Prose & Poetry - Erich Maria Remarque

Photograph of Erich Maria Remarque German novelist (1898-1970, pseudonym for Erich Paul Remark), who became famous with his work Im Westen Nichts Neues (tr. All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), one of the best-known anti-war novels, which depicted the horrors of war from the point of view of the ordinary soldiers.

In his works Remarque focused largely on the collapse of the old European world and values from 1914 through the cold war.

"It is just as much a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit.  In a bomb-proof dug-out I may be smashed to atoms and in the open may survive ten hour's bombardment unscratched.  No soldier outlives a thousand chances.  But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck." (from All Quiet on the Western Front)

Erich Maria Remarque was born in Ossnabrück, Lower Saxony, into modest circumstances.  His ancestors were French.  Remarque's mother was Anna Marie Kramer and father, Peter Maria Kramer, a bookbinder.  He studied at the University of Münster but had to enlist in the German army at the age of 18.  He fought on the Western Front and was wounded several times.

After his discharge Remarque had taken a teacher's course offered to veterans by the government.  He taught for a year in a school, and tried also his hand as a stonecutter and a test-car driver.  Remarque began his writing career as a sporting journalist, and assistant editor of Sportbild.  Fame came with his first novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, which touched a nerve of the time, and sparked off a storm of political controversy.

Its sequel, Der Weg Zuruck (The Way Back), appeared in 1931.  It dealt with the collapse of the German Army after the war and the fate of the surviving heroes.

All Quiet on the Western Front - the most representative novel dealing with World War I.  The book starts in 1917 after a battle, in which half of Paul Bäumer's company has been killed.  Bäumer is mostly the narrator and Remarque goes through his life in flashbacks.  Paul and his classmates have been encouraged by their teacher, Kantorek, to enlist in the German army.  Bäumer's group includes some school fellows, and Katczinsky, an older man.

The group goes through basic training and go to the front.  Bäumer tries to understand what is going on.  He visits home on leave, returns to the trenches, is wounded and sent to a military hospital.  In the summer of 1918 the German front is pushed back, and the soldiers are waiting for the end of the war.

In October, when there is nothing much to report on the western front, Paul is killed, a week or so before the armistice.  The story is narrated in first person in a cool style, a contrast to patriotic rhetoric.

Remarque records the daily horrors in the trenches, where machine guns killed millions, in laconic understatement.  "At the next war let all the Kaisers, Presidents and Generals and diplomats go into a big field and fight it out first among themselves.  That will satisfy us and keep us home." (Katzinsky)

Lewis Milestone's film (1930), based on the novel, is a landmark of American cinema.  One of the best scenes is when Paul (Lew Ayres) returns to his school and tells new students the truth.  "When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all."  The film was denounced by Goebbels as anti-German, but the Poles banned it for being pro-German.

Particularly effective were the tracking shots of soldiers attacking enemy lines.  In France it was prohibited until 1962.  The close-up of Paul's hand reaching for the butterfly at the end, is actually the hand of the director Milestone.  A sequel, The Road Back, was made in 1937.

With All Quiet on the Western Front Remarque became a spokesman of "a generation that was destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells," as he said himself.  The German defeat inspired two major war films of the year 1930 - G.W. Pabst's Westfront 1918, adapted from a novel by Ernest Johannsen and Lewis Milestone's film based on Remarque's novel.

Milestone was unhappy with the original script - he thought it changed the point of the book, and he hired his friend Del Andrews and George Abbott, a stage director, to shape the final script.  The producer Carl Laemmle Junior and Milestone both hated the original ending of the book, in which Paul Baumer dies heroically.  Karl Freund, the cameraman, put forward the idea of the hand stretching out toward the butterfly.

In the 1930s Remarque's books were banned in Germany by the government.  All Quiet on the Western Front was among the works consigned to be publicly burnt in 1933 by the Nazis.  Stores were ordered to stop selling his books.  The film's premiere was disrupted by Nazi gangs; Remarque was accused of pacifism.

In 1938 Remarque lost his citizenship.  He had moved to Switzerland in 1932 and in 1939 he emigrated to the United States, where in 1947 he became a citizen.  There he made friends with Hollywood stars, including Paulette Goddard (1911-1990), whom he married in 1958.

Remarque had been married twice before, and to the same woman, Ilsa Jeanne Zamboul, in 1923 and again in 1938.  After the war Remarque settled eventually back in Switzerland.  He died in Locarno, on September 25, 1970. 

"If things went according to the death notices, man would be absolutely perfect.  There you find only first-class fathers, immaculate husbands, model children, unselfish, self-sacrificing mothers, grandparents mourned by all, businessmen in contrast with whom Francis of Assisi would seem an infinite egoist, generals dripping with kindness, humane prosecuting attorneys, almost holy munitions makers - in short, the earth seems to have been populated by a horde of wingless angels without one's having been aware of it." (from The Black Obelisk, 1956)

Remarque's later works, depicting the political upheavals of Europe, did not achieve the critical acclaim of his first novel.  However, his skill to create interesting characters and balancing between realistic and sentimental scenes made him a highly popular writer.  Drei Kameraden (1937) received good reviews and was made into a film in 1938, directed by Frank Borzage.

The screenplay was written by Edward A. Paramore and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The final scene in which the two friends of the story are joined by their ghostly comrade is still touching.  Several of Remarque's later novels dealt with people struggling under Nazi rule.  Arch of Triumph (1946) told a story about a German refugee physician and an actress.

The work was adapted into screen in 1947, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.  Spark of Life (1952) was a fictional documentary about life in Nazi concentration camps.  The Black Obelisk (1956) was a tragi-comedy, in which Remarque explored the chaotic Germany of in the 1920s.  Die Nacht Von Lissabon (1964), in which two refugees from Nazism flee in Portugal, and Schatten In Paradies, depicting refugees in the United Sates, were published posthumously in English in 1971.

Article contributed by Petri Liukkonen, website Author's Calendar.

3 British Officers were executed by courts martial during the war, as opposed to 316 Private soldiers and 24 Non-Commissioned Officers.  The vast majority were for desertions.

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Prose & Poetry