Though he is not central to the novel’s plot, Kantorek is an important figure as a focus of Remarque’s bitter critique of the ideals of patriotism and nationalism that drove nations into the catastrophe of World War I. Kantorek, the teacher who filled his students’ heads with passionate rhetoric about duty and glory, serves as a punching bag as Remarque argues against those ideals. Though a modern context is essential to the indictment of Kantorek’s patriotism and nationalism, Kantorek’s physical description groups him with premodern evil characters. The fierce and pompous Kantorek is a small man described as “energetic and uncompromising,” characteristics that recall the worried Caesar’s remarks about Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous” (I.ii.195–196). Napoleon also springs to mind as a historical model for Kantorek.
The inclusion of a seemingly anachronistic literary type—the scheming or dangerous diminutive man—may seem out of place in a modern novel. Yet this quality of Kantorek arguably reflects the espousal of dated ideas by an older generation of leaders who betray their followers with manipulations, ignorance, and lies. “While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing,” Paul writes in Chapter One, “we already knew that death-throes are stronger.” As schoolboys, Paul and his friends believed that Kantorek was an enlightened man whose authority derived from his wisdom; as soldiers, they quickly learn to see through Kantorek’s rhetoric and grow to despise him, especially after the death of Joseph Behm. That Kantorek is eventually drafted and makes a terrible soldier reflects the uselessness of the ideals that he touts.