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We get to know Paul better in the second chapter. It is the next day and he is still thinking about his parents and about Kantorek. He recalls school life, hobbies, poetry writing, and observes, "of this nothing remains." The older men have wives and jobs to return to; the war is just an interruption for them. But the "Iron Youth" had not yet taken root: "The war swept us away" and they don't know how it will end. "We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land." He goes on to defend Muller's preoccupation with Kemmerich's boots-Muller is just being practical, he says. After all, Kemmerich has no further use for them. Paul claims that Muller would go barefoot over barbed wire rather than plot to get the boots if Kemmerich could use them. But as things are, Muller, who does need them, is much more entitled to them than some thieving hospital orderly.
Let's pause a moment. Why is Paul working so hard to excuse Muller? Does he protest so much because there's a bit of Muller in himself? He certainly has an intellectual grasp of the situation and probably wrote good essays in school. Look at the phrases he can produce: "[W]e have become a waste land." Does he secretly wish he could translate his ideas into action as bluntly as Muller?
Another question: Remember how Remarque said in his opening note that his book was not going to be an accusation? Is it or isn't it? An author usually speaks through his main characters-at this point, Paul. Paul says he doesn't blame the Kantoreks. Judging from all you already know of Paul, what do you think? Does he truly know his own feelings? Or do you think some bitterness he doesn't even recognize might underlie his words?
A definite note of bitterness creeps into Paul's next thoughts, but there's a strong trace of nostalgia, too. Now that he has experienced front-line fighting, boot camp, rough as it was, almost seems like the good old days! He recalls how quickly you learned that in the army, all the learning from Plato to Goethe is less important than knowing how to spring to attention or keep your buttons polished. He particularly reviews the cruel treatment he and his friends endured at the hands of the sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss, a former mailman.
Under his orders Paul once scrubbed the corporals' dining room with a toothbrush, and another morning he remade the man's bed 14 times! Often the whole group ended drills covered with mud, or stood at attention for long sessions, without gloves, in freezing weather. Every rotten job in the camp came their way, but Himmelstoss never broke them. Eventually, under Kropp's instigation, they developed the tactic of obeying Himmelstoss's orders so slowly that even he gained a certain respect for them and eased up on them a fraction. How insane such training was, Paul thinks, but you can almost see him grin as he adds, how well it worked! It made them hard, suspicious, bitter, and tough-not so great for civilian life, but perfect preparation for the trenches! Such discipline, Paul concludes, was exactly what they needed as recruits.
Paul continues to spend his day quietly. He goes alone to visit Kemmerich and says all the soothing things people say about a bright future when they know very well that someone is dying. But Kemmerich knows. He asks Paul to give his boots to Muller. For an hour Paul watches as his friend cries silently. He cannot get an orderly to help when death sounds begin to gurgle in Kemmerich's throat. Instead the orderly urges him to hurry up and clear out Kemmerich's things; he needs the bed. Really, the orderly has acted no worse than the whole company yesterday, clamoring for the food their dead companions couldn't eat. And the orderly at least wants the bed for another man. But this time it hits Paul. He can't be indifferent or uncaring. He's had time to see what a young boy his friend still is; he's had time to rage at the senseless brutality that sends boys out to be killed for nothing. He gulps and leaves the huts as the orderlies haul Kemmerich onto a waterproof sheet. Paul's feet seem to push him forward and he finds himself feeling a strength rising up from the earth into his body. He is alive and he is glad! "The night lives, I live." He takes the boots to Muller, who immediately tries them on. They fit well.
NOTE: IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM
As Paul leaves the dressing station, his mind fills with thoughts of girls, flowery meadows, white clouds. Watch for the return of such images whenever Paul is overcome by the brutality and senselessness of the carnage-the butchery-of battle.
Keep an eye, too, on Kemmerich's boots. He was not the first owner. In Chapter 1 the boots were described as "airman's boots. They are fine English boots of soft, yellow leather which reach to the knee and lace up all the way." It doesn't take too much imagination, considering the state of aviation in 1916, to figure out how Kemmerich got the boots. Assuming the English airman is dead, the boots have now gone to their third owner- and fit him, too. Are all soldiers interchangeable, whatever side they are on? And how many owners will the boots outlast?