Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892
Article abstract: Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, a realistic account of a soldier’s life during World War I, was perhaps the most widely read and highly influential war novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Erich Paul Remark, as he was known before changing his name to Erich Maria Remarque in 1920, was born on June 22, 1898, in Osnabrück, Germany. His father was a bookbinder. The family was poor and moved often; as a result, young Erich attended several different schools.
Remarque was talented in music, art, and literature, and even thought to become a professional musician. Instead, he chose to enter teacher’s training. In 1916, before he was able to begin his career as a teacher, he was drafted into the army at a time when World War I was raging. He was sent to Flanders on the western front. On July 31, 1917, he was wounded and sent to a hospital to recover. Remarque’s mother, who had been ill for some time with cancer, died while her son was in the hospital. This death appears to have profoundly affected Remarque.
During his hospital stay, Remarque began his writing career, completing a novel called Die Traumbude (1920; the dream room). The novel was published after the war, and Remarque had to sell his piano to cover printing costs. The novel, a sentimental and romantic account of his circle of friends, later proved an embarrassment to Remarque, who found the writing to be lacking in quality and maturity.
After his release from the hospital, Remarque had some trouble with authorities for wearing a lieutenant’s uniform and medals he had not earned. By all accounts a handsome young man, the medal incident demonstrated Remarque’s tendency toward flamboyance. During the early 1920’s, Remarque had several jobs before becoming an editor of Sport Im Bild (sport in pictures) in 1925. It was at this time that he married Jutta Ilse Zambona, his first wife.
While at Sport Im Bild, Remarque began publishing articles and stories. No one could have predicted from these, however, that he would produce a work of such stature as Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929). Reportedly, Remarque began to suffer from depression in 1927. He attributed his depressed state to his war experiences and found that many of his former comrades were also suffering negative emotional effects. Consequently, he began working on All Quiet on the Western Front for cathartic purposes. He believed that if he committed his memories to paper, he could overcome the depression they caused. The book was completed in six weeks, but Remarque was unable to find a publisher for it. Initially, All Quiet on the Western Front was serialized in the paper Vossische Zeitung in November and December of 1928 and excited a great deal of public interest.
Remarque attempted to describe his project in the brief preface to All Quiet on the Western Front: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” For Remarque, the most important message of his novel was that war destroys more men than it kills.
Remarque set All Quiet on the Western Front during the last two years of World War I along the German lines in France. During this time, the Germans were losing strength just as the Americans entered the war. The novel tells the story of young Paul Bäumer and his acquaintances who enlist in the German army at the urging of their teacher, Kantorek. The young recruits soon learn that war is not the glorious, heroic experience their elders have proclaimed but is instead a brutal, futile business. Remarque’s story is told from the point of view of a German foot soldier; however, his descriptions of the horrors of war transcend national boundaries. Allied and German veterans alike recognized their experiences in Remarque’s novel.
In the opening chapters of All Quiet on the Western Front, the young men spend most of their time behind the front lines recalling the past. Although they have become fairly cynical, they have not yet been subjected to the horrors of trench warfare. Then they participate in a horrendous battle that Remarque describes in graphic detail. After this first battle, Paul goes home on leave. While at home, he begins to realize that he can no longer communicate with members of his family or with others at home who have not experienced the war. Ironically, it is the visit home that demonstrates the isolation of the frontline soldier; his experiences in the war render him unable to live among the people he is fighting for. Paul returns to the front after a wrenching farewell with his mother, who is dying of cancer. From this point until the end of the book, the men are engaged in almost constant fighting. Most of the main characters die. Paul can no longer find any meaning in life. All events and all deaths seem meaningless and random, and he loses hope. He also knows that those who will suffer most from the war are the ones who survive it. Finally, on a day very nearly at the end of the war, a day when all is quiet, Paul is killed by a random bullet.
After its serialization, All Quiet on the Western Front was published in book form in January, 1929, and was an immediate best-seller. Some attribute the success of the book to the massive publicity campaign undertaken by the publisher prior to the book’s release. However, most critics agree that the book touched a nerve among not only the German people but also veterans all over the world. Although the book was wildly popular, it generated considerable controversy. As a result of his book’s publication, Remarque became the subject of intense media and political scrutiny. Most notably, the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party, or the Nazi Party, rabidly criticized the book for its pacifist philosophy and for its supposedly negative picture of German soldiers. Remarque was accused of being a French Jew whose name was really “Kramer” (Remark spelled backward). In fascist Italy, the book was banned almost as soon as it was printed. In 1933, the Nazis publicly burned the book.
In addition, a German-born American filmmaker Carl Laemmle acquired the rights to All Quiet on the Western Front soon after its publication. By 1930, the motion picture version was released to instant critical and commercial acclaim. The film, starring Lew Ayres and Lewis Milestone, won several Academy Awards and is considered to be a landmark in filmmaking.
Meanwhile, Remarque began working on his next book, a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front called Der Weg zurück (1931; The Road Back, 1931). In this book, he follows a group of veterans after the war, demonstrating the ways in which their lives had been destroyed. The novel was not the commercial success of All Quiet on the Western Front and received a more positive critical response in the United States than it did in Germany. After completing the book, Remarque realized that the growing power of the Nazis endangered him. After moving his money out of Germany, he moved to Switzerland, where he remained until 1939. During this time, he and his wife divorced, only to remarry in order to expedite her emigration from Germany. In 1938, the Germans took away his German citizenship.
While in Switzerland, Remarque continued his writing career, publishing a novel entitled Drei Kameraden (1938; Three Comrades, 1937). The German edition of the book was published in Amsterdam, Holland, as were many novels by German émigré writers. In this novel, Remarque details the lives of three Germans between the years 1923 and 1930, again returning to themes of friendship and displacement that had so marked his earlier work. Film versions of both The Road Back (1937) and Three Comrades (1938) were made in the United States and enjoyed commercial, if not critical, success.
In 1939, Remarque moved to the United States, living first in Los Angeles, California, and then New York City. During these years he wrote a number of novels and worked as a screenwriter. After divorcing Jutta Ilse Zambona a second time, he married the actor Paulette Goddart in 1958. The couple spent their time in New York, Italy, and Switzerland. In 1970, after a period of failing health, the seventy-two-year-old writer died in a hospital in Locarno, Switzerland.
Erich Maria Remarque was certainly not the most talented writer of his generation, nor has all of his work stood the test of time. Indeed, without All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque might be relegated to the status of an interesting period writer. Further, while critics may not view All Quiet on the Western Front as one of the greatest works of literature produced during the twentieth century, none deny that it is an extremely important book. Thus, the impact of All Quiet on the Western Front on society, politics, film, and literature confers on Remarque a higher status than he might otherwise have achieved. Throughout the novel, Remarque provides a ghastly look at the realities of war. Perhaps more important, this book has come to define the experience of World War I not only for Germans but also for all who fought in the war. Like its predecessor, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), All Quiet on the Western Front stands as a monument to those destroyed by the war.
Barker, Christine R., and R. W. Last. Erich Maria Remarque. London: Oswald Wolff, 1979. A solid, thorough introduction to Remarque’s life and work. The writers argue that Remarque’s best quality as a writer is his “overt admission” that the meaning of life is beyond human understanding.
Firda, Richard. Erich Maria Remarque: A Thematic Analysis of His Novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. Although the book claims to analyze Remarque’s novels, it generally provides little more than plot summaries. However, it provides a good deal of useful biographical detail and is especially useful in its discussion of Remarque’s later novels.
Owen, C. R. Erich Maria Remarque: A Critical Bio-Biography. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1984. Although this source provides little direct information on Remarque (apart from introductory materials), it is of considerable use to students assembling materials on Remarque’s life and work.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by A. W. Wheen. Boston: Little, Brown, 1929. An autobiographical novel of World War I based on Remarque’s experiences in the trenches of the Western Front. Any student studying Remarque should begin with this work, his masterpiece.
Taylor, Harley U. Erich Maria Remarque: A Literary and Film Biography. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. An accessible introduction to Remarque’s life. Although the book provides adequate plot summaries of the novels, it offers little analysis. It is most useful in its treatments of the film versions of Remarque’s novels.
Wagener, Hans. Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. University of South Carolina Press, 1991. A well-balanced, well-written introduction to Remarque’s work. The book includes a full chapter on All Quiet on the Western Front and emphasizes the theme of exile that runs through Remarque’s novels.
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