Erich Maria Remarque
BORN: 1898, Osnabriick, Germany
DIED: 1970, Locarno, Switzerland
NATIONALITY: German American
GENRE: Novels, plays
The Dream Room (1920)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Three Comrades (1937)
Arch of Triumph (1952)
Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque, Erich Maria, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
German author Erich Maria Remarque was a popular novelist whose All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) was the most successful German best seller on the subject of the soldier’s life in World War I. Though his later antiwar novels, especially the 1952 novel Arch of Triumph, won high praise from critics, it is for All Quiet on the Western Front that he is best remembered.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Interest in Writing, Teaching. Erich Maria Remarque was born Erich Paul Remark on July 22,1898, in Osnabruck, Germany, to bookbinder Peter Franz and mother Anna Maria Remark. But by age sixteen he was well into writing; he composed poems, essays, and the beginnings of a novel he would later complete and publish. Educated in Catholic schools, he was not admitted to college-preparatory courses such as those attended by upper-middle-class youths. Instead, he took courses that would allow him to enter a Catholic teachers’ training college. There he went unchallenged academically, and so he read voraciously on his own, eventually studying further at the University of Munster.
Personal Losses During World War I. In 1916, in the midst of World War I, the eighteen-year-old was drafted into the German army. Because his mother was seriously ill, he was given frequent leaves to be at her side and was not posted to France until the summer of 1917. Though he was in the army for three years and was often close to the front, he never actually fought. In July 1917, one of his comrades was injured by shell fragments and Remarque carried the man back to safety. Despite these efforts, his friend died, making for one of many personal experiences that he would later incorporate into his works, such as All Quiet on the Western Front. Not long afterward, when Remarque himself was wounded in three places by shrapnel from long-range artillery shells, he spent most of the rest of the war reeling from the death of his mother in 1918 and recuperating from his wounds in a Duisburg hospital, until he was deemed fit to return to active duty on October 31, 1918. With the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, he was never posted near the front again.
It was during this enforced convalescence that the persona of Erich Maria Remarque appeared from that of Erich Paul Remark. The author changed both his middle name and the spelling of his last name, taking ‘‘Maria’’ from his mother and the spelling of his last name from that of his French ancestors.
Postwar Years and Pacifism. Remarque developed a vision of himself as the outsider and a pacifist, a difficult role in German society, and his soldier’s disillusionment with the politicians who had allowed the war to happen became a common theme in his diaries of the period. Also upon his return to Osnabruck, Remarque began exhibiting what friends thought to be odd behavior. Discharged from the army as a private, he nonetheless took to parading the streets of his hometown in the uniform of a lieutenant, bedecked with war medals including the Iron Cross. Though he claimed the latter was awarded to him for carrying his wounded friend to safety, it is unclear whether or not he actually was awarded the medal. In fact, he felt guilty about not fighting in the war, even though he had been near the front so often.
By 1919, he was back in the Catholic Seminary for Teachers, preparing for an education career. Working as a substitute teacher in several small towns around Osnabruck, he managed to antagonize administrators with his loner attitude and lack of cooperation. He was also falsely accused—according to his diaries—of involvement in a left-wing, pro-Bolshevik revolutionary movement called the Spartacists and finally decided that a career in education was not for him.
After working as a substitute teacher in and around Osnabruck, Germany, for the next several years he worked at various jobs, including as a peddler, a clerk, a gravestone salesman, a stonecutter, an organist in an asylum for the mentally ill, a press reader, a test driver for a Berlin tire company, a drama critic, and an advertising copywriter for an automobile company. It was in this last position that he began to refine his writing skills. By 1925, he was working in Berlin as editor of the magazine Sport im Bild. It was also during this period that he earned his reputation for loving fast cars and hard living; he married the actress Jutta Zambona and started his literary career with publication of the car-racing story ‘‘Stations on the Horizon.’’ Within two years he became a controversial but best-selling author in Germany, with All Quiet on the Western Front.
Reviled in Germany, Hailed Elsewhere. Initially, he could find no publisher for his book, so it came out first in serial form in 1928. But when Ullstein Publishers brought it out in early 1929 as a book, it was an instant success, and it sold more than half a million copies in just three months. Remarque won international fame and fortune, but he was reviled in his native Germany for the book’s pacifist sentiments. Nevertheless, foreign- language editions soon appeared—twenty-five in all— and by 1931, worldwide sales totaled 3.5 million copies. Ullstein boosted the phenomenal sales with a promotional campaign that was quite unusual for the staid publishing world in the 1920s, and the book has remained in print and has continued to sell for more than seventy years, inspiring three film versions and influencing several generations of young men and women who were faced with the prospect of going to war.
Remarque would later land in the middle of a political battle, despite the book’s huge sales in Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1939, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the books publicly burned by the new regime. German critics also attempted to prove that Remarque was exaggerating his own war experience and misrepresenting the realities of World War I. To this day in Germany, Remarque’s writing is not considered worthy of serious study.
A Move to Switzerland. In 1930, the same year Remarque and his first wife divorced, he finished a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. The Road Back recounts the trials and tribulations of soldiers trying to readjust to life in the civilian world. Once again, he hit the pulse of the times and the book sold well. But the premier of the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front that same year brought protests in Germany, and as a result, Remarque began spending more time in Switzerland where he had purchased a villa near Lago Maggiore and where, by the end of 1933, he and his former wife— whom he would remarry in 1938—would move.
The third and final installment of what became his World War I trilogy, Three Comrades, was published in 1937. Critics like Saturday Review's Bernard DeVoto were favorably comparing Remarque to Ernest Hemingway, noting that he had ‘‘an ability to make the commonplaces evoke the profoundest emotion, to focus immensities through the smallest and simplest details.”
German Citizenship Revoked, Remarque Moves to United States. In 1938, the Nazis revoked Remarque’s German citizenship, and he became stateless. Partly through the personal intercession of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Remarque was allowed to enter the United States the following year, where he lived and worked in Hollywood until 1942. There, he became a celebrity, maintaining a gossip-column relationship with Marlene Dietrich, another high-profile German expatriate, and associating with celebrities of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the screenplay for the film version of Three Comrades and for whom Remarque wrote the screenplay version of The Last Tycoon.
After publishing his fourth novel, Flotsam, while he was living on the West Coast, Remarque moved to New York in 1943—the same year his sister Elfriede was executed by the Nazis for her part in the White Rose resistance group. There, in the city, he began painting, exhibiting his work in New York galleries, and working on a fifth book, Arch of Triumph. It was an instant best seller and, according to scholars and critics like Hoffmann, is a novel worthy of the author of All Quiet on the Western Front with a protagonist who became ‘‘the most complex, least one-dimensional hero that Remarque had created to this point.’’
Naturalization and a New War. Remarque became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1947, thereafter dividing his time between his adopted country and Switzerland. By the end of World War II, he was again detailing the costs of war, with two more books, Spark of Life, which describes life in the concentration camps, and A Time to Live and a Time to Die, a novel about a soldier who falls in love while on leave from the Russian front toward the end of World War II and who dies on the battlefield upon his return to the front.
Remarque and Jutta Zambona divorced for the second time in 1957. In 1958 Remarque married film actress Paulette Goddard. By that time, he had completed and published his last novel, The Night in Lisbon (1964), which reviewers praised highly for its compelling story of those who fled Nazi persecution. He was at work on another book, Shadows in Paradise, when he died in a hospital in Locarno, Switzerland, on September 25, 1970.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Remarque's famous contemporaries include:
Cole Porter (1891-1964): Prolific American composer of many jazz standards.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1975): Twice prime minister of the United Kingdom, this statesman and acclaimed orator was also a Nobel prize-winning author.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): Famous American writer associated with the post-World War I flowering of the arts in Paris.
Golda Meir (1898-1978): Fourth prime minister of Israel. She was one of the signatories of the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948.
Works in Literary Context
With his most famous work, Remarque stated a theme that would recur throughout all of his writing: the dislocations caused by the political and military events of the turbulent twentieth century for young men of a lost generation that had lost not only its youth but also its connection to society as a whole.
Influences. Remarque read extensively, from works of Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to those of Hesse, Mann, and Proust. Though he began his career during the height of the modernist movement in art and literature, his writing was largely conventional in form. His books are well-crafted novels with clear plotlines; they are easy to read; and they mix adventure, suspense, social comment, and some violence with a central love story. They were mostly popular during his lifetime, but only All Quiet on the Western Front has garnered lasting attention.
World War I and the Lost Generation. What ensured this particular book’s lasting place in literary history was Remarque’s ability to create a clear and compelling document of a pivotal moment in history: World War I. Throughout most of his work, Remarque focused on the theme of dislocation and disillusion brought on by the turbulent events of the first half of the twentieth century and the fate of the so-called lost generation— those whose lives were torn apart by World War I. These themes continue to resonate with readers around the world, for whom All Quiet on the Western Front remains the preeminent World War I novel.
Remarque was one of the few German writers whose works about World War I and its aftermath came to the attention of non-German readers. His work takes its place among many American and European novels, poems, films, and plays that focus on the horrors of World War I and the difficulties faced by its survivors. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1944) are other prominent novels that explore the war and its toll.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers and directors who also take a strong anti-war stance:
Lay Down Your Arms! (1889), a novel by Bertha von Suttner. An antiwar novel that prompted the author's becoming a reputed pacifist leader.
The Good Soldier Svejk (1923), a novel by Jaroslav Hasek. An unfinished, illustrated satire of a precipitated World War I.
A Farewell to Arms (1929), a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The story of Italian-front ambulance driver Frederick Henry's experiences during World War I.
Gallipoli (1981), a film directed by Peter Weir. Set during World War I, this film follows the paths of two young Australian men (one played by a young Mel Gibson) as they set off to fight with the Allied troops in Turkey.
Works in Critical Context
Though most of his books were well received in his lifetime, Remarque’s literary reputation today rests almost entirely on All Quiet on the Western Front.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Frank Ernest Hill noted that All Quiet on the Western Front ‘‘will give any sensitive reader a terrific impact,’’ while Joseph Wood Krutch observed in the Nation that ‘‘Remarque tells his plain tale with a sort of naivete which is the result not of too little experience but of too much.’’ Henry Seidel Canby, in the Saturday Review, called All Quiet on the Western Front ‘‘the greatest book about the war that I have seen,’’ and in England, Herbert Read of the Manchester Guardian Weekly termed it ‘‘the greatest of all war books.’’ Indeed, the critical consensus was, and continues to be, that All Quiet on the Western Front ranks among the very best war novels of all time.
Responses to Literature
1. While reading All Quiet on the Western Front, consider the military technology of the war, and make note of the way the author describes it. Using your library and the Internet, find out about the military technology of today, and write a paper comparing the two.
2. In All Quiet on the Western Front, what is Paul Baumer’s personality like when he enters the war? How does the war experience change him?
3. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about conscientious objectors to World War I in the United States and Europe. Write a paper summarizing your findings.
Firda, Richard Arthur. Erich Maria Remarque: A Thematic Analysis of His Novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.
Boston Transcript (June 1, 1929).
Comparative Literature Studies (Winter 1984): 409-33.
German Life and Letters (October 1989): 49-62.
Perspectives on Contemporary Literature (1977): no. 1: 15-22.
Books and Writers. Erich Maria Remarque. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/remarque.htm