On this day in 1928, the first installment of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s acclaimed novel of World War I, appears in the German magazine Vossische Zeitung.
Remarque (born Erich Paul Remark) was born in 1898 in lower Saxony to a family of French ancestry; he enlisted in the German army at the age of 18 and headed to fight on the Western Front, where he was wounded five times, the last time seriously. Returning to Germany after the war, he changed his name back to the French spelling and worked various jobs–teacher, stonecutter, race-car driver, sports journalist–while working on his first novel.
The protagonist of that novel, All Quiet on the Western Front–its German title, Im Westen nichts Neues literally translates as In the West Nothing New–is Paul Baumer, a young German soldier fighting in the trenches of World War I. The story opens in 1917, when half of Baumer’s company–many of them schoolmates from back in Germany–has been killed in battle. Over the course of the book, Paul himself is injured and hospitalized, goes home on leave and returns to the front, only to be killed a week or so before the armistice in 1918.
From November 10 to December 9, 1928, All Quiet on the Western Front was published in serial form in Vossische Zeitung magazine. It was released in book form the following year to smashing success, selling a million and a half copies that same year. Although publishers had worried that interest in the Great War had waned more than 10 years after the armistice, Remarque’s realistic depiction of trench warfare from the perspective of young soldiers struck a chord with the war’s survivors–soldiers and civilians alike–and provoked strong reactions, both positive and negative, around the world. Eventually translated into over 20 languages, the novel was adapted into an acclaimed American film in 1930.
With All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque emerged as an eloquent spokesperson for a generation that had been, in his own words, “destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.” Remarque’s harshest critics, in turn, were his countrymen, many of whom felt the book denigrated the German war effort, and that Remarque had exaggerated the horrors of war in order to further his pacifist agenda. Not surprisingly, the strongest voices against Remarque came from the emerging National Socialist (Nazi) Party, an ultranationalist group in Germany led by the future fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. In 1933, when the Nazis rose to power, All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the first “degenerate” books to be publicly burnt.
Remarque would go on to publish nine more novels, all dealing with the horror and futility of war and the struggle to understand its purpose. His last novel, The Night in Lisbon, was unsparing in its condemnation of World War II as Adolf Hitler’s attempt to perpetrate the extermination of Jews and other “nonpeople” on behalf of the “master race.” After his German citizenship was revoked in 1938, Remarque emigrated to the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1947. A frequent participant in New York City nightlife in the 1930s and a companion for several years in Hollywood of the actress Marlene Dietrich, Remarque lived for most of his later life at Porto Ronco, on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. He died at Locarno in 1970 with his wife, the actress Paulette Goddard, at his side.