HERR MEYER: Mr. Postman. War is war and schnapps is schnapps, but business must go on. You didn't leave the mail yet this morning.
HIMMELSCHLOSS: I'm sorry, Mr. Meyer.
At the story's beginning, everyone's super excited about the war, treating it like it's a sporting event—like Germany v. France at the World War Cup. Herr Meyer is even a bit testy that something like war should interfere with day-to-day business. Of course, this view will change as word of the war's horrors reaches the populace…right? Right?
KANTOREK: I believe it will be a quick war, that there will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase, which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood embattled in a foreign land, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." "Sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland."
Kantorek's speech gives us a sense of the nation's mentality regarding the war. It'll be a rip-roaring adventure across the French country, and while the deaths will be tragic, what adventure wouldn't be complete without a little tragedy? If the Latin is to be believed, it's not even a tragedy since there could be no fitter cause for a young man's life. And who can argue with Latin?
KAT: It's all right, boy. Get up. Here. Never mind. It's happened to better men than you, and it's happened to me. When we come back, I'll get you all some nice clean underwear. That kind of shell you don't have to pay much attention to.
Remember Kantorek's speech about the grand adventure of war? Did we miss the part where he discusses a man soiling his underwear for fear of death? Unlike Kantorek, Kat provides the truth about war. It sure isn't glorious to wet your pants…but it is reality.
TJADEN: Don't be so snooty. You may wish you had this back. About two more days of this and this rat-bitten end of a piece of bread's gonna taste just like a hunk of fruitcake.
PAUL: It wouldn't—It wouldn't last two more days, would it?
KAT: Didn't I tell you this was gonna be a bad one?
PAUL: I don't mind the days so much. It's keeping up all night that's—
KAT: Two more days makes a week, kid. Then you can say you've been under fire.
As the horrors of war begin to reveal themselves, you can see the young recruits become disillusioned. Far from having adventures in foreign lands, the young men are huddling in a dugout, eating rat-gnawed bread, and helplessly wondering if that blast they hear in the distance will be the shell to finally kill them. After five days of this, we imagine they might have a few arguments for Kantorek—if only they could learn the Latin for "Take this job and shove it!"
[A soldier screams.]
[Bomb explodes. Bunker fills with dirt.]
KEMMERICK: Let me out!
[Kat punches him.]
PAUL: What did you do that for?
KAT: Shut up! Grab him.
KAT: Now hold him.
Kemmerick begins to suffer from "combat neurosis," what they called "shell shock" during WWI. Today we know it is a personality disturbance that represents a response to the stress of war. But back then, they weren't sure what caused it.
[The Allied forces attack the German lines but are mowed down by machine-gun fire. When they reach the German's lines, they swarm into the trench en masse and a fierce hand-to-hand combat ensues. Soldiers kill each other with bayonets, knives, and spades.]
What can we even add? This battle scene puts the monstrosities of war on full. One thing we will point out is that individual characters are seldom singled out during the fight. They become part of an instinctive mass, each fighting and killing and running to stay alive in the chaos.
TJADEN: Well, how do they start a war?
ALBERT: Well, one country offends another.
TJADEN: How could one country offend another? You mean there's a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?
ALBERT: Well, stupid, one people offends another.
TJADEN: Oh, if that's it I shouldn't be here at all. I don't feel offended.
Tjaden may be making a joke, but, like all good comedians, he has a point behind the humor. War requires people to sacrifice themselves for abstract concepts like "the people" or "the state." But Germany and the Germanic people don't exist outside the world of the mind. Don't believe us? Just go back a couple centuries and asks the Goths what they think about Germany. Best bring a battle-axe with you.
PAUL: Only, you're better off than I am. You're through. They can't do any more to you now. Oh, God, why did they do this to us? We only wanted to live, you and I. Why should they send us out to fight each other? If we threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. You'll have to forgive me, comrade. I'll do all I can. I'll write to your parents. I'll write to…
The French soldier's death is a very personal one for Paul—he must stay behind and witness the full pain and suffering his actions have brought. Here, the tragedy of an individual's suffering is on full display, countering Kantorek's statement from earlier that "few losses" would be acceptable. Clearly a few loses are a few too many if such suffering can be avoided.
KAT: Well, kid, now we're gonna be separated.
PAUL: Maybe we can do something together later on when the war is over.
KAT: Yes, kid.
PAUL: You give me your address; I'll give you mine.
PAUL: You can't get both of us in one day! We'll surely see each other again, Kat. Remember that day when you brought the whole pig into the factory? And that day in the woods when you taught us how to dodge shells? And my first bombardment? How I cried. I was a young recruit then.
Of course, Kat does die, and we see that the great misfortune of Paul's time in the war isn't that he dies. Rather, it's that the war takes everything from him. The war steals Paul's dreams, his innocence, and his home. Lastly, it takes Kat away from him, Paul's one hope for having a life and connections beyond the war.