The War Against the Feminine

All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque


            In the epigraph to All Quiet on the Western Front, the author suggests that "[the book] will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."  Remarque alludes here specifically to the destruction that permeates the spirit of this generation of men.  The spirit of the truly integrated human includes several positive characteristics, generally the more feminine aspects of humans, specifically compassion, sensitivity, and non-violence.  Paul and his classmates, enlisting at eighteen had been labeled by their teacher as the "Iron Youth"; they found in the first terrifying and disillusioning moments at the Front, that they were not "iron," not unfeeling and invulnerable; they also discovered they were no longer youth: "under it [the first bombardment] the world as they [schoolteachers and other adults] had taught it to us broke in pieces" (13). In focusing on Paul Bäumer, the narrator, the aspects of the war against the feminine become evident.  Students can be led to see how war and the glorification of the "Fatherland" impelled Paul and his young peers to battle an interior war against the best qualities of their feminine sides in order to triumph in an exterior battle against other males.

            The opening chapter highlights several ways the feminine spirit is crushed.  Paul, speaking of Kantorek, a schoolmaster and clearly a proponent of the male-oriented world, says "He was about the same size as Corporal Himmelstoss, the 'terror of Klosterberg.'  It is queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men" (10).  The schoolmaster is a martinet, indoctrinating Paul and his schoolmates about the honor of enlisting; Kantorek's "long lectures" continue until all the young men enlist, including Joseph Behm, described as a "plump, homely fellow" (11).  Behm's description associates him with the feminine, less athletic or soldier-like; he enlists to avoid ostracization by his peers, and tragically, is also the first to fall in battle.  The description of his death demonstrates Paul's sensitive voice; the comments he makes about Kantorek's culpability in Behm's death display the conflicted experience of feminine and masculine qualities:

            Naturally we couldn't blame Kantorek …Where would the world be

            if one brought every man to book?  There were thousands of Kantoreks,

            all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best -- in a way

            that cost them nothing. (12)

Chapter Six graphically recounts the cost to Bäumer and his young peers; they see "men living with their skulls blown open…see soldiers run with their two feet cut off….The grimmest image comes through Paul's company count at the end of the offensive.  Thirty-two, no more, of 150 men return.  There is no room for feelings in any of the "spirit scarred" remnant.

Remarque devotes extensive text, though, to those dying and to the guilt the living young soldiers anguish through.  Kemmerich's dying demonstrates the feminine spirit in Paul and his comrades; Paul faces the greatest pathos, having come from Kemmerich's hometown and is haunted by the image of Kemmerich's mother when the youth departed for the front:

            His mother, a good plump matron, brought him to the station.

            She wept continually, her face was bloated and swollen…. Then she

            caught sight of me and took hold of my arm again and again, and

            implored me to look after Franz….Indeed he did have the face like a

            child, and such frail bones that after four weeks' pack-carrying he

            already had flat feet.  But how can a man look after everyone in the

            field. (15)

The male "ironness" must dominate; there is no room in the physical violent world of war for "looking after" others, even one's comrades.  Paul also recognizes the childlike and the frail in Kemmerich, feminine qualities, which Paul cannot allow to pierce the shield of stoicism.  "I am wretched with helplessness.  This forehead with its hollow temples, this mouth that now seems all teeth….And the fat woman at home to which I must write" (30).

            The description of Kemmerich's mother mirrors that of other mothers spoken of; the plump, ample feminine, which comforts and shelters.  In the extended descriptions of the front with the shelling and bombardments, the only comfort soldiers experience is the earth, gendered maternal and as a great comforter:

                        From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour

            into us--mostly from the earth.  To no man does the earth mean

            so much as to the soldier.  When he presses himself down upon

            her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs

            deep into her for fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend,

            his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her

            silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him…. (55)

The imagery is maternal and positive, but also sexual. The sexual here, the male pressing himself down upon her suggests a life sustaining maternal.  This passage sets up a dynamic contrast with the poster girl, the "lovely girl with a delicate nose, red lips, and slender legs" (141) mesmerizing the battle-dirtied, sexually deprived males.  The poster image female is allurement to sexuality; too delicate and sensuous to be life sustaining.  Other textual examples emphasizing the male sexual drive include that of the women on the other side of the river with whom Paul and others have brief sexual encounters and the references to women in brothels, particularly the women that officers "get."  In the physically brutal reality of war, the masculine sense dominates; Paul and his companions fantasize about sexual conquest.  The positive sense of females offering security, shelter and life-giving union must be squelched.

            Parallel to the objectifying of women is the intensity of revenge and consequent brutality that Paul and his companions enact against Himmelstoss and others who have promulgated the myth of strict training equating good soldiering.  "We became hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough… Had we gone into the trenches without this period of training most of us would certainly have gone mad (26).  Paul relates repeatedly about recruits, often labeling them "infants" who came to the front less hardened, more feminine perhaps.  The recruits weep, are innocent to the potency of shelling, hold to the delicacy of their civilian youth.  "It brings a lump into the throat to see how they go over, run and fall…they are so stupid…they have no business to be [here]" (130). Only Paul and his compatriots who have repressed the feminine can survive in the masculine frontlines. Herein lies the greatest irony in the war against the feminine. On one of the days when the masculine war world is described as "quiet," when Paul has been enabled to release some of his ironness, he is killed.  "He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping….  his face had an expression of calm" (296). 

            All Quiet on the Western Front provides the opportunity to examine the military and the inclusion of women in armed forces.  Contemporary students are not far removed from the controversy over females enrolling at the Citadel or from events of sexual harassment in the military.  How do the feminine and masculine qualities of humans relate in military training?  Are both spirits welcomed?  Paul left at home "the beginning of a play called 'Saul' and a bundle of poems" (19); what is the place of artists or creative personalities in war or in experiences demanding destruction?  Are youth ever invulnerable? This novel, like Red Badge of Courage, like Hemingway's short story "Soldier's Home," and the war movie genre, demands that readers probe the total annihilation of war, but particularly that of the human spirit.