The sensitive twenty-year-old narrator (he has written poems and a play called “Saul”) reaches manhood through three years of service as a soldier in the second company of the German army during World War I. His loss of innocence during the cataclysm is the focus of the author’s anti-war sentiment. If one views this book as a roman a clef (a thinly veiled autobiographical novel), he is telling the basic story of Erich Maria Remarque. Although he feels cut off and alienated from past values two years after the war begins, Paul is compassionate to his dying friends. In camaraderie, the author suggests, is salvation. One by one, Paul sees his comrades die; he also stabs a French soldier, a death that torments him profoundly. He is killed by a stray bullet just before the declaration of the armistice. Critics differ on the degree to which Baumer is Remarque, but the general consensus is that Paul Baumer is foremost a fictional creation who recounts a story that evokes the absurdity of war.
He is the company commander and is regarded as a magnificent front-line officer. His heroism is shown through his knocking out an advancing flame thrower.
He is a peasant from Oldenburg, who worries about his wife alone in their farm. He grows particularly nostalgic when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, and he hates to hear the horses bellowing in agony. After he deserts, he is captured and never heard from again. As in the case of most of the characters in the novel, he is another example of someone without a future who simply exists in a meaningless world.
Lying in a shell hole during a bombardment, Paul suddenly finds the French soldier Gerard Duval on top of him. Instinctively Paul kills Duval, a typesetter in civilian life, by knifing him to death. The soldier’s demise is slow and painful, and, overcome by guilt, Paul tries to ease his suffering. After the Frenchman dies, he searches his wallet for an address and finds letters and pictures of his wife and child.
The patriotic schoolteacher, who instructs Paul and his twenty classmates to sign up for military duty, typifies the many such teachers in Germany during World War I. While their idealism was sincere, it was also misguided. Paul expresses his rage at Kantorek’s unrealistic view of war that proved dangerous and fatal to most of his class, the “Iron Youth,” as Kantorek calls them. Instead, Paul wishes that Kantorek had guided them to a life of maturity and constructive actions. As a member of the local reserves, he is a poor soldier.
See Stanislaus Katczinsky
Nicknamed “Kat,” Katczinsky is one of the main characters of the novel. A forty-year-old reservist, he is an experienced man who is unselfish to his fellow soldiers and also seems to have a sixth sense for food, danger, and soft jobs. Kat serves as a tutor and father figure to Paul and the others, who depend on him for humor. He eases their minds during the bombardment.
A childhood friend of Paul Baumer, Kemmerich longs to be a forester. Unfortunately, his dreams are dashed by the war, where he undergoes a leg amputation and then dies. He is Paul’s first eyewitness experience with personal loss.
Kropp is the best student in Paul’s class and joins him in rebelling against Himmelstoss. When he has to have part of his leg amputated, he threatens to kill himself. Eventually, with the help of his comrades, he resigns himself to his new condition and accepts an artificial limb.
Muller is a young soldier who continues to study physics and think of exams during the war. He inherits Kemmerich’s soft airman’s boots; as he lies dying with an agonizing stomach wound, he wills the boots to Paul.
She is a self-sacrificing and long-suffering woman who tries to give Paul what he needs, including potato cakes, whortleberry jam, and warm woolen underpants. His last night at home on leave, she sits by his bedside to express her concerns for his welfare. She later receives treatment for cancer at a charity ward in Luisa Hospital.
Tiedjen is a soldier with whom Paul serves. When he is hit, he cries out for his mother and holds off a doctor with a dagger before collapsing. Paul describes this experience as his “most disturbing and hardest parting” until the one he experiences with Franz Kemmerich.
He is a thin, nineteen-year-old soldier with an immense appetite. A former locksmith, he is unable to prevent himself from bed-wetting and is criticized by Himmelstoss. When Himmelstoss is ambushed by some of the soldiers and given a whipping as a comeuppance, Tjaden is the first to whip him.
Haie prefers military service to his civilian job as a peat digger. Hoping to become a village policeman, he dies at nineteen from a back wound.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Erich Maria Remarque, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998