In 1916 aged 18, Erich Maria Remarque was conscripted into the Imperial German Army. The next summer he was transferred to a regiment posted on the Western Front – one of the main theatres of World War One.
It was Remarque’s experience of brutal modern warfare, and the struggle to come to terms with it after returning to civilian life, that inspired his landmark novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1928). The book was an immediate success. Striking a chord with surviving soldiers across the world, All Quiet On the Western Front was adapted for the screen just two years after its publication, then again in 1979 and in 2022.
But who was the man behind one of the early 20th century’s best known and most remarkable pieces of war literature?
Did Remarque fight in World War One?
Erich Paul Remark was born on 22 June 1898 to a working-class Roman Catholic family in Osnabrück, Germany. Known affectionately as Schmieren or ‘Smudge’, the young Remarque enjoyed reading and pursued teaching. Yet in November 1916, he was dragged from study at the University of Munster and conscripted into the German Army.
Posted to an engineering regiment in Flanders on the Western Front, Remarque’s regiment suffered some of the most intense trench fighting of the war. For 5 months of heavy rain, the Allies and Germans bombarded each other mercilessly. As a sapper, Remarque experienced this firsthand building bunkers, pillboxes and dugouts behind the Arras Front.
After a month on the front lines Remarque was wounded by flying shrapnel in his left leg, right arm and neck. He was medically evacuated to an army hospital in Germany where he remained for the rest of the war recovering. Remarque was still recovering when he learned of his mother Anna’s death from cancer in September 1917. He was devastated. Remarque had been close with his mother and took her middle name ‘Maria’ as his own.
The Lost Generation
Tanks, machine guns, flamethrowers, bayonets, poisonous gas, hunger, disease, lice, rats, fear, guilt and despair: Remarque had witnessed the horrors of modern warfare and returned from the Western Front as Gertrude Stein told a war-maimed Ernest Hemingway, part of a ‘lost generation’.
For the next decade he worked different jobs, unable to settle. Remarque published a novel called The Dream-Den about his prewar literary circle which was so sentimental, he asked his publisher to buy the unsold copies. His embarrassment provoked a change in the spelling of his surname from the German ‘Remark’ to the French ‘Remarque’ of his ancestors on future published work.
It was not until 1925 that Remarque had his first big writing break when he started reporting and editing for the magazine Sport im Bild (Sport in Pictures). However, in an effort to conceal postwar trauma, Remarque’s wit and snobbery caused resentment among German critics. He even paid Baron von Buchwald to adopt him so that he could gain social prominence.
The same year, Remarque married the captivating Italian-Danish dancer and actor Jutta Ilse Ingeborg Ellen ‘Jeanne’ Zambona. The pair had a reputation for an upscale lifestyle.
All Quiet On the Western Front
Fuelled by cigars and coffee, over 5 weeks Remarque finally confronted the torments of war and penned Im Westen nichts Neues. First published in the magazine Vossische Zeitung between November and December of 1928, the story then reappeared the following year as the English novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.
All Quiet on the Western Front is told from the perspective of Imperial German soldier Paul and his schoolmates whose youth is taken by the war. The group forge a strong comradeship which sees them through intense hardship. Ultimately, they are all killed – Paul just days before Armistice in 1918.
The response to the novel was immediate and varied, particularly from Remarque’s countrymen. All Quiet on the Western Front sold a million and a half copies in a year, was nominated for a Nobel Prize and was adapted for cinema by Universal Studios. Starring Slim Summerville and some 2,000 extras, the film featured real howitzers and flamethrowers and received Academy Awards for best picture and direction.
The loudest opposition came from the National Socialist Party (the Nazis). The ultranationalist group accused Remarque of spreading humiliating anti-German and anti-war propaganda. Both the book and film incarnations of All Quiet on the Western Front were banned under Hitler’s leadership, and the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed Remarque was a secret communist and Jew who had reversed his true surname ‘Kramer’.
In June 1938, Remarque was stripped of his German citizenship. Left with a deep wound to his sense of patriotism and nationality, he moved to the French Riviera with lifelong friend, Marlene Dietrich. When the Germans invaded France, Remarque escaped the Gestapo by sailing on a Panamanian passport to New York where he arrived a literary star.
To many, Remarque predicted World War Two. He continued to write about war, exile and fascism, with his popular titles such as Arch of Triumph (1945) being made into films. During his entire life he wrote, scripted and/or acted in 10 films earning him the nickname ‘King of Hollywood‘.
However Remarque’s distance from Germany, while it had saved his life, could not protect him from further grief. In 1943 his sister Elfriede was beheaded in a Berlin prison by the Nazis. Their actions showed just how dangerous Remarque’s ideas were to the Nazi regime.
Remarque prefaced All Quiet on the Western Front by claiming his aim was neither to accuse or confess. Instead, he tried to capture the unspeakable experience of young men like himself who fought in and were destroyed by the Great War. These were the themes that Remarque would return to throughout his life’s work.
Since 1928, All Quiet on the Western Front has been translated into 29 languages, adapted for the screen 3 times and continually caused anger and concern to oppressive governments. Undoubtedly, Remarque’s legacy is that his work remains a reminder of the tremendous cost of war.