The Spark of Life required five years to research and write since it deals with the lives of German political prisoners consigned to concentration camps, a subject about which Remarque knew nothing firsthand. Too weak to endure forced labor, the prisoners are installed in a small labor camp where their captors expect them to die within weeks.
The novel focuses upon Skeleton 509 and five other prisoners. Skeleton 509’s real name is Friedrich Koller, a former journalist, who refused to inform on people sought by the Gestapo. The others are Joseph Bucher (the son of a left-wing editor), Ruth Holland (Bucher’s girlfriend), Old Ahasver (an aged survivor of several camps), Leo Lebenthal (a former businessman), and Karel, a Czechoslovakian boy whose parents have died in Nazi gas chambers.
Contrasted with the inmates are their guards, notably the camp commander, Bruno Neubauer. Neubauer was once a minor civil servant who saw Nazism as the route to personal success; he epitomizes the banality of evil. Remarque traces in parallel with the main story the essential elements in the rise of Nazism. Through Surgeon Major Wiese, who conducts deadly medical experiments upon “volunteer” inmates, Remarque adds a dimension of science gone mad.
Remarque’s fictitious labor camp and its inmates form a microcosm of the perversions that characterized the Nazi regime: torture, dismemberment, cruel and bizarre medical experiments, and a grotesque array of other physical and psychological techniques designed to dehumanize “enemies of the state.”
Against this background, the novel’s impetus stems from the fact that Koller and other inmates realize that the Allied war against Germany is being won. A nearby town, Mellern (modeled precisely on Osnabrück), is bombed by Allied planes. Commandant Neubauer, in anticipation of the camp’s liberation by Allied troops, cosmetically changes its records and appearance. Surgeon Major Wiese no longer kills prisoners who fail to “volunteer” for his experiments. Camp guards become noticeably lenient.
Koller and the others seize the moment and mount a resistance. Koller slays Weber, the German guard who tortured him, and then is slain himself as the camp comes under the guards’ fire. There are survivors, however, like Joseph Bucher and Ruth Holland, whose lives justify the fight and testify to the spark of life that inspired Koller and his comrades to assert their right to exist.