Jenny Farrell introduces the famous anti-war book, as we near the 50th anniversary of Erich Maria Remarque's death. Image by Photofest
World War I was termed the war that would end all wars, so great was the horror of this new, diabolical stage of industrial annihilation. We know now that without seriously addressing the causes of war – the imperialist greed for new markets and spheres of power – wars will continue, no matter what. However, WWI gave birth to a new genre of anti-war literature.
Mainstream cultural life in the 21st century largely ignores wars, nor has it embraced the anti-war cultural heritage of the 20th century. But anybody who reads the novels and poetry, listens to the music, watches the plays, looks at the paintings or hears the songs of those who lived through the horrors of WWI and WWII, cannot fail to be profoundly shocked and motivated to finally put an end to war. Perhaps that is why they are all but absent from mainstream culture?
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, is arguably the most famous anti-war novel of all time. Published in 1928, the novel was one of the greatest book successes of the first half of the 20th century. The picture it paints, the inhuman reality of war, reflected the experiences of millions of soldiers.
At the heart of the story is a group of young soldiers who are sent from school straight into the battlefield. Their dehumanisation by adapting to industrialised slaughter becomes the turning point in their lives. They ask questions about who is responsible for the war, but have no answers. While Bäumer and his comrades do not believe the official propaganda, which blames the war on foreign powers, they turn their rage on the agents of power closest to them. These include teachers, officers, and armchair strategists at home, including Bäumer’s schoolmaster, Kantorek, who urged students to enlist, as well as the former postman, Himmelstoss, who torments new recruits. While the novel never exposes the imperialist interests which lay behind World War I, it nevertheless condemns the powers that criminally abused Remarque’s generation.
Bäumer’s group is primarily concerned with surviving the war. Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, a 40-year-old cobbler, becomes a father figure to them. He ferrets out food for them to pilfer, as the army provisions are abysmal. What holds them together is their camaraderie, a humanity they preserve. Ten years after the publication of this novel, this idea of camaraderie was to be exploited by the German fascists for their new war plans.
However, in Remarque’s book, this comradeship has nothing to do with leader and followers in an aggressive militarism. Rather, it is a sense of solidarity among those who need to support each other, even extending to the soldiers in the ‘enemy’ trench. They understand instinctively that the enemy is a victim of the same powers as themselves. In a memorable scene, Bäumer is caught in a shell hole along with the French soldier he has just killed. He says, “Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me, comrade, how could you be my enemy?”
In 1930, the Nazis disrupted screenings of the film adaptation and attacked the audiences. In May 1933, they burned copies of the book and revoked Remarque’s German citizenship in 1938.
Remarque’s next book, The Road Back (1931), follows soldiers from the same company during the 1918 revolutionary uprisings in Germany. It is first and foremost the story of the dissolution of the comradeship of the front. Their attempt to hold on to the idea of comradeship leads to the militarist Freikorps, suicide and eventually even to the murder of workers. Remarque shows that war was not an ‘emergency’ but remains at the centre of imperialist, capitalist society.
Remarque was born in Osnabrück in June 1898 into a Catholic working-class family. When World War I broke out, Remarque was sixteen. Like so many, he fell victim to the jingoist propaganda and joined the Youth Corps, a militaristic cadet organization. Aged eighteen in November 1916, he was conscripted. Shortly after seeing action on the western front, he was wounded, in July 1917 and spent over a year recovering and was not sent back to the front.
Finishing his education after the war, Remarque briefly worked as a teacher, before he began writing for a living. In late 1927, Remarque wrote a first draft of All Quiet on the Western Front. He offered it to the most renowned publisher in the Weimar Republic, Samuel Fischer. Fischer rejected it, claiming that ten years after the war, nobody wanted to read about it anymore. The manuscript then reached the Ullstein publishers and Remarque was asked to revise his text, especially to tone down any anti-war statements.
On 10 November 1928, the Vossische Zeitung, part of the Ullstein group, published the first instalment of All Quiet on the Western Front. Five days later Remarque was sacked from his job with the weekly Sport im Bild. However, the novel’s success exceeded all expectations. Thousands of readers’ letters reached the newspaper evidencing that Remarque’s book hit a nerve with the public: an unvarnished portrayal of the war. It became an immediate bestseller in Germany and internationally. In 1929, it was translated into 26 languages.
Today there are editions in 50 languages, with an estimated circulation worldwide of tens of millions of copies. It is considered the anti-war book of the 20th century, written by a German. The title has become synonymous with the senselessness of war, the senselessness of ordinary people dying in the interests of profit and power.
In May 1933, Remarque had to flee Germany for Switzerland overnight, having been warned by a friend that he was in danger. He left Switzerland for the USA on the eve of World War II, and became a naturalised US citizen in 1947. He wrote his last novel Shadows in Paradise while living at 320 East 57th Street in New York and his apartment building “played a prominent role in his novel”.
In 1943, the Nazis arrested his youngest sister, Elfriede Scholz. She and her husband had stayed in Germany with their two children. She was found guilty of ‘unpatriotic’ views and was beheaded on 16 December 1943. Remarque only discovered what happened to her after the war, and dedicated his 1952 novel The Spark of Life to her. West German publishers omitted the dedication, as Remarque was still considered a traitor by many Germans. Although Remarque’s German citizenship was reinstated after the war, he remained isolated from German cultural life and died in Switzerland 50 years ago, on 25 September 1970.
All Quiet on the Western Front has lost none of its power. It is an outstandingly sensitive depiction of the effect murderous warfare has on the human psyche. We need more books like this.