Study Guide

Kantorek in All Quiet on the Western Front

By Erich Maria Remarque

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Bad Teacher

In a novel about war, you'd expect "evil" to take many forms. An enemy soldier, perhaps. A personified bomb. Death itself. Maybe a rat in a foxhole.

You probably wouldn't, however, to expect evil to come in the form of...a schoolteacher.

And yet that's exactly what Kantorek epitomizes: the kind of evil that springs from rah-rah patriotism coupled with inexperience. Kantorek—a dude with no military experience—tells his young students that they should enlist and go off and fight in the war. He sprouts propaganda about the German Fatherland and the glory of service and his students, who are all bright-eyed and eager, lap up his every word.

His "crime," according to Paul, is that Kantorek was supposed to be a trusted intellectual, a man who guides young men and molds young minds. And yet he encouraged multiple boys to become soldiers with a complete and total ignorance of actual war:

While they (the pontificating teachers and politicos) continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. (1.49)

So Kantorek's encouragement of the boys to voluntarily enlist in the army and fight a meaningless war makes him an ally of the true villain of this novel: the war itself. Paul sees Kantorek multiple, and he imagines that many of the soldiers he sees dying have been coerced into fighting to abstract ideals by men very much like his schoolteacher:

There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that there was only one way of doing well, and that way theirs. And that is just why they let us down so badly. (1.47)

By the end of the novel, Kantorek himself becomes an abstraction, a representation of the forces that shove impressionable young men into the trenches. In fact, Paul thinks of Kantorek as having more blood on his hands than most soldiers.

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