You Don’t Know What It’s Like: A Personal Response to “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Despite its inevitably heart-breaking ending, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is an incredible novel because it can help anyone understand and empathize with soldiers fighting in World War I. World war is something none of us in the MYP5 class have experienced first-hand. And yet, Remarque was able to describe Germany’s perspective of WWI with everyday intricacies and gave his characters distinctly heterogenous personalities, so that anyone could connect to this book, including me: a fifteen-year-old who spends his weekends watching YouTube and has never even slept in a tent. For example, I found that I could empathize with Paul and his experiences when he returned home during his leave in chapter seven.

In chapter seven, Paul returns to his childhood town, Dolbenberg, for a few weeks. He reconnects with his sick mother and his sister and attempts to connect with his father and his old schoolteachers, but Paul finds it difficult to converse with them. They ask him invasive questions and make bold claims about the war. Specifically, when Paul’s old head-master tells Paul how he would win the war by using offensive force, Paul responds, “…that in our opinion a break-through may not be possible. The enemy may have too many reserves. Besides, the war may be rather different from what people think. He dismisses the idea and informs me I know nothing about it. ‘The details yes,’ says he, ‘but this relates to the whole…You see only your little sector and so cannot have any general survey,’” (p. 167). Not only is the head-master not listening to Paul, but he’s dismissing what Paul is saying- even though Paul has fought in the war for years, where-as the head-master has merely heard about the war from others and the newspapers.

Moreover, when Paul first sat down with his teachers at the bar, he thought, “And they are all so dripping with good will that it is impossible to object. All the same I feel annoyed and smoke like a chimney as hard as I can,” (p. 166). Even though he knows the men appreciate the soldiers and have good intentions, their assumptions irritate Paul. They can’t comprehend what war is like first-hand, and so they assume that their hardships are worse than their soldiers’. For example, Paul’s old German-master said to him, “…And after all, you do at least get decent food out there, I hear. You look well, Paul, and fit. Naturally it’s worse here. Naturally,” (p.166). How can they think that living in your home is worse than fighting for your life in harsh conditions, merely because those fighting for their lives may be getting slightly more food than you? Even though over a century and two world wars have passed, one characteristic of humanity may never change: a lack of empathy of others. In our modern-day society, I’ve found that male privilege is a prime example of this harsh reality.

Male privilege has a significant impact on my life, especially since I’ve experienced both sides of the coin. I’ve experienced what it’s like to not be respected by others because of my gender before I came out as trans, and I’ve gained my own male privilege through my social transition. Yet, in both cases I’ve had others try to educate me on subjects I’m more knowledgeable about then they are, whether it be stereotypically male interests (like sports or video games) or the LGBTQ+ community (and their unwavering opinions about my gender identity). Thus, I found it effortless to empathize with Paul as his old teachers told him he didn’t understand the war, regardless of his time fighting on the front lines, because in the past I’ve conversed with people who have had similar fallacious and ignorant assumptions about my own knowledge and experiences.


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