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Betrayal is truth that clings. It is a truth that is so painful that it clutches on to the mind, soul, and heart. Deep disappointment and agonizing anguish comes with this betrayal. It is the betrayal that discredits false ideals and harbors empty hopes. In All Quiet on the Western Front, youths like Paul Baümer must deal with the disillusion they feel towards what they were taught to believe in. Once Paul and his fellow classmates are shipped off to war, he and the others learn that they have been betrayed on all fronts.
Teachers who cultivate the minds of the young and fuel their insatiable ideals become the primary objects of resentment for young soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a resentment produced by the lies that teachers fed their students. Depictions of romanticized death in glorifying battle and of the chivalry of soldiers in combat, fighting for their motherland was what they would sermonize. They were sermons of false passions. While at the front, Paul reflects back on his instructor, Kantorek, who knew nothing of war but still sent mere innocents to their deaths:
Kantorek had been our schoolmaster... [He] gave us long lectures until the whole of our class went under his shepherding to the District Commandant and volunteered. I can see him now, as he used to glare at us through his spectacles and say in a moving voice:
"Won't you join up, Comrades?"(7)
It isn't long till the students that enlisted find themselves realizing that they had been deceived. They had been deceived by the older generation who failed to explain that war was not about glory or idealism but about crude survival - "The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces."(8) Educators like Kantorek betrayed the image that their students had for them once they came face-to-face with the reality of war:
The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. (8)
Teachers, in their ignorance, spoke easily about the war believing they understood it better than the soldiers. Claims of understanding the war as a 'whole' were part of the older generation's rationale. This is seen when Paul comes back to his hometown after one year of enlistment and encounters a head-master:
He dismisses the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it [the war]. "The details, yes," says he, "but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and so cannot have any general survey..." (109)
Yet, Paul and his fellow comrades manage to forgive their former teachers for their empty promises and false assumptions. Paul explains this when he speaks of how deeply those like Kantorek had disappointed them because of their easier-said-than-done preaching:
Naturally we couldn't blame Kantorek for this. Where would the world be if one brought every man to book? There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best-in a way that cost them nothing. (8)
Ironically enough Paul gets to see Kantorek as a home guard running under the orders of a former student. Seeing Kantorek in ridicule, as if punished by fate, gives Paul a certain amusing satisfaction:
Mittelstaedt stops in front of him: "Territorial Kantorek, do you call those buttons polished? You seem as though you can never learn. Inadequate, Kantorek, quite inadequate--"
It makes me bubble with glee. In school Kantorek used to chasten Mittelstaedt with exactly the same expression-"Inadequate, Mittelstaedt, quite inadequate."(114)
Mittelstaedt, one of the many deceived soldiers, did not hesitate to take advantage of accosting Kantorek. It was out of the resentment towards the older generation for misleading them, for manipulating them and for failing them.
Among the betrayals of their elders is the very army they enlist in. They believe that they are joining to fight for their country. What they do not realize is that they are joining to fight for their government. For Paul and his classmates, this fact did not dawn upon them until after they become soldiers. This is revealed in a conversation they have when they ask themselves about the war:
"Then what exactly is the war for?" asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs his shoulders. "There must be some people to whom the war is useful."
... "There are other people back behind there who profit by the war, that's certain," growls Detering. (133-134)
Their heads are so full of romantic portrayals when they first arrive that it becomes no surprise that they feel betrayed when the y experience military life. One of the first demonstrations of betrayal that the army shows is when it comes to food. In one instance the sergeant-cook, Ginger, displays bureaucratic behavior towards the soldiers when he serves them saying that "Eighty men can't have what is meant for a hundred and fifty."(3) This angers many of the soldiers seeing how he will not be charitable in dividing the surplus food among them. One soldier, Tjaden, tells Ginger that "It doesn't cost you anything! Anyone would think the quartermaster's store belonged to him!"(4) The fact that the army refuses to be generous with its own soldiers is another deception for Paul's generation. Thus, they are forced to seek other methods of getting better food and improving their conditions - namely through a more experienced soldier, Katczinsky:
For example, we land at night in some entirely unknown spot, a sorry hole, that has been eaten out to the very walls...There are beds in it, or rather bunks-a couple of wooden beams over which wire netting is stretched. Wire netting is hard. And there's nothing to put on it...Kat has found a horse-box with straw in it. Now we might sleep... (26)
But then there is also the shamelessness of the army when it comes to other things as well such as when the army hands out its soldiers new uniforms for the Kaiser's visit - "To make matters worse, we have to return almost all the new things and take back our old rags again. The good ones were merely for the inspection."(134) There is also the cold indifference of the army medics that adds to the betrayal of the Army. In the case of Paul's friend Franz Kemmerich, the neglect of medical attention is seen - "The doctor passes by Kemmerich's bed without once looking at him." They don't care about Kemmerich's life, in fact it would seem as if they would prefer him dead:
Hospital-orderlies go to and fro with bottles and pails. One of them comes up, casts a glance at Kemmerich and goes away again. You can see he is waiting, apparently he wants the bed. (20)
Instead of looking at Kemmerich as a person, they simply see him as another patient, another number, another statistic. These injured soldiers who sought compassion received indifference. When Kemmerich is about to die, Paul finds himself devastated to find a doctor who will help him yet none seem to care even the slightest about his friend's health:
"Come quick, Franz Kemmerich is dying."
"Which will that be?"
"Bed 26, amputated thigh."
"How should I know anything about it, I've amputated five legs to-day..." (21)
Paul is enraged by the behavior of the doctors and feels only further let down. The falsities of chivalry that were painted for these former students further disintegrate when they encounter the abuse of power from higher ranking officials. Examples of this abuse in power are seen in the figure of Corporal Himmelstoss. Himmelstoss is often cruel to the young soldiers and takes out his own insecurities on to them. Under his regiment, he often makes the soldiers do insignificant tasks solely to torment them:
I have remade his bed fourteen times in one morning. Each time he had some fault to find and pulled it to pieces. I have kneaded a pair of prehistoric boots that were as hard as iron for twenty hours...until they became as soft as butter...I have scrubbed out the Corporals' Mess with a tooth-brush. (15)
Similar to Kantorek, Himmelstoss eventually falls into some twisted course of fate and goes from teaching basic training to having to participate directly in combat. To say the least, this brings a revengeful joy out of many of the soldiers - "Beaming with satisfaction he stammers out: 'Himmelstoss is on his way. He's coming to the front!'"(31) Along with the abuse of power there is also the suffering of neglect from the State. The neglect of the State obligates the soldiers to have to endure fatal accidents due to obsolete weaponry:
After we have been in the dug-outs two hours our own shells begin to fall in the trench...If it were simply a mistake in aim no one would say anything, but the truth is that the barrels are worn out. The shots are often so uncertain that they land within our own lines. To-night two of our men were wounded by them. (67)
Throughout everything that these young soldiers must undergo, their perspective of the world they thought they knew completely changes. They realize that war is not romantic and that the army simply trains for them to put on a show of valor - "We had fancied our task would be different, only to find we were to be trained for heroism as though we were circus-ponies."(15) In the war's ruthlessness, soldiers come to terms with reality. As students they were taught ideals; as soldiers, truth.
In learning truth, Paul and his comrades feel betrayed by their own people as well. They feel that they have been deceived by their friends, their families...their loved ones. Paul understands that the betrayal of the civilians is out of ignorance also. It is that same ignorance that led many parents to push their sons onto the path of death. Those soldiers like Joseph Behm who Paul recalls did not want to fight but was forced to do so:
There was, indeed, one of us who hesitated and did not want to fall into line. That was Joseph Behm, a plump, homely fellow. But he did allow himself to be persuaded, otherwise he would have been ostracized. And perhaps more of us thought as he did, but no one could very well stand out, because at that time even one's parents were ready with the word "coward"; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for. (7)
These civilians, these poor ignorant fools who lived blissfully in their ignorance - they believed they understood but they couldn't. They could not understand the war on the level that the soldier did. Paul comes to acknowledge this when he visits his home during leave:
They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with words, only with words, yes, that is it-they feel it, but always with only half of themselves, the rest of their being is taken up with other things, they are so divided in themselves that none feels it with his whole essence...(110)
And in their ignorance, they did not realize that they troubled the soldiers with their absurd questions and constant talk of war. Paul feels the irritation in this when his mother questions him:
Suddenly my mother seizes hold of my hand and asks falteringly: "Was it very bad out there, Paul?"
Mother, what should I answer to that! You would not understand, you could never realize it. (105)
These sorts of questions asked in civilian ignorance made soldiers like Paul feel betrayed in the sense that they had trusted this older generation to know what the war would be like. Yet, here in the midst of the war, this older generation who had pushed them toward false notions had no idea of the war's true horrors. They constantly talked and talked about the war and did not realize that on some level, it disturbed the soldiers. During his leave, Paul feels uncomfortable with the constant talk of the war:
I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me. For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that; and yet they are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence. (110)
The civilians see the war as if it were something on the side of their lives - it is not a part of them. The war was not part of the civilian as it was part of the soldier. It was the older generation that started the war and it was their younger generation that had to fight it. And this is why the youths that were sent off to the war felt betrayed. They felt betrayed because their parents pushed them towards the war and then used them as trophies. Paul's father tries to use his son in this manner and without regarding Paul's feelings:
But my father would rather I kept my uniform on so that he could take me to visit his acquaintances.
But I refuse. (107)
These disappointed youths that were misled into believing that the war would glory, honor, and an act of patriotism were exposed to the truth of the war. It was a war of State caprice and the treachery of the older generation.
Ultimately, it is the disappointment that makes the world of the soldier difficult. It is difficult because it is unlike anything they imagined. What they imagined had been sickly twisted into a truth that was so painful that it gripped their very beings. It was the truth of betrayal - the betrayal of their mentors, their militia, and their people. In All Quiet on the Western Front, young innocents are ruthlessly betrayed on all fronts.