Stresses the Futility of War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Written by a participant in World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, with its vivid descriptions of the horror and waste of armed conflict as well as of the humanity and comradeship of the combatants, became a powerful antiwar statement.

Summary of Event

In August, 1914, after the longest period of uninterrupted peace in European history up to that time (forty-three years), Germany plunged the world into war. Four years of slaughter brought unheard-of human and material loss. Of all the nations involved, Germany, with 1.8 million dead, suffered the greatest number of casualties. [kw]All Quiet on the Western Front Stresses the Futility of War (Jan., 1929) [kw]War, All Quiet on the Western Front Stresses the Futility of (Jan., 1929) All Quiet on the Western Front (novel by Remarque) Antiwar literature;All Quiet On the Western Front (Remarque) [g]Germany;Jan., 1929: All Quiet on the Western Front Stresses the Futility of War[07200] [c]Literature;Jan., 1929: All Quiet on the Western Front Stresses the Futility of War[07200] Remarque, Erich Maria Goebbels, Joseph Soschka, Cyrill Zambona, Jutta Ilse

Erich Maria Remarque.

(Library of Congress)

After the war’s end, two general currents of thought emerged in German life and literature. The first promoted militaristic, belligerent, authoritarian beliefs. The second, profoundly pacifistic, denounced militarism and war.

A full decade after World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];literature ended, Erich Maria Remarque, who was destined to become a leading figure of pacifism, published an influential, controversial, and successful novel about trench warfare, written from a German perspective. Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929) is semiautobiographical, recounting many of the author’s experiences as a World War I infantryman.

Although christened Erich Paul Remark in 1898, the author changed his name over the years, first substituting his mother’s middle name for his own a year after her death in 1917. In 1920, he published a novel so poorly received that the embarrassment caused him to adopt his great-grandfather’s spelling of the family name.

In 1916, when Remarque was an eighteen-year-old student at a teacher’s college, he was drafted; he received military training at the Westerberg barracks in Osnabrück (the “Klosterberg” of All Quiet on the Western Front). In June, 1917, he was assigned to a trench unit near the western front and was devastated when a friend whom he had rescued on the battlefield died of head wounds (an incident reflected in the death of the character named Stanislaus Katczinsky in the novel). After another daring rescue, Remarque himself was severely injured by grenade splinters and spent almost a year recuperating.

The war changed Remarque forever. He gained an appreciation for the value and fragility of life, saw the futility and destructiveness of war, and became disillusioned with patriotism and the glorification of battle. Against the background of the horrors of combat, civilian life seemed trivial. These attitudes and beliefs were translated into the messages of All Quiet on the Western Front.

For the next few years following the war (amid shortages, inflation, unemployment, and extremist politics), Remarque had a difficult time, as did many. He ridiculed the war, wandered from job to job, married, became a regular in Berlin society, and finally took a job as an associate editor of a sports magazine. In 1927, Remarque began to publish a number of pieces that reflected his love of cars and motor racing. During the latter part of that year, over a six-week period, All Quiet on the Western Front was written. The manuscript, however, remained in Remarque’s desk for six months before he submitted it for publication.

At first, publishers were not interested. Finally, Cyrill Soschka, manager of the production department of Ullstein Publishers, read the book and believed that it would be successful. In fact, Soschka threatened to establish his own firm just to publish Remarque’s novel if no one else would.

The new war novel was first serialized in a German newspaper owned by Ullstein, Vossische Zeitung, between November 10 and December 9, 1928. The novel appeared in book form in January, 1929, and was translated into English that same year. The overnight success of the book astonished everyone, including Remarque himself, and irrevocably altered the course of his life. The previously unknown journalist became a wealthy, world-famous author.

Remarque claimed that he had not set out to write a best seller but had written instead to rid himself of the bleak moods that he and his friends were still experiencing as a result of the war. He said that the shadow of war had continued to hang over them, especially when they tried to shut their minds to it. Thus, as a kind of cathartic enterprise, the novel tells the story of a generation of young men who were destroyed by World War I—even if they survived the fighting. Remarque narrates the tale through the main character, Paul Bäumer.

Although the book was instantly popular, it generated such tremendous controversy in some circles that Remarque was accused of writing solely to shock and to sell. Others believed the book was nothing more than sentimentalism or pacifistic drivel.

Ignoring it as a work of literature, the Nazis regarded the book as an insult to and an attack on the greatness of the Germany they wanted to control. Remarque’s ideas were antithetical to the Nazis’ ideology and intended course of action. To the Nazis, the novel seemed to symbolize the beliefs of men who had stabbed Germany in the back by conceding defeat in a war the Nazis claimed their country should have won.

The Nazis tried to undermine Remarque’s popularity by spreading rumors about his credibility, claiming that he was, among other things, a French Jew (apparently the worst combination of traits the Nazis could imagine) or an old man who had never seen battle. Leading the attack was Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s chief propagandist.

In 1931, Remarque published a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front based on his and his friends’ experiences after they returned from the front. Titled Der Weg zurück (The Road Back, 1931), Road Back, The (Remarque) it further angered the Nazis. During this period, the author and his first wife, Jutta Ilse Zambona, a young actor, lived in Berlin. After Nazi persecution forced Remarque to leave in 1931, the couple divorced in 1932. (They later remarried, but they divorced again in 1951.) Remarque emigrated to Switzerland, bought a villa at Porto Ronco on Lake Maggiore, and began filling it with valuable antiques; he also spent a great deal of time in France and the United States, both before and after World War II.

Remarque’s fame spread as he pursued a glamorous lifestyle. He hobnobbed with Hollywood stars and American authors, enjoyed fine food and expensive clothes, received awards and honors, became an American citizen, married another actor (Paulette Goddard), and even acted in A Time to Love and a Time to Die, the 1958 film version of one of his novels. Through it all, he continued to write, producing eleven novels altogether. Each was written in German but simultaneously translated and published in English, and each developed themes first introduced in All Quiet on the Western Front.

Significance

The significance of All Quiet on the Western Front lies, first, in the influence it had on European and American thought and, second, in the reaction it generated among the new Nazi leaders of Germany. The novel deeply moved people on both sides of the Atlantic. It was, and still is, a powerful condemnation of war. It touched the hearts and minds of readers, not so much through its literary quality as through the force of its conviction that war is unmitigated waste—a conviction that grew out of Remarque’s experience as a witness to horrible suffering.

In the United States, for example, magazine and newspaper reviews immediately hailed Remarque’s work as an updated version of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895). All Quiet on the Western Front taught its readers that World War I was one of the most terrible catastrophes of all time. At best, World War I reduced the lives of its participants to the level of simple survival. At worst, it reduced human beings to the level of animals.

Although some decried the book’s scenes as horrible, it was precisely this graphic realism that made the novel sell. In the first year of publication, German readers alone bought more than one million copies. British, French, and American audiences purchased many hundreds of thousands more. By 1932, the book had been translated into twenty-nine languages. The edition in Afrikaans inspired a flood of “war diaries” about the Second Boer War.

The new war novel also made an important impact on the world when it was made into an American motion picture starring Lew Ayres and Lew Wolheim. One of the first films produced after the introduction of sound technology, it became a classic. In 1930, however, the film was banned by the Nazis in Berlin, and that event signaled the start of intense persecution directed at Remarque.

Remarque was not the only member of his family to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. All Quiet on the Western Front had so poisoned the Nazis against anyone or anything associated with Remarque that in 1943, the author’s younger sister, Elfriede Scholz, Scholz, Elfriede was beheaded for spreading subversive propaganda. Reference was made to Remarque during his sister’s trial, and Remarque himself acknowledged that the mere fact that Scholz was his sister had something to do with the verdict. Twenty-five years after Scholz’s death, a street on the outskirts of Osnabrück was named after her. In 1971, one year after the author died, authorities of Osnabrück named a section of road along the town walls the Erich Maria Remarque Ring.

In 1933, when the Nazis had taken full control of Germany, both All Quiet on the Western Front and its sequel, The Road Back, were burned by the new regime in the notorious book-burning ceremony in Berlin. (Even before that episode, the two works had been placed on the Nazi index of prohibited literature.)

The two novels continued to arouse the ire of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century; Remarque’s works were banned by the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations in 1949. Soviet authorities feared that the antiwar sentiment of the books might adversely affect Communist youth. Although the Eastern Bloc countries removed the ban on the books in 1962, Remarque’s works were still seen as a powerful argument against the assertion that unquestioned service to the state is the highest aim in life.

Latent disapproval of All Quiet on the Western Front by some in Germany finally manifested itself after Remarque’s death in 1970. The weekly journal Der Spiegel published an obituary that managed to omit any mention of Remarque as ever having written a profoundly influential World War I novel. Nevertheless, the public had not forgotten Remarque’s work. By the time of his death, millions of copies of All Quiet on the Western Front had been sold, and many more have been sold since. The continuing widespread popularity of the novel testifies to the timelessness of its message, and the book’s depiction of the horror and futility of war has continued to exert a powerful impact on readers. All Quiet on the Western Front (novel by Remarque) Antiwar literature;All Quiet On the Western Front (Remarque)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barker, Christine R., and R. W. Last. Erich Maria Remarque. London: Oswald Wolff, 1979. Offers a thorough yet concise history of the man and his work. Places his novels in historical context and devotes special attention to Remarque’s first major success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Prizewinning book explores the literary sources and means by which the British experience on the western front has been remembered. Contains only a few explicit references to Remarque’s work, but helps to place it in the context of the whole literary culture that centered on World War I and allows readers to compare the experiences of different nationalities in the trenches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Neill, Terry, ed. Readings on “All Quiet on the Western Front.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Collection of essays by various authors provides a number of different perspectives on Remarque’s novel. Intended to help students understand the work more fully.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owen, C. R. Erich Maria Remarque: A Critical Bio-Bibliography. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1984. Each chapter of this informative biography is accompanied by an annotated bibliography of books and articles about Remarque and all of his published writings. Represents one of the most complete bibliographies available. Most titles are in German, but the annotations are in English. An essential tool for scholarly research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwarz, Wilhelm J. War and the Mind of Germany. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1975. A collection of five short scholarly essays, three of which discuss the life and work of Remarque. Presents comparisons between Remarque’s World War I novel and the writings of German authors Ernst Junger and Theodor Plievier. One essay discusses Remarque’s World War II novels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tims, Hilton. Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. Biography details Remarque’s literary career but in large part focuses on his life in the United States after 1939, when he was romantically involved with a number of film stars. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wagener, Hans. Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Useful introduction to Remarque’s works includes analyses of his major novels, a chronology of his life, and an annotated bibliography.

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