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All Quiet on the Western Front is set in the later part of World War I and told by Paul Baumer, a young German soldier. He and a group of his classmates have enlisted in the infantry as a result of the encouragement of Kantorek, their favorite teacher in high school. Shortly after they begin their basic training, Baumer and his friends become disillusioned with war; they quickly recognize the needless death and destruction caused by the fighting over a few acres of land.
The plot is developed through a pattern of contrasts, pitting life against death. Beginning with chapter one, every other chapter is set away from the actual battlefront and gives a more relaxed view of the war and its affects on the soldiers. In between these non-fighting chapters, which serve as bridges, Remarque develops a chapter filled with the sounds, smells, and cruelties of the warfront. The reader is repeatedly brought face to face with death and destruction. The repeated contrasts are very effective.
The novel follows the classic pattern of plot development, as Baumer battles mentally and physically against the war. In the first chapters, the setting, main characters, and Themes of the novel are introduced. Baumer is established as the narrator and protagonist; he is fighting for life and sanity amongst the insanity of war. By the second chapter, the rising action has begun, as Baumer and his soldier friends fight from the trenches.
As the rising action continues, the bond that Baumer develops with his friends becomes the most important thing to him, more important than his own family; his comrades are the only things that keep him sane in the midst of the battles. Slowly, but surely, he begins to lose his friends, first Behm, then Kemmerich. At the end of his story, Baumer is the only one of the six classmates still alive and in the war. Then in the conclusion, it is learned that Baumer has also been killed, ironically one month before the armistice.
The climax of Baumer's plot occurs when he kills Gerald Duval, a French soldier who climbs into a shell hole with him. Panicked at the close encounter with the enemy, Baumer immediately stabs the young soldier; he regrets his action and tries to bandage the wounds of the injured man, but Duval dies. After his death, Baumer discovers that the young soldier had been a printer with a wife and a child. Suddenly the enemy is not a nameless face to be hated; instead, the Allieds are scared young soldiers, just like himself. After this realization, Baumer becomes even more bitter about the war and feels totally lost and isolated.
In the falling action, Baumer loses the rest of his friends. Leer and Muller are killed in battle. Then Kat is hit while fighting in the trenches. Baumer tries to save his life by carrying him on his back to the nearest medical station for treatment. On the way, Kat is struck again and dies before Baumer can get help for him. His death is the final blow for the young protagonist. His own death in the last chapter is anti-climatic; his real loss comes with the loss of his friends. In the end, the plot is totally tragic with the needless deaths of Baumer and all of his friends.
Since Baumer is a German, the novel has a German point of view. The message of the book, however, is universal, representative of the thoughts and feelings of ordinary soldiers of all nationalities. Baumer never really looks at war as his war or the war of the Central Powers; instead, he sees it as a struggle for survival by ordinary people, who are caught up in a battle begun by the whims of Generals and Majors.