All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the world’s most successful novels. Within months after its appearance, it was widely translated and distributed, and some four decades later its author observed that the work had been translated into almost fifty languages and had a circulation of twenty to thirty million copies, including so-called pirated editions. Only in the degree of its popularity, however, was this book exceptional among Erich Maria Remarque’s works, for Arch of Triumph and The Night in Lisbon were also best sellers, and more than half of his novels, as well as a short story, have been adapted into films.
Remarque’s choice of subject matter explains the primary reason for his appeal. In his novels set against the background of the world wars, issues such as personal moral responsibility and military subordination, war guilt, and pacifism are treated from the perspective of the soldier. His novels set in the Weimar Republic depict the dislocation and disorientation of that era, a time of inflation, unemployment, and political unrest. Finally, his exile novels depict the fate of emigrants and exiles from Hitler’s Third Reich.
The interest evoked by Remarque’s choice of subject is heightened by a streamlined, uncomplicated style that moves quickly and lends itself with an objective, semidocumentary tone to the excitement of automobile racing, the suspense of chase and pursuit, the stark horror of war, or the brutalities of a concentration camp. Consistent with the author’s technique are characters drawn with such simplicity that they appear without betraying any insight into their internal lives or psychological motivations.
The ease with which Remarque’s works can be read has influenced his critical reception in Germany, as has the magnitude of his commercial success. In Germany, his novels are classified as Unterhaltungsliteratur (entertainment literature), a rubric with pejorative aesthetic connotations. Nevertheless, critics are uneasy with such an evaluation, for the author’s style is not banal, and moral issues are not trivialized in his work. Among readers not bound by critical predispositions, such as his English-language audience, for example, Remarque’s work is more highly regarded.