Erich Maria Remarque World Literature Analysis
Remarque’s creative life was encompassed by World War I and the collapse of imperial Germany, the atrophy of German democracy in the 1920’s, the rise of Nazism, and the outbreak of World War II. These historic episodes were unprecedented in human experience. Western values, where they survived, were continuously under political and intellectual assaults for more than half a century. Remarque’s novels focus on the plights of ordinary men and women—common soldiers, demobilized and alienated veterans, displaced persons, political exiles, and victims of totalitarian regimes. His characters are people uprooted from their pasts. Unable to turn backward for strength, they lose a sense of who they are. They live constantly in harm’s way. The hazards to which they are exposed and their helplessness cause them to question whether life has any meaning.
This was Remarque’s question, one to which he had an answer (no) confirmed by the cataclysmic events of his times. Scholars and critics who have examined Remarque’s works disagree about his contributions to literature. They agree overwhelmingly, however, that he had abandoned most of his faith in humanity even before the Nazis’ acquisition of power in 1933 and that any faith he may have retained disappeared after that. Remarque quite specifically surrendered hope in the humanity of Germans. He believed that Nazism and its horrors were manifestations of a Faustian bargain, which, figuratively, the Germans had struck with history.
Since life had no meaning for Remarque, his novels are filled with ironies and paradoxes that he considered integral to existence. Through his characters he hammered the theme that life is unfair, that good things happen to bad people, and that humanity’s dreams and its hopes for miracles were bound to be dashed. Remarque’s stories are rich in contradictions and opposing symbols. In All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, he draws a sharp contrast between the fighting front and conditions at home. In Der Funke Leben (1952; The Spark of Life, 1952), the contrast is between the lives of concentration camp inmates and those of people who live in a white house on a nearby hill, which to them symbolizes order and hope. When they are liberated, it proves to have been an illusion. Similarly, in Schatten in Paradies (1971; Shadows in Paradise, 1972), Remarque’s antithesis is between the precarious existence of refugees and the unrealities of the American paradise. In Drei Kameraden (1938; Three Comrades, 1937) and Der Himmel kennt keine Günstlinge (1961; Heaven Has No Favorites, 1961, also known as Bobby Deerfield, 1961), his juxtaposition is between the town and the sanatorium, while in Der schwarze Obelisk (1956; The Black Obelisk, 1957), it is between the town and the asylum. Remarque’s characters are full of contradictions and are almost uniformly unable to make sense out of these opposites.
Given his perception of life, Remarque avoided using his novels as petitions for or against any political ideology. Still, his work does incorporate observations—numerous ones in fact—about the chief political, social, and economic issues of his time. To the extent—and it is considerable—that he deals with the plights of refugees, with unemployment, with the devastations wrought by totalitarianism (and all other forms of political extremism), and with the lives of underdogs in materialistic societies, he was a political author. Critics often excoriated him for his failure to grapple directly with the grand philosophical and ideological problems of his times. By way of answer, Remarque made it clear in his writings that philosophical debates and ideologies simply magnified the cruelties that were already endemic to life. At the same time, he spoke to humanistic values and individual dignity as they endured in this context.
Remarque sought to be a spokesman for his generation of Europeans, so many of them oppressed, disillusioned, war weary, and adrift from their traditions. In this capacity, he is an eminently readable author and therefore a popular one. His novels often sold by the millions. They were translated into scores of languages and in some instances were transformed into film classics. Such success is what many critics considered damning evidence of his works being Unterhaltungsliteratur—mere recreational reading. Remarque attracted his readership, however, because his narratives were honest and authentic and because his style was dramatic and compelling.
Critics accurately noted Remarque’s weaknesses, such as his lapses into clichés, flawed or repetitive plottings, and sentimentality. What some critics and many readers found engaging about Remarque’s writings was that he raised questions important to them—to which, wisely, he supplied few answers. His generation of Europeans had had many wrong answers forced upon them. Remarque went to the heart of their experiences by affirming that answers to humanity’s questions were as insubstantial as dreams. Nothing, he noted, was ever really possessed, and life ended in the oblivion of death. In the interim, everyone is alone.
All Quiet on the Western Front
First published: Im Westen nichts Neues, 1929 (English translation, 1929)
Type of work: Novel
A young, once idealistic German soldier and his comrades are plunged into a war that devastates their values and destroys them.
All Quiet on the Western Front...
(The entire section is 2291 words.)