Erich Maria Remarque Remarque, Erich Maria - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Erich Maria Remarque 1898–1970

(Born Erich Paul Remark) German-born novelist, playwright, journalist, poet, and essayist.

Remarque is considered one of the most important war novelists in contemporary literature. At one time he wrote articles on sports, travel, and the "good life" for various magazines. Critics dismissed Remarque because of the frivolous nature of many of these pieces. He also wrote two early novels and a collection of poems and essays which were virtually ignored by critics and readers before the publication of his highly-acclaimed war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. In this novel and the ones that followed, however, Remarque seems to disregard technique in his concern with illustrating the physical and spiritual doom of the First World War generation in Germany. Remarque's strengths as a writer are cited as the simple, direct language of the war novels—in contrast to the often violent subject matter—and his ability to create moving, realistic characters and situations, but some critics feel that his writing occasionally suffers from an emphasis on content.

Remarque is best remembered for All Quiet on the Western Front. Although an introductory paragraph states that the novel is supposed to represent the feelings of a whole generation, it actually deals only with those soldiers who learn to hate the futility and destruction of war. Initially All Quiet was enthusiastically received by critics for its realistic presentation of the war and what it meant to the average soldier. Eventually, however, the book was attacked by certain political factions in Europe for its pacifist denunciation of the war. All Quiet was one of the books publicly burned by the Nazi regime in 1933. Generally, though, Remarque's illustration of the inhumanity of war through the words and reactions of a common foot soldier is highly praised.

Because of political conflicts, Remarque moved to Switzerland in 1938, renouncing his German citizenship, and later became an American citizen. He continued to write about the war, particularly its aftereffects, but none of his later books received the critical acclaim of All Quiet. The Road Back, a sequel to All Quiet, recounts the collapse of the German army and the efforts of returning soldiers to adjust to civilian life. Arch of Triumph, the story of World War II refugees struggling to survive in Paris, is generally viewed as Remarque's only important novel after All Quiet. A Spark of Life, set in a concentration camp, is noted for its grim, moving depiction of one man's attempt to measure the amount of pain one can tolerate.

Critics often deny that Remarque's works have literary merit, citing the author's uneven writing style and frequent use of sensationalism. Nevertheless, Remarque's novels are still extremely popular with readers. Most importantly, however, Remarque will be remembered as a humanitarian decrying the brutality of war. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Richard Church

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Surely everyone, again and again, has asked himself with misgiving and horror what is this conspiracy of silence maintained by the men who returned from the War? For it is true that, in spite of the many professional books written, no convincing revelation has been made of the heroism, the treachery, the foul intimacies, the brutality and coarseness, the gradual moral, social, and emotional decay, which made up, with a myriad other happier factors, the story of the soldier's life in the trenches. One timidly and somewhat shamefacedly asks questions of the individuals who were there, and the courteous and interested replies are always evasive and hopeless. It is as though the men despair of making one see the first elements of that world; as though they are trying to make one understand a race, a scenery, even a law of gravitation, peculiar to another planet, and so incapable of explanation in terrestrial terms to terrestrial senses.

One, therefore, comes upon [All Quiet on the Western Front] and trembles. This is no literary trope; it is true. I read a few pages, and stopped. I returned, read on for a little, found myself living at last in that world forbidden to the civilian, and again I had to stop, gropingly trying to orientate my mind, my nervous organism, to the overwhelming experience re-enacted by the genius of this German soldier. It is not an armchair experience, a vicarious life in the library. It is three-dimensional, nay,...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Frank Ernest Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Erich Maria Remarque was a German soldier during the World War and has written a record of life in the trenches ["All Quiet on the Western Front"]….

[As] the terse story marches forward we encounter the things that other war books have made known to us: the trench mud, the lice, the ineradicable rats, the tension, noise, fear, pain, hunger, horror….

On this long pilgrimage, so often ghastly and ferocious, there is more than the routine of the trenches…. Perhaps most important there is the inner drama—the fever that rises and falls in the souls of the fighters as the war goes on. To this, indeed, the whole story is shaped—its sharply etched descriptions of suffering, endurance, grim humor and climactic event….

"All Quiet on the Western Front" will give any sensitive reader a terrific impact. It is a book that strikes a succession of hard, inescapable blows. In this sense it is a work of art. For only because of its economy of design, its compactness of episode and its trenchancy of utterance has it managed to fuse the almost unmanageable minutiae of war material into a narrative that has the lean savagery of an Ibsen tragedy. It pays in loss of color and sense of greatness for this concentration of utterance, yet the price is perhaps not too big….

One could quote much and poignantly from this record. There are the passages of vulgar humor, Germanic yet universal in...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Louis Kronenberger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In ["All Quiet on the Western Front"] it is the war as, in all its physical horror, it passed before the eyes of a twenty-year-old German private, an intelligent but not unusual boy who, with no preparation, with no fixed principles, was sent away to fight. We are told in a foreword that it is not to be a confession, or an accusation, or an adventure he chronicles, but the tale of a "generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war." They were destroyed because they were cut off from life before they had found a fixed scheme for living….

[The] sense, less of being uprooted than of never possessing roots, is the governing motif of the book, the tragedy that Paul Bäumer and all his fellows instantly recognized and that has proved itself in the ten years since the war. Here are boys bewildered not only by war, but also by lacking standards to which they can revert in a psychological escape from war….

One may see how badly the war upset these lives and yet realize that theirs was not the supreme torture. For this soldiery of whom Remarque, through Paul Bäumer, writes took the war more unflinchingly, more directly, in a certain sense more phlegmatically, than many other participants. Certainly they saw it in all its physical horror, and in "All Quiet" we have a picture of that physical horror unsurpassed for vividness, for reality, for convincingness, which lives and...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "All Quiet on the Western Front"] a German tells in three hundred simple and vivid pages that same "truth about the war" which his fellows on the other side have already told: War is an interminable, exhausting, and nightmarish business without alleviation or purpose. The soldier is prepared by the gratuitous brutality of the training camp for the necessary brutality of the trenches, and, once he has been launched in his trade, there is no variety except in the kinds of misery.

Remarque tells his plain tale with a sort of naivete which is the result, not of too little experience, but of too much. He has given up rhetoric because it is inadequate and given up analysis because he has gone through more than can ever be analyzed. He must be content to record with a simplicity which is terrible because it could never have been arrived at except through an experience so long as to make the unspeakable commonplace….

"All Quiet on the Western Front" is the German equivalent of [Anders] Latzko, [Henri] Barbusse, and [John] Dos Passos. Inferior to none of the others in vividness or power it is, like them, not only impressive in itself but still more so when taken in conjunction with its fellows. Four men of different race, education, and temperament are thrown into the same great catastrophe. Each, victor and vanquished alike, returns to his own home and each reports, not only men and events, but moods and manners, so...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

The New York Times Book Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The world has gained a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. Of that there can be no longer any question. On the two themes which he has thus far chosen, Remarque has surpassed all his contemporaries. "All Quiet on the Western Front" justly won its place as the best picture of the common soldier in the war to be done in any language; now, in "The Road Back," Remarque has given the most powerful handling it has had to the story of that soldier in the post-war years. "The Road Back" is a finer book than "All Quiet," a book that drops like a plummet into the hearts of men….

It is a finer book than "All Quiet," first of all because it is a book with a wider vision, with a fuller range of life for its...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

William Faulkner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a victory beyond defeat which the victorious know nothing of. A bourne, a shore of refuge beyond the lost battles, the bronze names and the lead tombs, guarded and indicated not by the triumphant and man-limbed goddess with palm and sword, but by some musing and motionless handmaiden of despair itself….

It is the defeat which, serving him against his belief and his desire, turns him back upon that alone which can sustain him: his fellows, his racial homogeneity; himself; the earth, the implacable soil, monument and tomb of sweat.

This is beyond the talking, the hard words, the excuses and the reasons; beyond the despair…. Victory requires no explanation. It is in itself...

(The entire section is 700 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Remarque's range is limited, but within it he has no superior among living novelists. One skill he has conspicuously, an ability to make commonplaces evoke the profoundest emotion, to focus immensities through the smallest and simplest details…. In "Three Comrades," his new novel about the Germany of 1928, a gang fight between two garage staffs over the possession of a wrecked automobile comes close to epitomizing ten years of human and social deterioration. When Lenz, one of the three comrades, is killed for no reason except the impulse of a storm-trooper, one of the "young bastards who were still in their cradles then," he is buried in his old uniform blouse with the blood-stains and shrapnel tears of an earlier...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

J. Donald Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The qualities which distinguish Remarque as a writer are abundantly displayed in "Three Comrades." Simplicity and strength, humor and tenderness, a poet's sensitive reactions both to the things that are tangible and to those that are not—all these have been united in his work from the beginning, but to them there is added now, I think, a growing power of characterization. The people of "Three Comrades" are more fully depicted than those of Remarque's two earlier books, and there is evident for the first time the power to build up the story of the unfolding of a human relationship—for "Three Comrades" has for its focus one of the most poignant love stories that have been told in our time.


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Goronwy Rees

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Herr Remarque has the high merit of being very readable; yet [Three Comrades] is a failure. It has three themes, comradeship, love, and their contrast with the futility of life and the horror of the War that is over and yet continues; for Herr Remarque cannot forget the War…. [His] intense obsession with an important and universal subject gives Herr Remarque dignity, though the intellect will not accept his book; indeed, it is perhaps precisely the feeling that "the living seem more shadowy than they" which makes the ostensible subject of his book less real than the shadow which falls across it.

The girl herself is a shadow, an angel-shadow, the darling object of love, the subject of...

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Ben Ray Redman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Remarque's subject [in "Flotsam"] is profoundly important and alive with tragedy: the fate of the exiles, the refugees, the many thousands who have been made homeless in recent years because of race or political sentiments. It is from Hitler's Germany that most of these unfortunates have been uprooted, and it is with Hitler's victims that "Flotsam" is chiefly concerned….

Remarque has fully depicted or briefly illuminated almost every aspect of the exile's life, with the very different responses of very different characters to a common fate. He has painted an animated, changing gallery of haunting portraits. The episodes that he has selected for the elaboration of his theme range from the horrible,...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

William K. Pfeiler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neither in length, scope, nor importance can the work of Erich Maria Remarque, whose novel, Im Westen nichts Neues [All Quiet on the Western Front] (1928), became a world sensation, be compared to the epic achievement of [Arnold] Zweig. Its success will perhaps never be satisfactorily explained, but one fact seems certain: it cannot be due exclusively to extraordinary merit.

Remarque is an artist. By his impressionistic talent he knows how to draw characters and situations that engage attention and arouse deepest sympathy. His language is versatile and concise; his narrative is rich in contrast of situations and reflections, and his composition is done with a brilliant stage technique. Lyric...

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Robert Pick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In our own time there have been few, if any, parallels to the instantaneous success of "All Quiet on the Western Front"—and as the author of that novel, Remarque has ever since 1929 enjoyed international fame. It was not easy to place him as a literary figure, or even to balance the literary merits of his triumphant first novel against the courage of its humanitarian appeal. Remarque's art had not broadened in his later efforts; the book preceding ["Arch of Triumph"] came close to being a failure. It is gratifying now to receive from his pen a volume—his fifth—which possesses many of the characteristics of a great novel. At any rate, it is one of those rare books which, fated for bestsellerdom, will at the same...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Charles Poore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Arch of Triumph"] is a novel of Europeans between wars yet forced to be perpetually at war, a novel that is animated by a spirit of savage disillusionment toward this last war before it had even begun, foreseeing the war's caprices and disasters.

"Arch of Triumph" is a part of Erich Maria Remarque's somber, stylized panorama of modern Europe's broken and dispossessed, begun in "All Quiet on the Western Front," continued in "The Road Back," "Three Comrades"" and "Flotsam," and now given a classic setting and told in the classic way, a story of exiles in a land of exiles. It makes absorbing reading, though it is sometimes overcontrived; it is briskly paced, though the lacquered writing lacks the...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Orville Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Remarque in all his works has shown his fierce concern with the major issues of our time, war and collapsing social structures and the tragedy of exile. Arch of Triumph is a story of exiles in Paris in 1939, which illuminates with masterly skill all the despair and misery, the sense of impending doom, the folly, futility and fear of that lull before the storm. It is a sad and melancholy book, a tired and disillusioned one. But because it is steeped in a stoic atmosphere of fortitude in adversity, it is not without an affirmative faith of a grim and ironic sort.

Through the eyes of a refugee German surgeon Mr. Remarque shows us Paris as a city: its grimy night life, its desperate poor, its...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Quentin Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Spark of Life" is a grim, agonizing but terribly wonderful story of what happened to the political and religious nonconformists in Hitler's Germany. It concerns itself with the horrible reality of a concentration camp as it was in 1945, but the six years that have intervened are not strong enough to dilute the importance of his theme. Remarque is crying angrily, "Watch out or this may again come to pass. Be on guard against those who would curb your liberties, for this is the inevitable result."

"Spark of Life" is a book which is hard to read; it is a book that once begun is impossible to put down. Once you know the tragic remnants of humanity who, too weak to work, are segregated to die in what was...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Frederic Morton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Only the unhappy man appreciates happiness. The happy man … displays it merely." These are words spoken in "Three Comrades," the novel by Erich Maria Remarque which would seem farthest from his latest because it is set in peace and relates young men's revels. Yet they are words that would make an accurate epigraph to "A Time to Love and a Time to Die," as well as to every other major work Remarque has written. As he returns, for the first time since "All Quiet on the Western Front," to the stench and terror of bomb shelter and infantry trench, it becomes apparent that he has never really left them. All his stories are moral, if not physical, war novels; all his heroes soldiers that dream of peace….


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Maxwell Geismar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A central "school" in modern fiction has been made up of writers who have considered themselves the outlaws and outcasts of modern society…. In the Forties and Fifties the tone of this literature had shifted from the tragic to the satirical: the comedy or farce of social desperation.

Erich Remarque's ["The Black Obelisk"] fits perfectly into this new category. The scene is the post-World-War-I Germany of economic inflation….

Whether it is great literature, is difficult to know; but it is such good reading that I am suspicious of it. The first half of the novel, at least, is a brilliant tragi-comedy of these poor provincial souls who have become so desperate as to be both...

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The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Black Obelisk] is set in a small city in Germany in 1923, when the effects of the First World War are still cruelly felt and the signs of the war to come are growing clear. Ludwig Bodmer, twenty-five years old and a war veteran, has taken up life again in his native city and is scraping a living as the advertising manager of a tombstone firm…. Bodmer, who tells his own story in the present tense, is a man of singularly attractive personality. His view of life is tough, romantic, sympathetic, and amused. He feels anger at the injustice and despair he observes all around him, but he refuses to allow his anger to spread into a habit of daily bitterness. It is doubtful whether he can ever be sour. He has the...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Maxwell Geismar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In some respects Erich Maria Remarque has had a curious career, but it is a great tribute to this aging literary veteran of World War I that now, at the age of 66, he has produced what may be his best novel. A famous European counterpart to Hemingway, Remarque has, through the years, almost converted a handsome minor talent into a major one; whereas Hemingway almost reduced his own large talent into a more limited one.

At least I think "The Night in Lisbon" is Remarque's most brooding and thoughtful novel; it is the novel most involved with the destiny of 20th-century man. It is the novel in which the artist most fully comes to grip with the meaning of his own life and his own historical period, and...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Melvin Maddocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On its lacquered surface, Shadows in Paradise shows all the familiar Remarque gloss. There is the typically commercial title, second only to Heaven Has No Favorites. There is the often wordy dialogue—pretentiously sophisticated, as if spoken by an impostor duke. There is the slightly too chic setting: in this case, places like El Morocco, the fashion-and-art salons of New York and the swimming pools of Hollywood in 1944.

A young German wearing the new name of Robert Ross has just arrived in America, the victim of both French and German concentration camps. He is, as Remarque must put it, "an Orestes pursued by the distant cries of the Furies." How will this creature of survival be...

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Robert W. Haney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Except for a few scenes set in Hollywood, Robert Ross, the principal character in ["Shadows in Paradise"], explores and uses the sights, sounds and people of Manhattan, as Remarque himself knew them in the closing years of the Second World War.

For readers of our own time, all-too-conscious of what has become of Gotham or, if you will, Mayor Lindsay's inadvertently ironic "Fun City," Remarque's title smacks of poignancy, if not sarcasm….

But we soon discover that what the title suggests to us is not at all what the author intends. For Ross and his friends, New York is indeed a paradise; so, too, are whatever other portions of America that they know. They themselves are the...

(The entire section is 395 words.)

Michael O'Malley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The way [Andrew] Wyeth paints: no thunder in his picture, just a modulation of blues to make you see the sky's a bit strange and, like a letter shoved under the door, the dog's white muzzle lifted to the far-off sound. Truth got at sideways to ease the pain in it. Quick storms of terror flash past in [Shadows in Paradise] and suddenly are gone, like eerie tableaux set into the wall of the subway….

I think that Remarque, in this last of his novels …, was trying—with a noble disdain for pathos—to face what it was to be a thinking German in the time of his life. He comes through as a tough, brilliant, sophisticated realist: another of those who teach us that even though indictments do no...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Brian A. Rowley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) is one of the most surprising phenomena in the history of literature. Its commercial success was unparalleled….

But the novel was not simply a best-seller. It also became a focus of intellectual and, indeed, of political life. Immediately upon its appearance, it provided a casus belli for the battle, in the Germany of 1929, between militarists and pacifists, right wing and left. (p. 101)

[The] reasons for the success of All Quiet are likely to be somewhat more complex than is commonly supposed.

On the one hand, timing is obviously of significance. The interval of ten years since the war...

(The entire section is 1660 words.)

Modris Eksteins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Between 1928 and 1930 Germany and Great Britain especially, and France and America to a lesser extent, experienced a sudden and remarkable 'boom' in war books, plays, and films. For a decade after the end of the war, publishers, theatre directors, and film makers had treated war material gingerly, viewing it as a poor commercial proposition, on the assumption that the public wished, contrary to annual remembrance day exhortations, to forget the war…. What some felt to have been a 'conspiracy of silence' was shattered with a vengeance. (p. 345)

Interestingly, no one has … investigated the war boom. This article will do so, but from a particular vantage point; that of a novel which stood at the...

(The entire section is 1609 words.)