The adage “you can’t go home again” applies equally to Paul Baümer from All Quiet on the Western Front and Harold Krebs from Soldier’s Home. Both characters are traumatized WWI soldiers unable to reintegrate into society. While many comparisons can be made of Krebs and Baümer, their reactions to being “home” struck me the most.
In Hemingway’s short story, American Marine Krebs “had been a good soldier.” (p. 4) and battled “at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St Mihiel and in the Argonne” (p. 1). Nonetheless, no accounts of Krebs’ experiences on the front lines are described in the story. In contrast, Remarque’s novel contains graphic scenes in disturbing detail of Paul’s life as a German soldier. For instance, Paul sees grisly corpses scattered in No Man’s Land, witnesses his school mate Kemmerick dying in hospital after losing a limb in combat, and watches an enemy French soldier slowly die from a stabbing Paul himself has inflicted. In addition to this, when Paul and Kat encounter a wounded comrade they face an unimaginable decision,
“Kat looks around and whispers: “Shouldn’t we just take a revolver and put an end to it?”
The youngster will hardly survive the carrying, and at the most he will only last a few days. What he has gone through so far is nothing to what he’s in for till he dies. Now he is numb and feels nothing. In an hour he will become one screaming bundle of intolerable pain. Every day that he can live will be a howling torture. And to whom does it matter whether he has them or not—I nod.
“Yes, Kat, we ought to put him out of his misery.” (p. 72).
Given these examples, the reader undoubtedly understands how Paul is traumatized by the war.
Nevertheless, in Soldier’s Home, while the reader does not know exactly what has happened to Krebs during wartime, it is clear that similar to Paul, Krebs has been drastically changed by his experience. After the war, proof of this is seen in Krebs’ lack of interest to interact with his family, find a job or meet a girlfriend despite his family’s encouragement. Does Krebs miss the adrenaline rush from battle? Does he now find life at home mundane? The phrase “It was not worth it.” (p. 3 and 4) is repeated three times throughout the story and demonstrates Krebs’ complacency. Likewise, the lines, “He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences.” (p. 3) reveals Krebs’ feelings of disconnect to his former life. Moreover, Krebs’ stolid response to his mother’s question of whether he loves her, “I don’t love anybody” (p.6) ultimately demonstrates his level of detachment and desire not to engage in meaningful relationships with others.
By the same token, when Paul visits home on leave, he says “I ought never to have come here. Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless… I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end.” (p. 185). From this quote, we see the isolation Paul feels from the life he once knew. Paul’s isolation is very similar to the alienation Krebs inflicts on himself. We can make assumptions that Krebs’ reasons for distancing himself from society are different to Paul’s. Perhaps one has nightmares of the atrocities he witnessed, while the other morbidly reminisces the excitement he felt on the front lines. Either way, the result is the same. Neither Paul nor Krebs is capable of living as they did pre-WWI.
To summarize, while Paul (an Axis soldier) and Krebs (fighting for the victorious Allies) might differ in how they perceived their time in battle, both are clearly changed in a significant way from their WWI experience. Both Paul Baümer and Harold Krebs are tragic characters who (ironically) find they no longer fit into the societies they left home to protect. Ultimately in contrast to Krebs, who survives the war, Paul dies on an unexceptional day described as “All quiet on the Western Front” (p. 296). Nevertheless, it can be argued that both protagonists are casualties of war.