Erich Remarque's Depiction of Authority Styles in All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s celebrated 1929 novel, depicts the emotional and brutal experience of World War I through the eyes of a young German soldier. This soldier, Paul Baümer, grapples with death, regret, and the powerful presence and impact of authority figures during the war. A common theme in the novel is the appearance of authority figures of two types: on the one hand, strong authoritarian figures and on the other, mentorship figures. Remarque analyzes these authorities inside and outside of the war, displaying how status and power differ on the war front and in public life.
"Cruelty and war only create distress and death."
A prime example of the nature of authority figures in civilian life is the character Kantorek, Paul’s pre-war schoolteacher. Kantorek is a character that his students eventually pity for his blind allegiance to the war effort. Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory, would describe him as one of “those…people who pressed forward and all but solicited their own destruction,” (Never Such Innocence Again, pg.20). Kantorek never experienced life on the front or perhaps never fully understood the war. He aimlessly supported the political cause he was told to support and all the while did not comprehend the innocent lives that were lost, particularly the lives of young boys, like the ones he taught in school. Paul passes off Kantorek’s ignorance as the result of the world he lives in:
Naturally we couldn’t blame Kantorek for this. 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 (ch.1, pg.12).
In Remarque’s novel, Kantorek stands for the many naïve and uninformed allies of the war effort. Because Kantorek was in charge, he became one of the many potent characters in (fictional) history that progressed war patronage. Kantorek is an “assigned” authority figure, or one that has been given his power through a position. It is odd that the boys, Paul in particular, excuse his disregard for the horrid deaths war brings to soldiers. One would expect vengeful thoughts, yet Paul understands the ignorance the war has brought to oblivious citizens in power. Any true power Kantorek held over the boys was before they arrived at war, when he convinced them all to join the army. In the above quote, Paul mentions that Kantorek’s teachings cost him nothing, but cost the boys their lives, as they recall especially Behms’ death. Paul describes how this event changed their opinions on trusting authority:
“The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces” (ch.1, pg. 13).
The betrayal of Kantorek is extremely powerful for the boys and for Remarque’s assertion that ignorant adherents destroy young lives because “in [their] hearts [they] trusted them” (ch.1 pg.12), with “them” referring to Kantorek and any authorities that essentially raised them. When bonds created by long and persistent trust are broken, they become immense in forming lives and opinions. Thus, Paul (and the Second Company) holds a grudge against Kantorek. In the above quote, Paul belittles Kantorek’s intentions and beliefs, dismissing this “assigned” authority figure and highlighting the lack of respect he receives from his students. Paul argues further that Kantorek only had slight knowledge and no experience of the war. Perhaps this is why he was such a faulty authority figure in the boys’ lives.
For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of work of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future…The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to realize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness…We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left (ch.1, pg.12-13).
Paul, in transition from introducing his schoolteacher, separates his generation from Kantorek’s as a matter of knowledge vs. experience. In this action, Paul both alienates himself from Kantorek as well as glorifies his values and experiences. His language is strident: “our generation was more to be trusted than theirs,” (pg.12) and seems contrite that he even looked up to Kantorek as an honorable figure. Remarque evidently portrays Kantorek as a negative character, who forced the protagonist into war and therefore lifelong despair; however, he also creates a new variant of authoritative character for the reader to experience. The purpose of an authority figure is to be a respectable person that inspires emulation and development.
Remarque presents Kantorek as a character that is given power and fails to gain respect and appreciation from his pupils. He represents Remarque’s interpretation of patriotism and nationalism embodied by many authority figures of the World War I time. From Remarque’s judgment, teachers who do not receive respect from their pupils often do not deserve it. Kantorek is therefore unsound in his allegiance to a society that promotes war. In Paul’s awareness of the “worthlessness” of Kantorek’s teachings, Remarque preaches the betrayal of the generation leaders who promoted the war effort and with Kantorek experiencing revenge from his pupil for his no-nonsense attitude towards patriotism (ch.7), Remarque emphasizes his beliefs.
Corporal Himmelstoss (the boys’ drill instructor) as a war authority figure in the novel is a meaningful character. Like Kantorek, Remarque uses Himmelstoss as a vehicle to voice his opinions on the betrayal of the older generation of war leaders. Perhaps why these leaders were vicious in their positions is the theory that power transforms any human being. The boys mention: “Surely Himmelstoss was a very different fellow as a postman…Then how does it come that he’s such a bully as a drill-sergeant?” (ch.3 pg.43). When Himmelstoss was given power after his modest job as a postman, he snapped at the opportunity. Katczinsky (Kat; member of the Second Company) elaborates:
For instance, if you train a dog to eat potatoes and then afterwards put a piece of meat in front of him, he’ll snap at it, it’s his nature. And if you give a man a little bit of authority he behaves just the same way, he snaps at it too. The things are precisely the same. In himself man is essentially a beast, only he butters it over like a slice of bread with a little decorum. The army is based on that; one man must always have power over the other. The mischief is merely that each one has much too much power. A non-com. can torment a private, a lieutenant a non-com., a captain a lieutenant, until he goes mad. And because they know they can, they all soon acquire the habit more or less (ch.3, pg.43-44).
Himmelstoss is a man that has snapped at the opportunity of possessing power. The argument that it is man’s nature to do so supports the idea that this is a common occurrence, and probably one that Remarque experienced in his time at war. Himmelstoss is a character of particular interest as he changes through the novel. First, he is a normal, (assumed to be friendly) postman, second, a merciless drill-sergeant comparable to the image of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and finally, a cowardly soldier on the front.
The message Remarque tries to relay through him is one of faulty authority figures and fundamentally, you get what you deserve. Himmelstoss is never described as an intellectual man; he was a simple postman and was somehow lucky enough to land an honorable job in the army. His brutality had no “scholarly” base and was conclusively irrational how it was portrayed in the novel. It is arguable that because he was not an intellectually or highly regarded man in his pre-war life, he was more susceptible to “snapping” at power. Without realizing it, the Second Company held Himmelstoss at low regard not because of his brutal training, but because what they knew of him previously. One would expect the boys to become afraid of sadistic instructors, but instead, they beat him up in the night (ch.3).
Possibly this was just a daring action by the Second Company, but it is clearly recognizable that the boys feel and act superior to Himmelstoss. With Himmelstoss, a foolish man, as his mechanism, Remarque further disqualifies the cruel actions Himmelstoss took to command his soldiers as actions only an unwise person would take. Nonetheless, as with Kantorek, Remarque explains that Himmelstoss was not the only man tainted by war leadership:
It’s not only Himmelstoss, there are lots of them. As sure as they get a stripe or a star they become different men, as though they’d swallowed concrete (ch.3 pg. 43).
Again, Himmelstoss is a representation of all merciless leaders in the army. Remarque uses Himmelstoss’ consequence to display what he believes should happen to these leaders, or at least what they deserve. When Himmelstoss is busted for his teaching tactics (ch.4/5), he is sent to the front as punishment. Here is a compelling addition by Remarque as he infers that the authoritative goal is not cruelty, at least for the “higher-ups.” However, this addition does not contrast the dose of karma Himmelstoss has received as a result of his inadequate leadership. Both Paul and Remarque demonstrate their understanding of the changes war brings to people when Himmelstoss is forgiven (ch.7). The boys’ “kindness” advances beyond forgiving Himmelstoss.
In the trenches there were also examples of “unofficial authority,” in observing the relationships between the recruits and the active soldiers. The recruits look up to Paul and his friends and learn the ways of the front from their instruction. Kat gives them extra food portions (ch.3) and teaches them how to distinguish which guns are firing by listening to the blasts (ch.4). He gives them pointers on how to survive instead of coaching them on respect and conditioning them to life on the front. This develops into a type of commanding respect for the soldiers, one that appears to be more than the dominated relationships that are forced on them throughout the novel.
However, it is easy to see Kat and his type of authority in a positive light because it is the alternative option to torment. It cannot be accurately argued that if Kat or Paul or any of the other boys had a chance at power that they would not “snap” at the opportunity as Himmelstoss had, or if they strongly believed in patriotism like Kantorek that they would try to rally for teenagers to enlist. At this point in their life, none of the boys have any real type of responsibility. Furthermore, there is no hierarchy like one would assume would appear with a group of teenage soldiers, but the soldiers appear to look after one another most of the time. The boys function as a brotherhood without formally assigning power to any of them. Life in the trenches was certainly gruesome and unfulfilling (Fussell, The Trench Scene), and perhaps this added to the need for brotherhood on the front.
Simultaneously, Paul and his comrades act as a kind of authority they want to be and not the authority they have suffered. Kantorek nearly forced all of the boys in his class to join the army (ch.1) and Himmelstoss obtained results from sheer force and humiliation (ch.3), but the boys kindly support the recruits, for instance, when Paul fixes a soldier’s helmet and excuses the fact that the recruit defecated in his pants (ch.4). All of this proves that by experiencing the underside of the teachings of their superiors, the boys choose to function in a different and more merciful way.
It is interesting to consider the boys’ view against the authority of the generation that educates them. Fussell mentions “The Versus Habit” as a problem between nations, but I’d like to consider it between viewpoints of generations. Paul expresses his dissatisfaction of the previous generation in the first chapter. He recognizes that his generation “distinguished the false from true…and saw that there was nothing of [the parent generation’s] world left,” (ch.1 pg.13).
In argument, the generations in the book have vastly different experiences – the generation that Paul and his comrades learn from has no experience of a war like WWI, while Paul gets to live it vividly. In wartime there is no need for the views of people who have little war experience, which is why Paul decides, “there was nothing of their world left” (ch.1 pg. 13). Because of these different experiences, they develop different perspectives that ultimately negate the other generation’s. This can develop into a debate over good and bad, such as “The Versus Habit.”
But less predictably the mode of gross dichotomy came to dominate perception and expression elsewhere, encouraging finally what we can call the modern versus habit: one thing opposed to another, not with some Hegelian hope of synthesis involving a dissolution of both extremes (that would suggest ‘a negotiated peace,’ which is anathema), but with a sense that one of the poles embodies so wicked a deficiency or flaw or perversion that its total submission is called for (Fussell, The Versus Habit, pg. 86).
The application of the Versus Habit to Paul’s subconscious view of authority further separates the authoritative ideals represented in the novel. The Second Company carried different standards than their parent generation. “The idea of authority, which [the parent generation] represented, was associated in [their] minds with a greater insight and more humane wisdom” (ch.1 pg.12). Himmelstoss’ and Kantorek’s type of teaching can be categorized as dominantly “tyrannical” while the relationship between the recruits and the soldiers can be described as friendly “mentorship.” There is the question of which method is more effective? According to the novel, the authoritative teaching is successful in uniting Paul’s group of friends and in providing them with the knowledge of the cruelty on the front. Paul mentions in reference to Himmelstoss’ cruel training:
Had we gone into the trenches without this period of training most of us would certainly have gone mad. Only thus were we prepared for what awaited us. We did not break down, but adapted ourselves; our twenty years, which made many another thing so grievous, helped us in this. But by far the most important result was that it awakened in us a strong, practical sense of esprit de corps, which in the field developed into the finest thing that arose out of the war – comradeship (ch.2, pg.26-27).
Perhaps this proves that dictatorial teaching is effective, even necessary, contrasting the point Remarque strives to make with his novel: cruelty and war only create distress and death. I find this to be an odd conflict of interest. Remarque spends the entire novel trying to point out the evils of an authoritarian rule, but in the process manifests the valuable lessons and ethics Paul and his friends discover in the war. Of course, I do not mean to say that war is favorable and that everyone should join in on the experience to strengthen their morals and outlooks on life, but I feel the need to highlight that because of Paul’s (and perhaps Remarque’s) war experiences, they have become capable and exceptional men. The war forcefully molded them into these characters and the authority figures they learned from can be to blame.
Remarque’s perception of authority figures is apparent throughout the novel. Though All Quiet on the Western Front is a fictional piece, it feels distinctly like an autobiography. It is known that Remarque enlisted in WWI and with his convincible scenarios, it is that we “perceive the impossibility of ever satisfactorily distinguishing a memoir from a first-person novel” (Fussell, The Literary Status of Great War Memoirs, pg.336). Though we never see many “higher-ups” past teacher or drill-sergeant in the novel, we can conclude that Remarque’s attitude towards most war authorities was negative. Inside and outside of the war, Remarque likely experienced betrayals from trusted mentors, barbarity from army educators, and the pleasing contrast to both of these occurrences in brotherhood.
Remarque, E., & Wheen, A. (1975). All quiet on the western front. Boston: Little, Brown.
Fussell, P. (1975). The Great War and modern memory. New York: Oxford University Press.