy, hunger, his superior officers, and most of all, his morality.
His morals were once pride, serving one’s country, and glorification of himself and what he had done. Later, his morals are basically 1. Eat all the food, any food, whenever you can get it. 2. Shoot the enemy before he shoots you and 3. Defending his comrades. Any feelings for patriotism, honor, and glory are lost in the fight for survival, and Paul is often conflicted with himself on whether he has put himself in a morally right position.
One example, is when he has slit the throat of a French private, Gerad Duval, who had leaped into a hole with him to escape the shell fire. As Duval dies slowly in front of him, Paul grows more overwrought with guilt, and learns that he was a printer and had a wife and a daughter. He vows to send money to Duval’s family, and wishes to support them for the rest of their life, but knows that it could never be possible. Later on though, he tries to forget about Duval, not referring to him by his name but by ‘the printer.’ This shows his conflicting moralities on whether to view the enemy as a separate race that must be destroyed before they cause any harm, or as humans just like himself.
In the end, Paul welcomes Death with open arms, and finds an interbalance within himself at last; not a tragic end, but the peace that comes after an eternity of suffering, the painfulness of dying is numbed by an acceptance that is unevitable- as is Change itself.