Ninety years ago, a harrowing account of warfare in the first world war was brought to an international audience by German veteran Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a young German soldier fighting on the western front during the first world war. Bäumer and several of his friends join the army voluntarily after listening to the patriotic speeches of their teacher, but soon become disillusioned after experiencing the horrors of the battlefield.
After being serialised in 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitunghe, Erich Maria Remarque’s book was first published on 31 January 1929, and instantly became a bestseller. In March 1929 it was translated into English and the following year was adapted into an Oscar winning Hollywood film. All Quiet’s sense of empathy for a putative enemy did not find favour with the German Nazi party and in December 1930 filmgoers were attacked at several early showings of the movie in Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the book was banned, along with the rest of Remarque’s works, and it became one of the most common books destroyed in the infamous Nazi book burnings.
Editorial: German war books
17 April 1929
Although the British market has been flooded with translations of German books, nearly all that is best in modern German literature has remained hidden from English readers who do not know German. There have been a few exceptions like Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, but Goering’s Seeschlacht, a lyrical drama of the Jutland Battle and a first faint premonition of the German Revolution; Sorge’s imaginative play Der Bettler, Kantorowicz’s magnificent biography of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, Rilke’s Duineser Elegien, the verse of Bert Brecht – these, and others, still await the English translator.
Instead we have had works like those of Emil Ludwig, Valeriu Mama and Lion Feuchtwanger, the literary counterpart of the cheap and shoddy goods that Germany once dumped upon the foreign markets under the stimulus of low wages and inflation. But this year is witnessing a strange and unaccountable phenomenon – an efflorescence of wonderful German books that come to this country almost as soon as they are published in their own. They are all war books. Although the war came to an end more than ten years ago it has, until now, been but poorly transmuted into language – in Germany even more poorly than elsewhere. Fritz von Unruh’s Opfergang is a disordered, ill-written book, even if it has vivid passages here and there. It is inferior to its contemporary Le Feu, by Henri Barbusse. Toiler and Hasenklever wrote war poetry, but were not nearly equal to Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg. After an interval of many years came Zweig’s Sergeant Grischa and Binding’s Fatalist at War – good literature in their way, but nothing more than just literature.
Not until this year, in sudden and sombre efflorescence, has the written word communicated the direct, immediate experience of the war itself. All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest of all war books. The author, Erich Maria Remarque, is otherwise quite unknown. Perhaps it was necessary for someone innocent of fine writing of style, of the “mot juste” to convey this immediacy of experience in trenches, dug-outs, No Man’s Land, and field hospitals. Words are made to serve truth, not truth words. And yet the book is not formless, but plastic and architectural. What makes it all the more impressive is the simplicity, and the strength of character that are its foundation. There is horror and suffering greater than Poe or Dostoevsky felt or imagined. Yet there is no morbidity, no sentiment, no hysteria.
Perhaps no one who went through the war came out of it completely sane, but Remarque lost very little of his sanity and can look back into that inferno with unevasive eyes. And yet, for all the gloom and tragic horror, there is humour, good fellowship, and delicious vengeance on brutal superiors in his book. But beneath it all is the sense of ultimate pity and the complete, incurable pessimism of those who have either been proletarians or common soldiers.
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. Translated by AW Wheen. London: GP Putnam’s Sons. Pp. 320. 7s. 6d. net.
29 April 1929
This book was discussed, with other German war books, in the leader columns of the Manchester Guardian on the 17th of April, when it was referred to as “surely the greatest of all war books.” It has had an immense success in Germany. It was first published only three months ago, and more than 220,000 copies have been sold by now. That a book so great, so profound and sombre should become so popular does credit to the German reading public. But in this country it is receiving a fervent welcome. Although written by a German, it is just a soldier’s book, and as true of the French and British as of the German trenches. Rudolf Binding’s A Fatalist at War has been praised a good deal in the British press. It is an able book, but Remarque’s is above it as the common German soldier was above the military caste that led him to war and to defeat. Binding suggests that the German soldier ought to have been flogged. Remarque, in an exhilarating chapter, describes how he and his comrades fell upon a brutal, bullying superior one night and administered well deserved punishment. Anyone comparing the two books will realise why the German revolution had to come. But it is as a war book not as a German book that All Quiet is so significant. And happily it has found a translator whose rendering is altogether worthy of the original.
There were objections and calls for the book to be banned in a number of countries, ranging from Italy and Czechoslovakia to Preston Town Hall and Northampton. In the US sections of the book were changed.
US book club censorship: famous war book bowdlerised
1 June 1929
The later form of censorship to make its appearance in America is exercised by the book clubs, which are now so popular. The remarkable book, All Quiet on the Western Front, which is the June selection of the Book of the Month Club, has had several passages deleted and milder words substituted in some places at the suggestion of the Club officials. The publishers also made a few changes themselves. All these alterations are in the text as published in England.
All Quiet on the Western Front: a remarkable film version
Editorial: Not so quiet
The German Board of Film Censors has decided to ban All Quiet on the Western Front because it is “detrimental to German prestige.” Of course, if German prestige is bound up with the old lies of the splendour of war, then All Quiet is a very damaging attack. But fortunately Germany’s reputation in the world to-day is largely built on the courage and clearness with which her authors and dramatists have exposed the old “patriotic” fables. Many Englishmen confronted with the sentimental, mischievous glorification of war that is still too common in films have been deeply thankful to Herr Remarque for his truthful description and for the film version of his novel. Most Germans share this gratitude; they realise that it is not Germany but militarism – an international disease – which is denounced in All Quiet.
The disgraceful riots of the last few days, however, show that the minority of rowdy Nazis are growing alarmingly in strength. They are now apparently able by breaking the peace to secure the prohibition of the All Quiet film, and presumably of any future film to which they happen to object. This is the worst kind of censorship. It is, in fact, artistic lynching. It proves the rebirth of militarism in Germany. The failure so far to achieve disarmament is persuading Germans who are too young to remember the war that foreign affairs are best conducted with that backing of military force which the other Powers enjoy. To many young Germans Remarque’s work is merely an expression of cowardice. They believe that German pacifists are betraying their country because their methods seem to young, impatient minds to be a failure. If the banning of All Quiet must alarm liberty-loving Germans, it should also remind outsiders of the terrible consequences which would follow a persistent refusal to disarm.