Banned Books Week: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
by Marcel Krueger
No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Remarque, Erich Kästner!
– Joseph Goebbels, 10 May 1933, Berlin
In 1930, the Neues Schauspielhaus (New Theatre) on Nollendorfplatz in Berlin drew the attention of Nazi brownshirts for showing the premiere of an American movie. The thugs disrupted the German by releasing hundreds of white mice in the cinema, throwing stink bombs and beating up fleeing punters.
The film that caused so much trouble at the cinema, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), was based on the 1929 novel of the same name by prolific German writer Erich Maria Remarque (1898 – 1970). Remarque was conscripted into the Kaiser’s army and served on the Western Front in Belgium, where in 1917 he was wounded and spent the rest of the war in an army hospital. After his release from hospital, he worked a number of different jobs and moved to Berlin in 1925, living initially in a number of small flats across the city. His choice of accommodation however soon changed, after the 1929 publication of All Quiet on the Western Front. The book retells the experience of German soldiers in the trenches of World War I in a way that – judging by the 2.5 million copies sold in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print – not only spoke to German veterans but to all soldiers who had fought in World War I. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who—urged on by his school teacher—joins the German army, and is subsequently sent to fight on the Western front of World War I. Here he witnesses all the madness and horror of industrialised warfare, the aloofness of the commanding officers and the camaraderie that is shared by soldiers on all sides destined to become canon fodder. In 1918, Paul is killed on day about which the official army report from the frontline simply states: “All quiet on the Western Front.”
But it is not the harrowingly realistic depiction of war in the trenches that makes this book so outstanding and have kept it in print until today, but the fact that Remarque saw through all the propaganda and nationalist slogans of his time that were (again) pitting Germans against the French. He made the shared experience of the soldiers on both sides of the front a key part of the pacifist message of his book, as exemplified by this passage where Paul contemplates the man he has just killed:
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?
The book immediately established Remarque as one of the most popular writers of his day, helped along by his film star looks and penchant for affairs and high-profile relationships with actresses like Hedy Lamarr, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. In 1931, after publishing a sequel to his bestseller called The Road Back, Remarque bought a villa in Switzerland and left Berlin for good. Like the writings of so many of his contemporaries, his books were burned by the Nazis two years later. A fine thing that we can still read it today.