As the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Paul is the central figure in All Quiet on the Western Front and serves as the mouthpiece for Remarque’s meditations about war. Throughout the novel, Paul’s inner personality is contrasted with the way the war forces him to act and feel. His memories of the time before the war show that he was once a very different man from the despairing soldier who now narrates the novel. Paul is a compassionate and sensitive young man; before the war, he loved his family and wrote poetry. Because of the horror of the war and the anxiety it induces, Paul, like other soldiers, learns to disconnect his mind from his feelings, keeping his emotions at bay in order to preserve his sanity and survive.
As a result, the compassionate young man becomes unable to mourn his dead comrades, unable to feel at home among his family, unable to express his feelings about the war or even talk about his experiences, unable to remember the past fully, and unable to conceive of a future without war. He also becomes a “human animal,” capable of relying on animal instinct to kill and survive in battle. But because Paul is extremely sensitive, he is somewhat less able than many of the other soldiers to detach himself completely from his feelings, and there are several moments in the book (Kemmerich’s death, Kat’s death, the time that he spends with his ill mother) when he feels himself pulled down by emotion. These surging feelings indicate the extent to which war has programmed Paul to cut himself off from feeling, as when he says, with devastating understatement, “Parting from my friend Albert Kropp was very hard. But a man gets used to that sort of thing in the army.”
Paul’s experience is intended to represent the experience of a whole generation of men, the so-called lost generation—men who went straight from childhood to fighting in World War I, often as adolescents. Paul frequently considers the past and the future from the perspective of his entire generation, noting that, when the war ends, he and his friends will not know what to do, as they have learned to be adults only while fighting the war. The longer that Paul survives the war and the more that he hates it, the less certain he is that life will be better for him after it ends. This anxiety arises from his belief that the war will have ruined his generation, will have so eviscerated his and his friends’ minds that they will always be “bewildered.” Against such depressing expectations, Paul is relieved by his death: “his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.” The war becomes not merely a traumatic experience or a hardship to be endured but something that actually transforms the essence of human existence into irrevocable, endless suffering. The war destroys Paul long before it kills him.