Notes on Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque

"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."
Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front)

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One of the books that we read in our western and world civilization history courses is All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues, 1929) by Erich Maria Remarque (aka Erich Paul Remark, 1898-1970), a German veteran of the First World War.

Remarque grew up in a rather typical, lower middle class environment in Germany and dabbled some with writing when he was young. When he was eighteen, he was drafted into the German army, and in July 1917 he was wounded in battle. He spent the remainder of the war recovering in hospitals. After the war he held a series of different jobs and again returned to writing. In 1927 he wrote All Quiet.

The publication of the book in 1929 brought him immediate fame, wealth (a lot of wealth) and also notoriety for the anti-war tone of the book. During the 1930s, the Nazi regime banned his works--as did a number of other countries--and the Nazis tried to invent all kinds of nonsense about Remarque (for example, claiming that he had not served in the war). In 1943 the Nazis executed Remarque's sister, who had not left the country before the war broke out.

Remarque himself had left Germany for good in 1931, eventually settling in Switzerland before leaving there for the United States in 1939--that was a good time to leave Europe--where he became a naturalized US citizen in 1947. Already a celebrity, his fame grew as he continued to write and publish. After the war, Remarque returned to Switzerland, where he died in Locarno on 25 September 1970.

Well, technically the book is a novel, and technically the book is not autobiographical, nor is it exactly non-fiction since it does not describe specific historical facts or people. Yet, the book, based on Remarque's personal experiences in the war, is a gripping, realistic and shattering account of the absolute brutality of World War I and how the war literally destroyed the lives of the millions of men who fought the war. The fact that Paul Baumer was in the German army is immaterial; the war experience was the same for all the combatants in the conflict in Europe--after all almost ten million soldiers died and over twenty million were wounded.

One of the class exercises that I have offered in the past for extra credit is something that I might call the "trilogy of death." I ask students to read and compare the war experiences described in Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage (I am open for a different suggestion on this selection.), Remarque's All Quiet and Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War. It is all pretty grim reading.

The 1930 movie of the same name, directed by Lewis Milestone, won a number of Academy Awards, including best picture, and remains to this day a critically-acclaimed movie. (I think that it was the first "talking" movie that won an Academy Award for best film.) When I teach on campus, I usually show this film in my classes. It is a real triumph of early film-making. The film, in black and white--color wasn't invented yet--eerily connotes the bleak landscape and environment in which the soldiers died on the front during the war. The movie also has some great cinematic shots. See, for example, the opening framed scene in the classroom with the parade taking place in the background (and how both later merge together). A similar scene re-occurs later in the movie when Paul returns to his old classroom and gives his speech about what it is like on the front. In comparison to the book, the movie has a more straight-forward narrative structure, and there were a lot of scenes from the book that simply could not be put on film in 1930 (any maybe not even now in 2010).

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References and suggested websites