Paul Baumer is the 19-year-old narrator of the story. At the front, Paul's special friends in Second Company include his classmates Behm, Kemmerich, Muller, Leer, and Kropp. The six of them were among 20 who enlisted together, prodded on by Schoolmaster Kantorek. Although he doesn't say so, Paul is obviously a natural leader: Franz Kemmerich's mother implored him to look after her son when they left home. Paul is also courageous. He may momentarily panic, but he doesn't break under the most terrible battle conditions.
He learns the sound of each type of shell; he dives for cover or grabs his gas mask at the right instant. In one battle, he gently comforts an embarrassed rookie who has soiled his underpants, and later soberly contemplates shooting the same man to spare him an agonizing death after his hip has been shattered.
Cool as he is in battle, though, Paul has a hard time making sense of it all. He keeps recalling Behm, the first of his class to die, and when a second- Kemmerich- dies, he rages inwardly at the senseless slaughter of scrawny schoolboys. The callous attitude of commanders and orderlies toward an individual death saddens and disillusions him.

His elders were wrong- there is nothing glorious about war- but he has no new values to replace the patriotic myths they taught him. At first his companions seem shallow to him- immediately forgetting the dead and turning their total attention to stockpiling the cigarets and food originally meant for the deceased soldier- and he is at pains to tell us why this callousness is necessary.

Gradually, though, he comes to accept their approach: that poetry and philosophy and civilian paper-pushing jobs alike, all are utterly pointless in the midst of so much carnage. All you have is the moment at hand, and getting from it all the physical comfort you can is a worthwhile goal. There is another important element, too, to being with your comrades, as going on leave proves to Paul: no civilian understands you the way these men do, and nothing from your former life sustains you the way their friendship does. These values come together for Paul the evening he joins an older friend, Katczinsky, on a goose-hunting raid. They spend the night roasting the goose before eating it, and each time that Paul awakens for his turn at the basting, he feels Katczinsky's presence like a cloak of comfort. At other times, panicked and alone in the dark of the trenches, all it takes to steady his nerves is the sound of his friends' voices. If he awakens from a nightmare, the mere sound of their breathing strengthens him: he is not alone.
Paul gradually comes to realize that the enemy is no different from himself or from one of his friends. The Frenchman he kills in the trenches, Duval, looks like the kind of man whose friendship he would have enjoyed. The Russian prisoners he guards have the same feelings and desires and needs as he. He comes to see war as the ultimate horror. It's bad enough that it pits man against man. But even animals and trees and flowers and butterflies are innocently caught up in the carnage inflicted by Man, the great Destroyer.
As his friends are killed one by one, Paul can only cling to his newfound beliefs in the brotherhood of all men and the value of the spark of life within each individual. At the end, alone, he has only the blind hope that his own mysterious inner spark will somehow survive and guide him after the war. Otherwise, he sees no meaningful future.


Remarque includes discussions among Paul's group, and Paul's own thoughts while he observes Russian prisoners of war (Chapters 3, 8, 9) to show that no ordinary people benefit from a war. No matter what side a man is on, he is killing other men just like himself, people with whom he might even be friends at another time.
But Remarque doesn't just tell us war is horrible. He also shows us that war is terrible beyond anything we could imagine. All our senses