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Thursday, June 22, 2017

All Quiet on the Western Front

Last week my Third Thursday Book Club met at my house to discuss the book All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It is a classic written by a German who served in World War I and wrote it in 1928. The book has beautifully written prose that was almost lyrical at times, but so depressing in the details of what happened to the young men sent to war. Although the characters were fictional, one gets the feelings that the main character written in first person was based on what Erich Remarque himself went through. He was wounded in the war.

All but one of the six of us had read the book, and even though it was sad in so many ways, we were glad we read it, and saw how lessons weren’t learned from the horrors of WWI and continue still to this day where most of those who go to fight aren’t the sons of the wealthy, but the poorer young men who are rather clueless on what to expect. Yes, there were some young men of wealthy people who went to war like John Kerry and John F. Kennedy, but most of the wealthier young men managed to get out of being drafted. As it said on the cover of the book, “On the threshold of life, they faced an abyss of death.”

In the book, the main character, Paul Baumer says “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow . . .”

What got all of us is when he went home on leave after watching so many die or be seriously wounded in a gruesome way, and being so hungry much of the time because food when it did reach them wasn’t all that good. Everyone except his mother wanted to know what was going on, and the men especially thought they knew just what should be done. And because there wasn’t much food for those left behind in the small German towns (farmer’s horses had been confiscated for the war) the people in the towns seemed to think that the soldiers were all being fed generously when nothing was further from the truth, unless it was the officers. He didn’t feel like he belonged in his small town anymore. No one had any idea what he and the others had gone through and would still be going through when he went back to the war. He didn’t feel right about telling them the truth for fear they’d think he was against the German government and be considered an enemy.

Eventually Paul realizes that the enemies are no different than they are. They are young men fighting a war of hate perpetrated by higher ups in the governments for their own purpose.

On the back cover, The New York Times Book Review said “The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first frank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm and sure.”

In his bio at the back of the book I learned he was born in 1898 and lived to 1970. He was in combat in World War I, and was wounded five times, the last time was severely. After the war he taught briefly, became a stonecutter in the cemetery of Osnabruck, the town where he had been born, and served as an assistant editor of Sportsbild. He worked as a librarian, businessman, journalist and editor. Remarque came to the United States in 1939 after he’d moved to Switzerland, and remained until after World War II, but returned to Switzerland afterwards.

Wanting to know more about him, I went to Wikipedia, In addition to the book we read, he wrote many other books and essays about the war. All Quiet on the Western Front was made into an Oscar-winning film. This book and his other works made him an enemy of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Geobbels, who banned and publicly burned Remarque’s works.  Apparently they didn’t question his German background or Catholic faith, but hated his writings. They claimed he had not seen active service in World War I and revoked his German citizenship. He was born Erich Paul Remark, but changed his middle name to Maria in honor of his mother. Changing his last name Remark to the French spelling of Remarque was another thing that angered the Nazis.

His first marriage was to the actress Ilse Jutta Zambona. Their marriage wasn’t a good one. They divorced in 1930, but in 1933 they fled together to Switzerland. In 1938 they remarried, to prevent her from being forced to return to Germany. They immigrated to the United States where they both became naturalized citizens in 1947. They divorced again in May 1957.

During the 1930s, he had relationships with Austrian actress Hedy Lamar, Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. (You can learn more about this at Wikipedia.) In 1958 he married actress Paulette Goddard and they remained married until his death from a heart collapse from an aneurysm in 1970. In his lifetime he sold millions of copies of his books and became quite wealthy, but I think the book that still remains a classic is the one we read.

In 1943 they arrested his younger sister, Elfriede Scholz, who had stayed behind in Germany with her husband and two children. After a trial, she was found guilty of “undermining morale” for stating that she considered the war lost. Court President Roland Freisler declared, “Your brother is unfortunatelybeyond our reach – you, however, will not escape us.” She was beheaded on December 16th, 1943. Remarque was not aware of this until after the war, and would dedicate his 1952 novel Spark of Life to his late sister.
One of the things that left us bothered is that the world hasn’t changed all that much. There are still wars being fought and so many people uprooted from their homes and lives being lost, and people not trusting those of different nationalities.  Maybe if this book was required reading in high school or college, things might change for the better. However, it was well read in Germany and didn’t stop World War II, did it, but maybe it was because it was burned before more people had a chance to read it.

Have you read All Quiet on the Western Front?

If not, do you think you would like to read it?


Shari Randall said...

This is a book I've wanted to read for years. It must be an intense read, and I keep thinking that is why I've put it off.
What an intriguing man he must have been to attract all those Hollywood stars.

Mary said...

Sounds like a great book! I plan to read it soon!

KM Rockwood said...

I read it years ago, and it is something that should probably be on my re-read list (which is even longer than my to-be-read list.) I remember it as a power work, one that had my thoughts coming back to it again and again.

Surely a book to be on everyone's list.

carla said...

A classic I have yet to read. Sounds like I should.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I read it in high school, as did my kids. A good introduction to war novels.