All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque
Contributed by Loretta Ingwersen
Chapter 2
Summary

Paul thinks about his unfinished play and poems at home. Sometimes he works on it, as do other soldiers on their own writing, but he no longer comprehends it; the young soldier’s past life is forgotten the moment he enlists in the war. The older men, however, have a strong enough background that cannot be destroyed. Despite their lack of a past and inability to think beyond the war, the young men are "not often sad." Paul defends Müller’s pragmatism in wanting Kemmerich’s boots; if Kemmerich could use them, Müller would never consider taking them.

Paul describes how the boys were different when they enlisted. Twenty young men with no plans for the future proudly and patriotically enlisted. Their ten-week training prepared them for subservience to military authority. Their class was sent out among various platoons; Paul, Kropp, Müller, and Kemmerich joined No. 9 platoon under the disciplinarian Corporal Himmelstoss. The Corporal immediately disliked Paul and some of his friends, recognizing some defiance in them, and punished them with arduous tasks. Still, the training prepared them well; had they not had it so rough, Paul believes they would have gone mad in the trenches. They also developed the "finest thing that arose out of the war--comradeship."

Paul sits with Kemmerich, who now knows that his leg has been amputated. Paul tries to cheer him up, but Kemmerich is convinced he will die, and he tells Paul to give Müller his boots. Paul has seen friends die before, but his growing up with Kemmerich makes this harder. Paul believes the boys look like powerful soldiers in uniform, but like children when naked. Kemmerich cries for an hour, saying nothing. Then he gurgles, and Paul goes for help. The orderlies are not helpful, and when they return, Kemmerich has died. Paul collects his things and they remove the body to free up the bed for more wounded. Paul runs home, feeling connected to the earth and full of life. He gives Müller the boots. Müller gives him some saveloy (sausage).

Analysis

Paul relates the utter alienation of the young soldier; he does not have a deep history to think back on, and now the future seems out of reach. Curiously, despite being caught in this no-man’s-land between the past and future, Paul says the soldiers are "not often sad." They dull themselves even to depression, for allowing the natural feelings of sadness in such an environment is tantamount to outright surrender. Likewise, the doctor who is unhelpful with Kemmerich similarly shuts off his feelings; he has already amputated too many legs today, and to deal with one more dying man would be too much.

(As an additional note, the word "no-man’s-land," which dates back to the 14th century, took on greater significance in the trench warfare of WWI. The space between enemy trenches--"no-man’s-land"--was bitterly contested ground, and it was considered a major victory if one side advanced even a few yards per month.)

We also see more insight into how Germany molds soldiers and why Paul and the others are so alienated. The process relies heavily on nationalism and the assumption that young Germans will do anything for their country. After the military recruits soldiers when they are at their most patriotic and willing (i.e., before they have seen war), it quickly breaks their will in training. The men become subservient to authority, a necessity for war. Otherwise, not only would the men be unable to handle the rigors of war, as Paul notes, they might question more vociferously why they are fighting in the first place. Dehumanized, they accept their fates.

Paul also explains how the harsh conditions of war seem to eliminate sympathy when, in fact, the men must often simply be pragmatic. Müller wants the boots only if Kemmerich is unable to use them, not at the expense of his friend’s life. The only unsympathetic people in the war, it seems, are those who do not fight and have not undergone the same trials of brotherhood: the orderlies, the cook, the higher-ranking men, and the nationalists at home like Kantorek.

Indeed, Paul gives credit to the "finest thing that arose out of the war--comradeship." Whatever does not kill the men only serves to bring them closer. This closeness is why Paul reacts so strongly at the end of the chapter. His lifelong friend’s death inspires him to embrace life, if temporarily. One might argue he skips along because he is happy he has avoided Kemmerich’s fate (he specifically comments on the suppleness of his limbs and the strength of his joints, a contrast to the amputated Kemmerich). One may also view his elation as a tribute to his friend whose death has inspired Paul to embrace life. Likewise, Müller’s offer of the saveloy is his way of expressing thanks (and sympathy) not only to Paul, but also to Kemmerich.

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