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The story told in All Quiet on the Western Front occurs during the two years just before the Armistice ended World War I in November 1918. In Chapters 1 and 2 we learn that Paul Baumer, the narrator, and his friend Kat had been together three years-one year longer than the time period covered by the novel.
By 1916 when the story begins, World War I had already been underway for two years. It broke out in August 1914 between the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, and later the United States) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany). In June 1914 Austrian Archduke Frances Ferdinand and his wife had been assassinated at Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, leading to Austria-Hungary's declaration of war on Serbia. German leaders, alarmed at Russian mobilization and eager to establish the Reich as a power on a par with Britain, declared war on both of Germany's neighbors, Russia and France. They also refused to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium. Great Britain, in turn, declared war on Germany in response to the threat to British allies. At the time, Paul and his classmates would have been 16-year-old schoolboys.
German desire to become a major power was nothing new. Prussian beliefs included the idea that Germany had to be a military state because it lacked natural protective boundaries. The Prussian goal was to make Germany a glittering, well- organized, self-confident machine. The idea that Paul rejects- 18-year-olds as Iron Youth-fits perfectly into this Prussian mentality.
From the beginning, World War I was fought in two areas, named for their geographical relationship to Germany. The Eastern Front extended into Russia, and the Western Front extended through Belgium into northern France. Germany hoped to knock out France in six weeks and then turn its full strength against Russia. The Allies, however, soon halted the German army at the Marne River, and the war in the West settled down to four years of trench warfare-the static or at a standstill kind of war described in the discussion of Chapter 6 in this guidebook.
In All Quiet, Paul describes a battle with the French in Chapter 6 and then, a short time later, is assigned to a camp (Chapter 8) where he guards Russian prisoners of war. Although he does not name the exact locations for the military offensives he describes-after all, the place names had little to do with life and death-the offensive in Chapter 6 could have been the French attack in 1917 at Aisne and Champagne. That offensive failed, with heavy French losses.
Meanwhile, behind the Fronts, all resources were being directed toward winning the war. At first, military methods used were mostly those from earlier wars-infantry, cavalry, and artillery-but this war boosted production of tanks, planes, machine guns, high-explosive shells, flamethrowers, and poison gas. The strong industrial push left little for civil life, and economies and governments were shattered all over Europe. Forced drafts of men, food shortages, attacks on civilian populations, and hysteria reached heights never before seen. It is during this final period that the last few chapters of All Quiet occur.