Arch of Triumph focuses upon the experiences of a German political refugee, known by his pseudonym, Ravic. Before escaping the Nazis, Ravic, whose real name is Ludwig Fresenburg, had been head surgeon in a German hospital. Having fled to Paris, Ravic illegally employed his medical skills as a “ghost” surgeon for two French doctors. Meanwhile in 1939, he was living relatively comfortably in a refugee hotel whose inhabitants represented a cross section of Russian, German-Jewish, and Spanish exiles.
The drama unfolds as Ravic meets and falls in love with Joan Madou, a beautiful but unpredictable woman. Their affair is seriously troubled and soon complicated by outside events. Ravic is arrested by the French police after rendering first aid to an accident victim and is deported to Switzerland. Months later, when he returns to Paris, Joan is living with an actor. As Ravic tries to reestablish his relationship with Joan, the jealous actor shoots her. Ravic’s surgical skills fail him as he tries to save her, and after reaffirming their love, Ravic, in order to end Joan’s agony, mercifully kills her by administering a lethal injection.
Joan is the second love that Ravic has lost to fate. In 1933, before his flight from Nazi Germany, Ravic and Sybil, his girlfriend, were arrested for helping friends flee the Gestapo. Ravic and Sybil were tortured by Haake, a Gestapo officer, before Ravic was sent to the concentration camp from which he later escaped to France. Sybil, presumably, dies. Until emotionally rescued by his subsequent love with Joan Madou, Ravic has a completely negative view of life. Ravic avenges himself against his Gestapo torturer when by chance he meets Haake in Paris and Ravic, unrecognized, is able to lure Haake to his death. After Haake’s death, Ravic acquires new inner strength. Although the symbol of France, the Arch of Triumph, is plunged into darkness with the outbreak of war, and although Ravic faces a grim future of internment, he nonetheless is emotionally equipped to survive.
Arch of Triumph, Remarque’s second most successful novel, continues one of the author’s favored themes about powerless and alienated individuals who find the inner strength for survival under totalitarian oppression.