The Problem of Language in "All Quiet on the Western Front"

German Literature

The Problem of Language in "All Quiet on the Western Front"

For it is no easy undertaking, I say,
to describe the bottom of the Universe;
nor is it for tongues that only babble child's play.

(The Inferno, XXXII, 7-9.)

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel set in World War I, centers around the changes wrought by the war on one young German soldier. During his time in the war, Remarque's protagonist, Paul Baumer, changes from a rather innocent Romantic to a hardened and somewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during the course of this metamorphosis, Baumer disaffiliates himself from those societal icons--parents, elders, school, religion--that had been the foundation of his pre-enlistment days. This rejection comes about as a result of Baumer's realization that the pre-enlistment society simply does not understand the reality of the Great War. His new society, then, becomes the Company, his fellow trench soldiers, because that is a group which does understand the truth as Baumer has experienced it.
Remarque demonstrates Baumer's disaffiliation from the traditional by emphasizing the language of Baumer's pre- and post-enlistment societies. Baumer either can not, or chooses not to, communicate truthfully with those representatives of his pre-enlistment and innocent days. Further, he is repulsed by the banal and meaningless language that is used by members of that society. As he becomes alienated from his former, traditional, society, Baumer simultaneously is able to communicate effectively only with his military comrades. Since the novel is told from the first person point of view, the reader can see how the words Baumer speaks are at variance with his true feelings. In his preface to the novel, Remarque maintains that "a generation of men ... were destroyed by the war" (Remarque, All Quiet Preface). Indeed, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the meaning of language itself is, to a great extent, destroyed.
Early in the novel, Baumer notes how his elders had been facile with words prior to his enlistment. Specifically, teachers and parents had used words, passionately at times, to persuade him and other young men to enlist in the war effort. After relating the tale of a teacher who exhorted his students to enlist, Baumer states that "teachers always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trot them out by the hour" (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Baumer admits that he, and others, were fooled by this rhetorical trickery. Parents, too, were not averse to using words to shame their sons into enlisting. "At that time even one's parents were ready with the word 'coward'" (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Remembering those days, Baumer asserts that, as a result of his war experiences, he has learned how shallow the use of these words was. Indeed, early in his enlistment, Baumer comprehends that although authority figures

taught that duty to one's country is the greatest
thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.
But for all that, we were no mutineers, no deserters,
no cowards--they were very free with these expressions.
We loved our country as much as they; we went
courageously into every action; but also we
distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly
learned to see.

(Remarque, All Quiet I. 17)

What Baumer and his comrades have learned is that the words and expressions used by the pillars of society do not reflect the reality of war and of one's participation in it. As the novel progresses, Baumer himself uses words in a similarly false fashion.
A number of instances of Baumer's own misuse of language occur during an important episode in the novel--a period of leave when he visits his home town. This leave is disastrous for Baumer because he realizes that he can not communicate with the people on the home front because of his military experiences and their limited, or nonexistent, understanding of the war.
When he first enters his house, for example, Baumer is overwhelmed at being home. His joy and relief are such that he cannot speak; he can only weep (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 140). When he and his mother greet each other, he realizes immediately that he has nothing to say to her: "We say very little and I am thankful that she asks nothing" (Remarque, All Quiet VII.