Caring during War with Nel Noddings

Katczinsky talks to Paul and gives him advice. Screenshot from the movie All Quiet on the Western Front.

The novel All Quiet on the Western Front written by Erich Maria Remarque follows nineteen-year-old Paul Bäumer and his friends in a harrowing journey as German soldiers fighting in World War I. As the plot progresses, several characters serve as mentors to the young soldiers, offering guidance and support in their struggles to survive the horrors of war. These characters include their schoolmaster Kantorek, Corporal Himmelstoss, and fellow soldier Stanislaus Katczinsky. The ethics of their behavior can be analyzed through the views of Nel Noddings, a well-known philosopher and educational theorist who has written extensively on the topic of caring and relational ethics in education. 

Noddings believes that caring relationships are the foundation of ethical behavior and that effective mentor-student relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust. In “Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education” (1984), she argues that “caring is the most basic and significant mode of human interaction because it is the activity that enables us to reach out to others and affirm their existence” (Noddings 5). Noddings emphasizes the importance of personal relationships in mentoring and education, as seen in her work on the philosophy of education. She writes, “The good teacher seeks to know the unique needs, experiences, and capabilities of each student and responds to them with empathy and understanding” (Philosophy of Education, 1995, p. 63). Overall, Noddings’ philosophy highlights the critical role of caring relationships in mentor-student interactions and their significance for human flourishing.

One mentor character in the novel who successfully meets this criteria is Stanislaus Katczinsky, Paul’s classmate turned fellow soldier. Katczinsky recognizes the importance of showing concern for the well-being of his fellow soldiers and takes on the role of a caregiver. For example, when Paul and his friends must sleep in uncomfortable wire-net bunks, Paul describes, “[Katsczinsky and Haie Westhus] are back again with arms full of straw. Kat has found a horse-box with straw in it. Now we might sleep…” (Remarque 39). This exemplifies how Katczinsky cares for his fellow soldiers by attending to their needs, which is a trait of a good caregiver according to philosopher Noddings. Additionally, when Paul is injured, Katczinsky risks his life to bring him to safety. Paul notes, “Kat has risked his life for me” (209). This act of selflessness is a clear indication of his caring and nurturing character. In this way, Katczinsky embodies Noddings’ idea of caring as a personal relationship that is based on mutual respect and trust.

In contrast, the school teacher Kantorek represents the failure of traditional authority figures to provide meaningful guidance and support to young people in times of crisis and thus breaks their trust. At the beginning of the novel,  Kantorek pressures Paul and his friends to enlist in the war. However, Kantorek’s ideals are exposed as hollow and misguided. He is revealed to be a narrow-minded nationalist who has no real understanding of the horrors of war. When Paul returns home on leave, Kantorek comes to visit him. However, Paul realizes that Kantorek is now irrelevant and out of touch. He thinks to himself, “He knows nothing about it; he can’t even imagine what it is like. He had never expected us to get so far. But it has happened, and now we cannot go back” (Remarque 166). This illustrates how Kantorek broke the trust of his students by misleading them to enlist and thus prioritizing the country over their well-being. Instead of caring and empathizing with his students as individuals as philosopher Noddings advises, Kantorek cared about their purpose to fight in the war and serve Germany.

Another mentor figure is Corporal Himmelstoss, who grows into a caring mentor that Noddings would approve of. At first, he is presented as a sadistic and cruel figure who enjoys humiliating and punishing his charges. However, when Himmelstoss is sent to the front, he undergoes a transformation. He becomes more humane and empathetic and begins to show a genuine concern for the well-being of the soldiers under his command. For example, when Paul is injured and sent to the hospital, Himmelstoss visits him and brings him a package of food. Paul notes, “I never expected anything like this from Himmelstoss” (238). In this way, Himmelstoss embodies the idea that caring relationships can be developed over time, and that people can change and grow in response to their experiences.

Therefore, Nel Noddings’ philosophy of caring and relational ethics offers a useful lens through which to evaluate the ethics of the mentor characters in All Quiet on the Western Front. The characters of Kantorek, Corporal Himmelstoss, and Stalinslaus Katczinsky exemplify a range of approaches to caregiving. Kantorek fails as a caregiver because he prioritizes his students’ use to the country as soldiers over their well-being and thus breaks their trust in him. On the other hand, Corporal Himmelstoss is a cruel mentor at first, but learns from his experience on the front how to empathize and care for his men, illustrating how people can learn to become caregivers. Ultimately, it is the model of caregiving embodied by Katczinsky that represents the most effective approach to mentorship, one based on mutual respect, trust, and deep empathy for the needs and experiences of others. As a fellow soldier, Katczinsky can relate to the people he cares for and thus is the best at empathizing with them, which exemplifies that the best caregivers are those who can relate with and understand the people they care for.

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