What defines a soldier? Is it based on his rank, where he fought, whether he followed orders, when he lived and died… or is it as simple as what side he fought on? Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque dive deeper – beyond general facts like sides and dates – into the perspectives of soldiers in World War I in their respective stories: Soldier’s Home (1925) by Hemingway, which describes the post-war life of Harold Krebs, and All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque, who writes of Paul Baumer’s experience of returning home on leave during the war in chapter seven. Although the two soldiers had different experiences of the war and had different families, both Baumer and Krebs didn’t like talking about the war, and developed troubling relationships with their parents because of how their experiences in the war changed them.
One of the most significant differences between Baumer and Krebs was the difference of their memories of war. In Soldier’s Home, Hemingway wrote of Krebs’ hatred to talk about the war: “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie and after he had done this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it. A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he told… the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally…now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves,” (p.1). Krebs hated talking with others about the war because he had to lie and pretend that the war had terrified him like it seemed to terrify all the other soldiers, when in reality he actually enjoyed fighting and enjoyed how natural it felt. On the other hand, while Baumer was on leave in chapter seven of All Quiet on the Western Front, Baumer thought about how difficult it was for him to talk about the war: “He (Baumer’s father) wants me to tell him about the front; he is curious in a way I find stupid and distressing…I realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things… I am afraid they might become gigantic, and I be no longer able to master them. After I have been startled a couple times in the street by the screaming of the tramcars, which resembles the shriek of a shell coming straight for one, someone taps me on the shoulder,” (p. 165). Unlike Krebs, Baumer disliked talking about the war because of the emotional damage it had caused him, to the point where he had post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, although both Krebs and Baumer despised talking about the war, they had opposite reasons; Baumer refused to talk about the war because of how terrible it was, where-as Krebs didn’t want to talk because he enjoyed the war and hated that he had to lie and conform to being a sad and terrified soldier like everyone else.
Moreover, Krebs and Baumer were also similar because they both had troubling relationships with their parents due to their antipathy to talking about the war. Both Krebs and Baumer stopped talking to their fathers because of mutual differences, and both soldiers had dreadful relationships with their mothers. When Krebs returned home he had a difficult conversation with his mother, where she asked him, “‘Don’t you love your mother boy?’ ‘No,’ Krebs said. His mother looked at him across the table… She started crying. ‘I don’t love anybody,’ Krebs said…It was silly to have said it. He had only hurt her… ‘I didn’t mean it,’ he said. ‘I was just angry at something. I didn’t mean I didn’t love you,’” (p.6). Krebs felt so distant from his mother because of how he changed during the war that he couldn’t even truthfully tell her that he loved her, regardless of how much she cared for him. Baumer felt the same distance from his mother when he went on leave: “How destitute she lies there in her bed, she that loves me more than all the world. As I am about to leave, she says hastily: ‘I have two pairs of underpants for you. They are all wool… You must not forget to put them in your pack.’ Ah! Mother! I know what these underpants have cost you in waiting, and walking, and begging… Who else is there that has any claim on me but you? Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it,” (p.185). Even though Baumer wanted to be close to his mother like he once was, he knew he couldn’t because his mother still saw him as her child- a child that needed protecting and extra underwear- and because she could’ve never empathized with what he went through during the war.
Baumer and Krebs may have been on different sides of the war, but what really set them apart was their memories of the war; Krebs loved the war because he got to follow his natural instincts without consequence, and Paul hated it because it traumatized him as he did everything in his power to stay alive on the front lines, while at the same time watching his friends die one by one. Yet even though their memories were different, both of their experiences of the war changed them beyond repair, to the point that their own mothers, who birthed and raised them, could no longer empathize with their sons’ struggles.