Erich Maria Remarque’s characters come alive in All Quiet on the Western Front. In particular, Remarque portrays the authority figures as petty, self-oriented, and cruel. The lack of concern for their subordinates becomes clear as the novel progresses. Kantorek, Himmelstoss, and the Kaiser all wish to win the war but do not wish to take part in its dangers. These men represent those in power who control the men below them by selling them the ideals of nationalism and patriotism, but stay a safe distance from the actual fighting.
The author describes leaders and their motives as unworthy of the trust of the enlisted men. Kantorek is an excellent example of misleading men for the sole purpose of recruiting them. He persuades many boys from Paul’s town to fight in a war that they come to despise. They always display hostility towards him when they discuss the teacher they once trusted. Paul once states, “Yes, that’s the way [their superiors] think , these hundred thousand Kantoreks. Iron Youth! Youth! We are none of us more than 20 years old. But young? Youth? That was a long time ago. We are old folk,” (Remarque 18). Paul feels that the war has aged him and his friends beyond their years and robbed them of their youth because of the horrors they have experienced. The troops are outraged by their former teacher’s letter to them on the front lines in which he refers to them as “Iron Youth” because it is Kantorek that pressured them into enlisting to prove that they were patriotic. Paul remembered when Kantorek convinced them to go to war,” I can see him now, as he used to glare at us through his spectacles and say in a moving voice: ‘Won’t you join up, Comrades,’” (Remarque 11). Joseph Behm, one of Paul’s peers, who was the most unwilling to go to war, and only joins for fear of becoming an outcast, is the first to die. Remarque creates this character as a dramatic example that illustrates that the leaders in the war effort are not concerned about the lives of the young boys but are just interested in the glory of winning the war for their country.
Intense patriotism was only one motivation for Remarque’s leaders. Another was hunger for power and that was the case with Himmelstoss. In his civilian life, he was a simple postman but in the war he became a feared officer in the recruits’ basic training. He has a reputation, among Paul’s group of friends, for being cruel and unfair. For example, he punishes and humiliates Tjaden, for being a bedwetter. Paul describes it as, “… Himmelstoss put these two so that one occupied the upper and the other the lower bunk. The man underneath of course had a vile time. The next night they were changed over and the lower one put on top so that he could retaliate. That was Himmelstoss’ system of self education,” (Remarque 46). This scene was included by the author because it shows the cruelty of Himmelstoss as he is humiliating his own soldier. The treatment of Tjaden is especially vicious because he had a medical condition he could not control. Himmelstoss is eventually sent up to the front to fight with the Second Company, Paul’s regiment. During a battle, Paul finds Himmelstoss hiding, “Quickly I jump back into the dugout and find Himmelstoss with a small scratch lying a corner pretending to be injured…But it makes me mad that the young recruits should be out there and he here.”(Remarque 131). This scene in which Paul witnesses his superior acting as if he is more seriously injured than he actually is to avoid fighting shows Himelstoss’ overwhelming fear, that in another man, might be considered human. However, Remarque portrays these actions as cowardly and hypocritical because he had glorified bravery and valor in war. When Himmelstoss actually experiences the reality of war, he acted cowardly, too afraid to fight, yet he expected others to perfectly willing to fight the war and possibly sacrifice their lives.
The German troops assumed the Kaiser to be a mighty man with a booming voice, although in reality, he was quite the contrary. The men prepare for weeks for his arrival, just to realize he is not very impressive,” At the last moment the Kaiser arrives. We stand to attention and the Kaiser appears. We are curious to see what he looks like. He stalks along the line, and I am really rather disappointed; judging from his pictures I imagined him to be bigger and more powerfully built, and above all to have a thundering voice,”(Remarque, 202). Before the men actually see the Kaiser in person they imagine him to be larger than life physically with a god-like voice to match the huge power he had over them and their country. Paul is disappointed because he expected the Kaiser to be taller and stronger, symbolic of a wise, all knowing authority who could lead them through war to victory. When they see this small, meager man, they are led to question whether this man deserves their trust as their leader. The troops later discuss the Kaiser. Albert says, “ But what I would like to know… is whether there would not have been a war if the Kaiser had said no,” (Remarque 203). The men come to realize that the answer is maybe, maybe not. They realize that the Kaiser is just a man, and that when it comes to war, rulers make decisions that will greatly affect a lot of ordinary people, without much regard for the consequences they will have on their lives.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque portrays the authority figures as leaders only concerned with the glory of winning a war, not with the men that will actually fight the war for them on the front lines. The pressuring teacher, Kantorek, the cowardly drill sergeant Himmelstoss, and the unimpressive Kaiser have no empathy for their soldiers and at the same time feed them a glorified idea of fighting a war for your country. Erich Maria Remarque suggests that the enemies that they are fighting are not their actual enemies, that perhaps their worst enemies are the authorities that start the wars in the first place. Through the characters stories, the author lays out two points of view on war. One, from the top levels of leadership is that war is a patriotic and moral duty, worthy of every sacrifice. The other view, from the soldiers’ perspective is of the destructive and terrible price of war. Placing both of these points side by side, All Quiet on the Western Front makes a clear argument against war.
Remarque, Erich Maria, and A. W. Wheen. All Quiet on the Western Front;. Boston: Little, Brown, and, 1929. Print.
Matthew Schleifman, Age 14, Grade 8, Grace Church School, Silver Key