The rapid popular success of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel after it appeared in January, 1929, attracted special attention from the political parties vying for ascendancy in Germany’s Weimar Republic. Reviews by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists ridiculed the novel as unauthentic, the work of an imaginative Jew intent on pulling down the ideal of heroism. German Marxists judged Remarque as ideologically noncommittal and insufficiently critical of the war it depicted. In Great Britain and Australia, criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front followed similar ideological lines.
In the United States Little, Brown published a version of All Quiet on the Western Front from which passages mentioning latrines and a scene of sexual encounter in a hospital were removed. This edition, which also softened the book’s raw language, was a Book-of-the-Month Club choice in 1929. The first unexpurgated American edition of the novel did not appear until 1975.
In 1930 an American film company, Universal Pictures, adapted All Quiet on the Western Front to the screen; both the film and its director, Lewis Milestone, won Academy Awards. When the film opened in Berlin, Germany, Joseph Goebbels led a group of Hitler Youth in a violent demonstration. Afterward the Weimar government found reasons to banish the film from Germany on aesthetic grounds. Three years later, after Hitler took power, the National Socialist government banned the novel from the country as well.
In a silent film version that was adapted for French-speaking audiences, scenes depicting the killing of a French soldier and a gathering of German soldiers and French women were removed. When the film was rereleased in the United States in 1938, an anti-Nazi prologue was added.
All Quiet on the Western Front earned Remarque international popularity and established his writing career on firm financial and literary foundations. By the time of his death in 1970, perhaps fifty million copies of the novel had been sold and it had been translated into fifty-five languages. In the 1990’s, it was still widely regarded by many readers and critics as the greatest war novel of the twentieth century. Others ranked it with several very different, but esteemed, German war novels, such as Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern (1920; Storm of Steel, 1975), Fritz von Unruh’s Der Opfergang (1919; Way of Sacrifice, 1928), and Ludwig Renn’s Krieg (1928; War, 1928).
All Quiet on the Western Front was Remarque’s therapy for the depression and sense of desperation that had plagued him since World War I. It is an unconventional work in several ways. It is episodic, almost documentary or diary-like in nature, and it lacks a consistent plot. The narrator and principal character, Paul Baumer, is a young German soldier who serves on the Western Front. A second narrator is introduced only at the end to announce Baumer’s death.
Baumer’s narration, Remarque confirmed later in an interview, provides a worm’s-eye view of war—the view of one common soldier and his comrades’ physical and psychological trials imposed by their horrific experiences. It is not a literal work. Scenes Baumer describes are not found in factual guides to battlefields, with their precise designations of troop positions. Remarque, in fact, was criticized for Baumer’s failure to be just that specific. Literal-minded criticism, however, misses the point. All Quiet on the Western Front is not Baumer’s description of war as what occurred in various places at specific times but describes war as a condition. Like the art that Remarque admired and later collected, All Quiet on the Western Front is impressionistic.
The novel consists of twelve brief chapters, which in the original version amount to only 288 pages. In each chapter, Baumer leads the reader along his descent into hell. Young and idealistic, he is inspired by a teacher’s patriotic exhortations to enlist. The shock of basic training is worsened by a sadistic drill sergeant, and the shocks grow more frequent and profound with his transfer to the front, to the ghastliness of trench warfare, and the influence of veterans for whom the sole value was survival. Baumer’s recording of patrols, attacks and counterattacks, gassings, artillery barrages, madness, desertion, dead and wounded comrades, hospitals, food, rats, and worse are narrated with laconic fatalism as he too becomes preoccupied with survival.
The narration is often “we” rather than “I.” Baumer’s comrades—such as Tjaden, the peat digger, Detering, the peasant, and Katczinsky, the unphilosophical veteran who watches over Baumer and younger soldiers as might a parent—are deftly sketched as working-class victims of Prussian officialdom. The murderous government is represented by its lowest social orders: Kantorek, the teacher, and Himmelstoss, the postman. Baumer and his comrades are all doomed. Remarque poignantly and subtly highlights this fact, successively describing a dying man’s boots, scenes of beauty, the troop’s bumbling plunder, bashful sex briefly managed behind the front, and Baumer’s home leave, which demonstrates to him that his experiences are beyond civilian comprehension. Remarque also employs contrasting, self-explanatory symbols: birds singing on the battlefield, cackling geese along a route of march, innocent horses wounded or slaughtered by artillery fire, the earth as a protecting mother, blossoms, and butterflies—the beauty Baumer is reaching for when shot dead.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a truthful novel but not a documentary or a memoir. Remarque’s characters and materials are well handled, and his vision of war as a mirror of the human condition engages readers with its authenticity.