On a rainy night in May 1933, thousands of Nazi supporters gathered in a city square in front of Berlin’s Opera House. Watched over by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, they began to throw armfuls of books onto a huge bonfire. “No to decadence and moral corruption!” shouted Goebbels, urging the crowd to consign “un-German” material to the flames.
Among the thousands of volumes reduced to ashes in locations all over the country was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. When first published just four years ago it was wildly popular, with millions of copies being sold. In clear-cut prose, Remarque described the fate of a group of young soldiers during World War 1, based on his own experiences during the hostilities optimistically referred to as “the war to end all wars”.
In his introductory note, Remarque says that the book is “neither an accusation nor a confession”. Rather, it tells of “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war”.
The novel portrays the predicament of a group of schoolmates who, filled with nationalistic fervour, decide to enlist in the army. In the beginning, as the narrator tells us in the English translation by A.W. Wheen, “we were still crammed full of vague ideas which gave to life, and to the war also, an ideal and almost romantic character”.
The brutality of conflict strips away their illusions. Remarque shows what merciless, grinding warfare can do: the hellishness of life in the trenches, the diabolical effects of poison gas, and the lasting trauma of witnessing deaths and undergoing amputations.
The savagery makes them realise that while others “continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying”. They had been taught that “duty to one's country is the greatest thing,” but “we already knew that death-throes are stronger”. Those who remain standing become “insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to
run and to kill”.
All these years later, the novel is still unsettling. As historian Modris Eksteins puts it: “The simplicity and power of the theme — war as a demeaning and wholly destructive, indeed nihilistic, force — are made starkly effective by a style that is basic, even brutal”.
Remarque uses an episodic structure, the immediacy of present tense, and vivid imagery to convey the inescapable and dehumanising effects of combat. Though All Quiet on the Western Front has often been called one of the greatest anti-war novels, it wasn’t without its detractors. Some literary critics have compared it unfavourably to Hemingway’s own terse war novels, for example.
Because of the novel’s impact, those on the right attacked it for overstating the dangers of war and portraying some army personnel as ineffectual. Those on the left chided it for, as one critic put it, failing to challenge “the social and economic agenda of the ruling classes”.
As for Goebbels and his followers, they simply tried to besmirch Remarque’s character and accused him of dishonouring those who died for a noble German cause. These time-honoured tactics continue to be used by politicians worldwide.
Over the years, there have been many film, TV and radio versions of the novel. The 1930 Hollywood adaptation directed by Lewis Milestone was the first production to win both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, and it went on to feature in the American Film Institute’s list of Top Ten films in the epic genre.
In 1982, Elton John even recorded a song based on the book: “It's gone all quiet on the Western Front, male angels sigh / Ghosts float in a flooded trench as Germany dies.” A bit more lyrical than Remarque’s prose.
The recent Netflix adaptation directed by Edward Berger is a powerful re-statement. It expertly sidesteps the problem faced by many war movies, that of making their characters’ heroism more appealing than anti-war sentiment.
This new German film is a work of grim grandeur, with wide-angled tracking shots and monochromatic earth tones that portray scenes of doomed camaraderie and grisly carnage. It chooses to keep its focus on the brutality of war; parts of the novel are compressed and re-staged while others are dropped completely, such as the narrator returning home on
To create context as well as contrast, the film also adds sections that are not in the novel. These are the scenes of armistice negotiations and the hubris of generals in the bloody run-up to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
The result is a single-mindedly sombre work. It creates a sense of revulsion at the horrors of war and notions of military honour - which, of course, is what Remarque also wanted to convey. The book has been burned, banned, and dismissed, but it hasn’t gone away.