Illustration of Paul Baumer in a German army uniform with a red background

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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Critical Overview

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When Erich Maria Remarque published his first novel serially in Berlin's magazine Vossische Zeitung (November 10 to December 9, 1928), he immediately aroused interest. Politically, he was considered a rather courageous new writer who dared to question the mechanical militaristic tendencies of the German state, and, artistically, he possessed a facility in written expression that used various rhetorical devices in an impressionistic mode. In short, he could not be perceived by his reading public as a run-of-the-mill war novel romantic. The work appeared the next year in English and sold a million and a half copies that same year and in time was translated into twenty-nine languages.

Initially, the book was enthusiastically received by critics for its realistic presentation of the war and what it meant to the average soldier. Joseph Wood Krutch of Nation centered his commentary on Remarque, noting that the author spoke from experience and that he avoided rhetoric (artificial eloquence in speech or writing) and analysis in favor of a simplicity so devastating "as to make the unspeakable commonplace." Favorable reviews also came from such luminaries as William Faulkner, Maxwell Geismar, and Bernard DeVoto. Louis Kronenberger, commenting in the New York Times Book Review, called the soldier's experience a kind of "Everyman's pilgrimage," a compressed and intensive coming-of-age story.

Clearly, Remarque's journalistic training contributed to the popular appeal of All Quiet on the Western Front. According to Brian A. Rowley, the book's "particular blend of suffering, sensuality and sentiment suggests that Remarque had gauged public taste. The horror and degradation of war is represented, but it is shown with irony, wit, and even humor." Remarque's command of "a clear but lively, indeed pungent, style," says the critic, "owe something to journalism."

On the other hand, contemporary critics of Remarque faulted his work for its first-person narrative style, sensationalism, and distortion. His work was also parodied. Yet the historical nature of this criticism reflects the fact that the work is not a piece of historical documentation from 1917, but a novel written in 1928. Remarque's preface is telling in this case. While it declares the novel to be a report on the generation destroyed by the war (whether or not they survived physically), the bulk of the preface portrays the war through the eyes of a sensitive and literary young man.

Eventually, All Quiet on the Western Front was attacked by certain factions in Europe, censored by the Nazis, and publicly burned by their regime in 1933 for its pacifist denunciation of the war. Remarque was accused of being a Marxist sympathizer, who besmirched the memory of heroes killed on the World War I battlefields. In 1938, Nazi Germany deprived Remarque of German citizenship. While he received hefty royalties, he received few honors, since a percentage of the German population continued to perceive his novel as denigrating German militarism.

Later twentieth-century criticism carries with it the perspective of greater cataclysms—World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War—and the advent of more horrific and powerful weapons, including the atom bomb, biological warfare, and computerized missiles. Rowley views Remarque's novel as a gradual "alienation from any world but that of war ... the sterility of [Baumer's] leave." Biographers Christine R. Barker and R.W. Last note that "Remarque succeeded in transcending his own personal situation; he touched on a nerve of his time, reflecting the experiences of a whole generation of young men on whom the war had left an indelible mark." Modris Eksteins observes that the book merged with the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) of 1929, when "war survivors searched for answers to their inmost disquietude." From a structural point of view, critics classify the book as a roman a clef (a thinly veiled autobiographical story), a stationroman (a book that centers on themes, without a plot), and a bildungsroman (the personal growth of the main character). German critic Hans Wagener finds that any reading of the novel requires an understanding of the time in which it was written and when it took place, and, as most critics concur, consider the book to be simply one of the best, if not the best, antiwar, pacifist novels ever written.

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