What happens in All Quiet on the Western Front?
- Paul Bäumer and his friends are inspired to enlist in the German army by a patriotic teacher named Kantorek. Paul describes his experiences fighting for Germany in World War I, detailing the deplorable conditions of the trenches.
- Paul quickly becomes disenchanted with the war. His friends start dying one by one, and he loses faith in the cause he was once so passionate about.
- During a short leave, Paul realizes that the civilian population can't understand the true nature of war. His patriotic teacher is really a zealot leading boys to their deaths.
- A particularly comfortable and symbolic pair of boots gets passed down from soldier to soldier, signaling the imminent death of its new owner. Eventually, these boots are passed down to Paul, who dies while reaching for a butterfly.
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...
(The entire section is 903 words.)