Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Erich Maria Remarque, and the Introduction of the Anti-War Novel

Photo by Jules Aarons

My maternal grandparents lived on the last street that was left standing in Boston's West End. The West End was a multi-ethnic neighborhood that was virtually eliminated in a misguided urban renewal project in the 1950's. When my siblings and I were kids, our grandparents often used to take us in for about a week or two in the Summertime along with our closest first cousins. The six of us (of whom I was the youngest), would sleep on couches and cots all over the small tenement apartment. One of our favorite things to do was to cross the street over to the old Madison Hotel, which shared a lobby with North Station and the Boston Garden. There was a smoke shop there where we used to buy candy, novelty joke items, and comic books. I loved the Classics Illustrated series that was out at the time. I love reading, and I trace a lot of that appreciation to those comics in particular, which covered classic literature such as Moby Dick, Taras Bulba, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Red Badge of Courage. My favorite Classics Illustrated, though, was an adaptation of All Quiet On the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. I was quite surprised to be able find a complete reproduction of it here, page by page. It's amazing what you can find online.

Being somewhat captivated by that representation, All Quiet on the Western Front was probably the first adult novel I was inspired to read, and I still think it ranks up there with one of the greatest novels ever written. Remarque was drafted into the German Army in World War I at the age of 18 and was wounded 5 times. The story is fiction, but the experiences of the protagonist, Paul Baumer, are clearly based upon what must have been his own. As a consequence, I've always been fascinated by military memoirs or novels written by rank-and-file men. I confess that I am drawn towards the martial life and repelled by it at the same time. What makes men do what they do under extreme pressure and danger? What makes certain men courageous and some men cowardly? Why are some men able to function under incredible stress while others are paralyzed by fear? Why are some cruel, while others show mercy and compassion? I always find myself wondering what I would do under such circumstances. I suppose what draws me is the shared sense of brotherhood, cameraderie, loyalty, discipline, and the willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of your friends. What repels me, and is a distinguishing and constant feature of every decent book about warfare ever written, is the utter obscenity, barbarism, and wanton wastefulness of war itself. Each author relentlessly pounds home the point that there is no glory whatsoever to be found in war.

As far as I know, All Quiet... was probably the first overtly anti-war book written (as far as I know of). In the wake of World War I, there were several others quickly written such as Robert Graves' Goodbye To All That, Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Edwin Campion Vaughn's Some Desperate Glory, and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms. In World War II, some of the better ones included Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Jim Jones' The Thin Red Line, Paul Fussell's Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, and Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Viet Nam had Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, James Webb's Fields of Fire, and Tim O'Brien's Going After Caciatto and The Things They Carried. The Gulf War had Anthony Swofford's Jarhead. This conflict in Iraq is already producing many more...

Erich Maria Remarque was born in the Westphalia region of Germany in 1898, into a Catholic family of modest means (his father was a book-binder of French ancestry). He was drafted into the war 1916, and as stated previously, was wounded several times in combat. After the war, he knocked around at several jobs, but was too restless and alienated to stay at any one of them for very long. In 1929, he wrote All Quiet.... His publisher didn't expect much from it, but it was an instant success worldwide and it gained Remarque a good amount of fame and made him very wealthy. He went on to write other novels such as The Road Back, Three Comrades, The Night In Lisbon, and The Black Obelisk, but none of them were ever quite as successful as his first. They say he was shy by nature, but he seemed to have had a taste for nightlife and an eye for lovely screen actresses. He was romantically involved with Marlene Dietrich, and later married the American actress Paulette Goddard.

In the early 1930's, with militaristic nationalism on the rise in Germany, Remarque felt compelled to leave his country due to increasing criticism and settled in Switzerland on the shore of Lake Maggiore (Anne and I visited LM during the last days of our honeymoon... very beautiful spot... the location of the Charles Borromeo Palace). When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they banned his books and stripped him of his citizenship. Remarque eventually became a naturalized US Citizen.

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is because I happened to run across a 1937 edition of Three Comrades at the town book swap, and I thought what was written on the back of the dust jacket was very good. As a shy people-watcher myself, a lover of dogs and good books, I was feeling a bit of kinship with it. Here it is, slightly rearranged.
Born in 1898 in Osnabruck in Westphalia, Remarque has perhaps inherited the traditional Westphalian peace-loving, even tenor of mind. At eighteen he went directly from school into the army, like the boy soldiers in "All Quiet on the Western Front." He served in the infantry to the end of the war. "We felt convinced," he says, "that we were fighting for the salvation of the world . . . I am now convinced that young Englishmen and young Frenchmen thought the same thing. But afterward, afterward ! . . . If, from time to time, certain people in Germany accuse me of treason, it is because it is hard for them to admit that one can love one's country and at the same time believe that war is not an excellent way of assuring human progress."

For some time Remarque has made his home in Switzerland, first because of his health and later because of political considerations, because of those "people in Germany" who do not understand his kind of patriotism.

Though Remarque is a lover of dogs he does not share the feeling of the man who said, "The more I see of men . . ." For Remarque humanity has an all embracing interest. The only hobby he will own to is that of sitting at a Paris cafe to watch the crowds go by-not a surprising taste when one recalls that he comes from a family which emigrated from France to the Rhineland during the Revolution. But there is a deeper meaning in this hobby which Remarque himself expressed when he once said: "That crowd is life, and I adore life above everything else. Even a book interests me only if it makes us love life better, if it lifts us out of our routine by making us reflect on the greatest of all problems, on the most marvellous of all miracles: we live."

P.S. In 1930, Hollywood produced a film version of All Quiet On the Western Front. It had amazing, realistic production values for its day, and was a brilliantly made film despite a very wooden performace by Lew Ayres in the leading role. Here are some short clips showing the original trailer (with the audio trailing the video a little bit), and a battle sequence.

The Remarque Institute


crystal said...

Very interesting! I had heard of the title, but never saw the movie or read the book - I had no idea it was written by a Grman about German soldiers, or that it was anti-war.

I'm also anti-war yet intrigued by the history of warfare. I took one class in college on european military history and thought it was really interesting. I think you've inspired my nexr post :-)

Rashfriar said...

Peace! Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking blog. I remember Classics Illustrated! I read many 'novels' first (and for some, solely) in that version.
Regarding war and anti-war, have you ever read Mark Twain's "War Prayer." Powerful, sobering. I wish that if everyone knew the stupidity of war there never would be, but I'm afraid sometimes other things trump stupidity among us human beings. But we still can and must pray for peace and do what we can, as did Remarque.
Happy Independence Day. God bless!

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Hope you had a nice July 4th.

Yes, I saw your fine list. I'm a little surprised you didn't have Gallipoli, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now on there.

Jeff said...

Hi Rashfriar!

It's great to see you again. I wasn't sure if you were still reading me here anymore or not. Welcome back. :-)

Mark Twain was a genius and surely a man ahead of his time. A "War Prayer", eh? I'll definitely put that on my list of things to check out. I haven't read nearly enough Twain. Thanks!

crystal said...

I still haven't seen Gallipoli, and already mentioned The Deer Hunter. Apocalypse Now ... that was really good ... just forgot to mention it.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the post on Remarque. Unfortunately, I still haven't read the book or seen the movie. (Que verguenza!) But you make me want to check out both.

Sorry to hear Lew Ayres was so wooden. He's so good in Holiday.

Ironically, I had just read that Paulette Goddard had divorced her first husband, Burgess Meredith!, and married Remarque. He had good taste in women, I'll say that.

I, too, loved Classics Illustrated. Wish my mother hadn't given mine away. I don't remember the Remarque one. It's cool you found it online.

Also enjoyed reading about your childhood in Boston. Very nicely told.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Got a lot to cover at work today... I'll get to your "Independent's Day" post when I get a chance to do it justice.

You haven't read any Remarque? I think you'd really enjoy it. I'm reading Three Comrades now, which has great dialogue and repartee. If you are into any of that "Lost Generation" genre of writing, I think you'd like it.

Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard... Imagine being married to the Penguin's ex-wife. Erich did have an eye for beautiful ladies, I'll grant you...

Lew Ayres was in Holiday? I'll have to check that out. Yeah, I thought he was wooden in this film, but I have to remember it was 1930. Silent film actors and directors were still in the process of making the transition from silent to talkies.

Enough hookey. Must get back to work...

_alyosha_ said...

It's always dangerous to start listing. For one thing, you tip a little over to one side... har. Anyway, you left out Wilfred Owen (granted, just a British poet) in your list of soldierly authors, and I think he deserves a place in that wonderful roster of anti-war writers who knew what war was really about.

Jeff said...


Where have you been? Haven't seen you blogging in a while.

Yes, Wilfred Owen. Never read him, but he was a friend of Sassoon's, right?

Probably ought to mention Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Edmund Blunden... I'm sure I've forgotten a bunch of others... :-)

_alyosha_ said...

I've been "on va-CA-TION!" as Billy Crystal would say, hanging on to the bull for dear life. Didn't involve fun things, like life-threatening roller coasters, just cleaning out and fixing up my mom's house, since we had to move her over to a Nursing Home. That experience alone could be blogged as a purgatory all its own. My Lord.