Ninety years later, book still reminds readers of war’s gore

Ninety years ago in December 1928, Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark World War I novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” finished its serial run. For a duration of five weeks, the German magazine Vossische Zeitung published the book under the title of “Im Westen nichts Neues” (Literally, “In the West Nothing New”). The book caught on incredibly quickly. In January of 1929, it was released in one volume; in March, it was translated into English and, in 1930, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie (Smithsonian Magazine, “The Most Loved and Hated Novel about WWI,” 06.16.2015). Over the next two years, the book sold three million copies. Today, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is considered by many to be the first international bestseller.

The novel tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a young German soldier fighting on the Western Front during World War I. It follows him and the rest of his company up until the last few weeks of the war. The book begins in medias res, after the main characters have already been deployed. The first few chapters are interspersed with frequent flashbacks to Bäumer’s training and their jingoistic high school teacher convincing them to enlist. One famous sequence details Bäumer returning home on leave and realizing that the war has changed him forever. The ending of the novel is also downright iconic. However, if you haven’t had it spoiled for you in 90 years, I’m not going to tell you now.

Famously, the book doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its descriptions of the front, which Remarque fills with nightmarish and gruesome depictions of bombardments, sickness, amputation and injury. Much of the story features underfed and hopeless troops, and many characters die, lose their limbs or develop PTSD over the course of the story. The New York Times book review published at the time highlighted the gruesome descriptions of the novel: “Certainly…we have a picture of that physical horror unsurpassed for vividness, for reality, for convincingness, which lives and spreads and grows until every atom of us is at the Front, seeing, mingling suffering” (New York Times, “War’s Horror as a German Private Saw It: All Quiet on the Western Front is an Extremely Vivid Document,” 6.02.1929).

Interspersed with these vivid descriptions are sometimes sentimental, always well-written passages about youth in the context of war. Moreover, the book’s position as an anti-war novel is clear throughout. Back when the novel was originally published, its anti-war themes proved controversial. The first country to ban the book was Czechoslovakia, which prohibited it from military libraries in November 1929—less than a year after its initial publication (New York Times, “Czechs Ban ‘All Quiet,’” 11.17.1929). In December of 1930 in Germany, after members of the Nazi party attacked moviegoers at several of the early showings, the film was also banned. Then, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they forbade the book along with the rest of Remarque’s works. It quickly became one of the most common books destroyed in the infamous Nazi book burnings.

In that year, fearing for his safety, Remarque fled the country for Switzerland.

He lived there until 1939, at which point he moved to the United States (Smithsonian Magazine, “The Most Loved and Hated NovelaboutWWI,”06.16.2015).Hebecameacitizen of the United States in 1947 and split his time between New York and Italy. Over the rest of his career, he wrote nine more novels, a play and a screenplay before returning to Switzerland and dying in 1970 (New York Times,“ErichMariaRemarqueIsDead:Novels Recorded Agony of War,” 09.29.1970).

Long after Remarque’s death, various authors have attempted to adapt and improve upon “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In 1979, director Delbert Mann adapted the book into a three-part miniseries. It received decent reviews but was unable to live up to the 1930 movie adaption (New York Times, “Remaking ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ for TV,” 11.11.1979). In 1994, a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, Brian Murdoch, translated the book again, with the new translation receiving fairly poor reviews.

After all, it hasn’t been these continued adaptations that have kept “All Quiet on the Western Front” in print, but rather, as one reviewer of Murdoch’s translation, Geoff Dyer, said, “It did not need revivifying because it was already intensely alive” (The Independent, “BOOK REVIEW / Laying the ghost of a cataclysm: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’” 08.27.1994). Remarque’s language and imagery ensure that the book’s power will not diminish over time.

Remarque’s work has helped to define and codify the structure of future war novels. Out-of-order storytelling, as in the opening chapters of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” would later be used in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” a classic novel of World War Two, and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” an acclaimed book of essays and short stories about the Vietnam War. Moreover, audiences have noted striking similarities between a scene in which the author describes an experience killing an enemy soldier in “The Things They Carried” and one described in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (TheEnglishJournal,“Killing at Close Range: A Study in Intertextuality,” 01.2006).

It’s reasonable for other authors to replicate elements of the book’s form, as its mode of storytelling is exquisite. While critics have commented that the book expresses more of the post-war mindset than what a soldier thinks during combat, the story of war it tells remains more accurate than any other piece of writing today—especially because we have a tendency to see World War I only through the darkened lens of World War II. It is vital now to remind ourselves of the forlorn era of World War I as we now live during a time in which an American president feels like he can skip the centennial commemoration ceremony of the war because of rain.

Although it was dubbed the war to end all wars, WWI has not stopped more wars from occurring. The war in Afghanistan will soon become the longest war in American history. If the fighting continues for another year or two, there will be soldiers fighting in it that were born after it started.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that war is awful; we are more accustomed to hearing about the horrors of war than were the people who lived in 1928. Still, few depictions of war since the publication of “All Quiet” possess the same kind of staying power.

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