On June 22, 1898, Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the great World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, is born in Osnabruck, Germany.
A student at the University of Munster, Remarque was drafted into the German army at the age of 18. He fought on the Western Front during World War I and was wounded no fewer than five times, the last time seriously. After the war, he worked various jobs—teacher, stonecutter, race-car driver, sports journalist—while working to complete the novel he had had in mind since the war. Published in Germany in 1929 as Im Westen Nichts Neues, it sold 1.2 million copies within a year; the English translation, All Quiet on the Western Front, published the same year, went on to similar success. It was subsequently translated into 12 languages, and made into a celebrated Hollywood film in 1930.
The smashing success of All Quiet on the Western Front was due in large part to its reflection of a widespread disillusionment with the war that took hold of many during the 1920s. Praised as a novel of unyielding realism, All Quiet on the Western Front described in stark detail the physical trauma of war. Remarque also articulated the numbing frustration and anger of the conscript soldier, sent into battle by government and military leaders for reasons of politics and power that he struggled to understand. In the words of his protagonist, Paul Baumer: I see how peoples are set against one another and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one anotherI see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.
The celebrated American journalist H. L. Mencken called All Quiet on the Western Front “unquestionably the best story of the World War.” Both the book and the 1930 film version were banned by the Nazis after their rise to power in Germany in 1933 as prejudicial to German national prestige. Remarque went on to write 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.
Though he became a naturalized American citizen and was during the 1930s a frequent participant in New York City nightlife 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.
READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I