‘All Quiet on the Western Front’: Groundbreaking book changed the view of first World War
In a new introduction to All Quiet, historian Norman Stone argues the brutality of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel changed perceptions about the war
All Quiet on the Western Front: from the film of the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty
For some years after the end of the first World War, the memoirs of generals and statesmen dominated publication about it – none more prominently than Churchill’s great classic The World Crisis (1923).
Then, quite suddenly, 10 years down the line, came the other side, the horror, the view from below. The British had lost almost a million men, the French over a million, and the Germans nearly two million, mainly on the Western Front, where thousands of guns churned up the mud. War cripples hobbled the streets of Berlin and are recorded in the bitter Twenties paintings of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix. Writers followed – in Great Britain, among the earliest books were Richard Aldington’s novel Death of a Hero (1929) while Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That (1929) is the most famous of them all.
I was given it as a Christmas present when I was 15 and read it at a session.
At the time – the mid-1950s, there were men around, not even 60, who had gone through the Western Front but you could never get them to talk about it. British critics did not attack “the system”, they tended to dwell on the incompetence of the generals. The French had a rather similar experience, in that the from-below story of 1914-18 surfaced with Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), which is brilliant black farce. Céline, who had volunteered in 1912, entered the war with the usual young man’s patriotism and was badly maimed at an early stage; he made a mockery of the whole business.
But there is not really any French, let alone British or American equivalent of the bitterness and edge that went into the paintings of Dix and Grosz. Two films come close – Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), which started off as a musical (1963) by Joan Littlewood based on the songs of the poor bloody infantry, and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).
The reality of war
On the literary side, the German Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) is in a class of its own. It appeared not long before the Wall Street Crash started a process that was soon to give Germany eight million unemployed, and the chancellorship of Adolf Hitler. Not just the Nazis banned it; so did the lord mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, a Centre Party Catholic and later first chancellor of West Germany.
Official Germany would not accept any responsibility for the war. In 1923 the legal scholar Hermann Kantorowicz put in a memorandum to the Reichstag “war guilt” committee, showing that three-quarters of the published documents from 1914 were false, and even the “good German” Gustav Stresemann tried to stop him from getting a chair, and suppressed the report.
This is all understandable, because Germany did face a war indemnity, “reparations”, designed to cripple her for two generations, and to suggest that she had caused the war counted as treachery. But so did criticism of the army (and the 14-volume official history, besides being incomplete, was almost free of it). Exposing the reality was left to a writer such as Remarque.
All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the Nazis’ burned books
For Germans the war had ended in defeat and disillusion. It had been a four-year epic of sacrifice and there had been spectacular successes, from the capture of Russian Poland in 1915 through Caporetto in 1917, when the Italian front imploded, to the March offensive of 1918, which destroyed the British Fifth Army.
German generals had a panache lacking on the Allied side, almost to the end, and it is notable in All Quiet on the Western Front that there is very little criticism or mockery of generals, let alone officers, who come off well – understanding and humane. The Germans shot far fewer of their own men than did the British.
When the armistice happened, attempts were made to imitate the Russian Revolution in which soldiers’ councils had challenged the authority of their officers. Far from being revolutionary, the German soldiers’ councils voted for Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg to be their overall president (he declined). Even so, some 25,000 German prisoners of war did join the Red Army.
The end of the war saw bitter political recriminations: the Left blamed the Right for starting it, and the Right blamed the Left for stopping it, for giving the fighting troops a “stab in the back”.
This civil war was always latent in the Weimar Republic and it flared up again when the Wall Street Crash ended properly democratic government (in 1930: thereafter governments ruled by emergency decree). The civil war culminated in the victory, in 1933, of the Nazis. It also resulted in the emigration of Erich Maria Remarque. All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the Nazis’ burned books.
Remarque was not a communist or even, it seems, anything much. He was born in 1898 into a skilled working-class family in Osnabrück, his father a printer, and attended Catholic schools. When he turned 18 in1916 he was conscripted and after some basic training (All Quiet is biting about that; the sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss is an archetype of military memoirs, where bright young men encounter maniacal and petty disciplinarians) he was drafted to Flanders.
The British offensive (we know it as Passchendaele, from the village the capture of which, after 400,000 casualties, allowed victory to be absurdly declared) was about to start, and Remarque was badly wounded on its first day, July 31st, 1917, spending much of the rest of the war in hospital.
He kept a notebook and recorded the men’s stories as he heard them. They form the basis for All Quiet.
There were two (at least) unique features of the Great War. For civilian conscripts, there was vast disillusion with everything that they had been taught by authority; and then there was the sheer anonymity of the killing. Of Remarque’s class of 20 schoolboys in All Quiet, at least half get killed – the narrator, Paul Bäumer, just a week or two before the armistice of November 1918 – five or more are wounded, and one ends up in a lunatic asylum.
They are all caught up in the tremendous Materialschlachten, the industrial slaughter, that killed over nine million soldiers and maimed many, many more.
Remarque’s schoolboys were confronted almost at once with a war that they had not imagined. And they had also been let down by men in authority
This was an artillery war and the guns multiplied in number, power and range; huge technical skill was involved (for instance, plotting by sound-range where, on a grid-map, an enemy gun was sited).
Time and again, Remarque’s boys are knocked out by shelling. The ordeal involved is well-expounded in the last scene of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong (1993) where the hero digs himself out of a great mound of mud and corpses, such as these heavy shells threw up.
They, rather than the legendary machine-guns, caused three-quarters of the casualties. It is extraordinary that the generals started out with an assumption that this would be a war rather like that of 1870-71, between France and Prussia – infantry charging in clumps, bayonets outstretched, cavalry sweeping forward and fortresses holding out bravely under siege. And of course there was the widespread illusion that the war would be short, an illusion spread as much by bankers and economists as by generals.
But artillery could smash even the stoutest fortress, cavalry were helpless targets for modern rifles and the French learned in August 1914 just how vulnerable their charging infantry clumps were to shrapnel.
Remarque’s schoolboys were confronted almost at once with a war that they had not imagined. And they had also been let down by men in authority.
When the war broke out, Germany was vilified for the invasion of neutral Belgium (Germans became “the Hun” in the British press) and over 1,300 of the most prominent academics signed a pompous Intellektuelleneingabe – “petition of the intellectuals” – associating the great names of German civilisation with tub-thumping nationalist nonsense, instead of appreciating that the war was a sort of suicide.
On a less exalted level, schoolteachers, the pride of Prussia, shovelled their sixth forms into uniform, as happened with Paul Bäumer’s class. Once they were at the front, what were they to make of these maniacal schoolteachers who had filled their heads with such useless nonsense as French irregular verbs and the population of Melbourne? In All Quiet the hero wonders whether they ever could get back to normal after the war, but they did – those who survived.
Remarque himself knocked around for a few years, including working as primary-school teacher (often an essential booster-stage for something else), then, aged 22, published a vaguely radical-right novel he soon wished he had not written, and drifted into sports journalism for a large media concern. Then, at 30, he produced the work for which he is remembered. All Quiet became an international bestseller and was snapped up by Hollywood for a record sum. Not surprisingly, like the early works of Graham Greene or Eric Ambler, who also thought cinematically, it made an excellent film.
Early in the novel, Bäumer recalls the population-of-Melbourne maniac getting his 17 and 18-year-olds as a class to march down the street and volunteer in 1914. One of them, Josef Behm, under-age and overweight, does not want to go, and is the first to be killed: “He was shot in the eye during an attack, and we left him for dead . . . That afternoon we suddenly heard him shout out and saw him crawling around in no man’s land. He had only been knocked unconscious. Because he couldn’t see and was mad with pain he didn’t take cover, so he was shot down from the other side before anyone could get out to fetch him.” (This colloquially rendered passage is characteristic of Prof Brian Murdoch’s excellently readable translation.)
The war, which had started with cavalry and charging infantry, turned into a long artillery epic and there are some splendid descriptions of bombardment (Allan Mallinson recalls that no man is an atheist under bombardment, but God – and clergymen – are missing from Remarque’s pages).
One after another, the boys go. Second is Kemmerich, at first unaware, in hospital, that his leg has been amputated; there is some awkwardness among his visitors as to whether they should just take his special English airman’s soft-leather boots; Müller wants them, saying his own boots are so bad that even his blisters get blisters.
The soldiers’ deaths are recorded intermittently, interspersed with bitter comments and dramatically described events of trench warfare.
A failed French attack gives rise to the most memorable scene in the film, which sticks in my mind 60 years after seeing it. Bäumer, on forward observation, takes shelter in a shell hole, and a French soldier stumbles in. Bäumer’s instinctive reaction is to stab him, and the Frenchman takes hours to die, the German dressing his wounds, giving him water and talking to him even after he is finally dead.
He looks into the man’s wallet to identify him, and finds letters from his wife, photographs of his children in a village somewhere. There are other scenes of fraternisation, but they are with French girls.
Remarque’s general idea is that it is all hellish and that the only sort of meaning to be found is in the camaraderie involved as Bäumer and his friends find ways of dealing with rats or with the lack of decent food, or take revenge on the sadistic training corporal whom they encounter again at the front. The description of a fortnight’s home leave is particularly harrowing, as Bäumer finds he has nothing to say to his father.
And there are still old saloon-bar wiseacres, showering him with cigars, who tell him how the war should be won: “aber vor allem muss die gegnerische Front in Flandern durchbrochen und dann von oben aufgerollt werden” – as if the Flanders front could easily be “broken through and then rolled up”.
‘Insult to Germany’
The wiseacres hated the book, seeing it as an insult to the German army, and the Nazis put it about that Remarque – originally “Remark” (he gave it a French twist: his forebears had been Remarques from across the border) – had in reverse been “Krämer”, a Jewish name meaning “pedlar”. They also made much of the fact that Remarque had not served in the front line.
The irony was that Hitler himself, though he had two medals, did not really have a heroic war. We know from some extraordinary research by Thomas Weber (Hitler’s First War, 2010) that he was not a front-line soldier but a messenger who spent most of his time at headquarters - what other men called an Etappenschwein (“rear-area pig”).
In the British army it was called having a cushy job. Regimental colonels were sent bags of medals from time to time for distribution and Hitler got two of them because he was conveniently there, according to his own account, reading Schopenhauer from a pocketbook. Half of the veterans from his regiment, Bavarian Catholics, refused to turn up when called upon to attend a reunion in 1934 to celebrate the victory of their alleged fellow-soldier, now Führer.
Remarque had already left Germany the day after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. He had easily enough money from royalties to live in Switzerland, and later in Hollywood and New York.
He never lived in Germany again. The Nazis, in time, chased his poor sister, Elfriede Scholz, a dressmaker in Dresden. She was denounced by her landlady and a customer in 1943 for saying the war was lost, as indeed it was. An example was made of her, for Wehrkraftzersetzung (roughly, “demoralising the armed forces”) and she was beheaded. After the second World War, Remarque remained in the US, quite successful, though always best-known for All Quiet.
In the 1950s he married the American actress Paulette Goddard, moved back to Switzerland, and died there in 1970. But All Quiet on the Western Front lives on, and deserves to.
This is the introduction to the new Everyman’s Library edition of All Quiet on the Western Front (£12.99). Norman Stone is professor of European history at Bilkent University, in Ankara, where he founded the Centre for Russian Studies. He is a former Regius professor of history at Oxford University, and was a foreign-policy adviser to and speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher. His books include The Eastern Front 1914-1917 and World War One: A Short History