Written from the first person point of view, this novel by Erich Maria Remarque, has been called one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written (Barker & Last 1979; Eksteins 1980). This is the most encompassing of the themes attributed to the book, since it embraces the other themes such as "coming of age," and "loss of innocence" that are sometimes used to refer to the thematic structure of the book.
As an anti-war novel, Remarque shows us World War I through the eyes of Paul Baumer, a 19-year-old German lad who enlists to fight in the Great War. This enlistment is at he urging of his schoolteacher Kantorek, who inspires them with jingoism and patriotic fervor. The book starts with the students already in the war, and the impression shared by Paul is one of ennui and contentment. "We are at least five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace" (Remarque 1928,1982 1).
This is a skillful way to establish the "war", paying indirect homage to Napoleon's edict that an army travels on its stomach.
This introduction also gives us time to meet some of the other characters (albeit through Paul's eyes) and learn a bit about their attitudes, particularly Paul's disillusionment. In reflecting on the public's opinion of the war, he states: "While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger (p. 13). This line, and many similar throughout the book, echoes Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet whose battle poetry was published posthumously. In one of Owens's poems, "Dulce et Decorum Est" he bemoans the terrible grotesqueness of sending students and children off to war filled with "The damned lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patri morte" ("It is sweet and glorious