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The word from the trenches

Derek Scally

Im Westen nichts Neues was first published serially in the Vossische Zeitung Berlin daily in November and December 1928 and by Propyläen Verlag, an imprint of the Ullstein publishing group, in 1929.

The only remarkable thing about my otherwise unremarkable street in Berlin is Remarque. High on the wall of my apartment complex, a dark metal plaque reads: “In this building Erich Maria Remarque lived until 1929 and wrote ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. Born 22.6.1898 Osnabrück. Died Locarno 25.9.1970.”

It was from here ‑ looking out at the cream-and-green Bauhaus facades, smelling the fragrant linden trees ‑ that Remarque returned to the horrors of the Belgian trenches he had experienced a decade earlier. His journey paid off and Im Westen nichts Neues, as it’s known in the German original, is now considered a classic of twentieth century literature.

As the WWI centenary approaches, and Great War fatigue begins to set in, this great anti-war novel is a reminder of the terrible fate that befell millions of soldiers in 1914. On its publication in 1929 the book became that rarest of beasts: a simultaneous literary and commercial success. Critics hailed it for its skewering of Germany’s military establishment and the carnage they had triggered a decade earlier. The country’s conservative elite retaliated by savaging book and author, which only served to further pique reader interest and boost commercial success. Eventually, the All Quiet was too receive that most notorious of German literary honours when, on May 10th, 1933, Nazi-supporting students tossed it, alongside the works of the Mann brothers and Erich Kästner, onto the raging pyre opposite Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Unlike Kästner, Remarque wasn’t there to see the blaze. After years of public pillorying, he had left Germany on January 31st, a day after Hitler’s ascent to power. His life in Germany had ended. It had begun with the birth of Erich Paul Remark in Osnabrück in Westphalia on June 22nd, 1898, the son of Anna Maria and Peter Maria Remark, a bookbinder. He went to school in Osnabrück and university at the University of Münster. At eighteen he was drafted into the army and, after six months’ training, sent to Flanders on June 12th, 1917. He was wounded five times in the course of a month on the western front, the last during the third battle of Ypres, when artillery fire struck his right arm and throat. Recovering in a military hospital in Duisburg until October 1918, he began writing about his own experiences and supplemented them with those of other convalescing soldiers.

His first draft from 1917, reprinted in a new critical edition of the book published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, plunges readers into the immediacy of bunker warfare: “The barrage of fire swelled up once more. The shelter shuddered. The dirt fell in spray in the stillness between the impacts.”

Even in this early draft, the writing style is already apparent: short, punchy sentences that Ernest Hemingway would later employ to similar effect ‑ and develop into his literary trademark ‑ starting with his own war novel, A Farewell to Arms. Remarque’s book was more a farewell to dreams. An injury to his right hand robbed him of the dream of becoming a musician and when he returned home from his lengthy convalescence his mother had died. His return to civilian life was problematic. He continued the teacher training interrupted by the call-up but saw he was not cut out for the classroom. Instead he spent most of the 1920s in odd jobs, beginning as a copy-writer for the Continental Tyre company magazine and, later, as a journalist at a sports magazine. By the end of the decade, in a manner typical of his “lost” war generation, he was drifting and depressed. He used writing as self-analysis and identified his suppressed war experiences as the source of his depression. Pulling out his 1917 manuscript, he reworked it in three successive drafts, offering the last to the publishers S Fischer in 1927. They rejected the work arguing that, a decade on, no one was any longer interested in the war.

Editors at Ullstein’s Propyläen imprint liked the book but asked for a rewrite. Remarque set to work on the manuscript, which he abbreviated in correspondence to I.W.n.N, either striking out or relativising references to the pointlessness of the war. It first appeared in serial form in the popular Vossische Zeitung daily from November 10th to December 9th, 1928, beginning with a note from Remarque to readers: “This book should be neither an accusation nor avowal. It should be the attempt to report on a generation that was destroyed by war ‑ even if it escaped the grenades.”

In a departure from his earlier drafts, Remarque opens his first chapter far from the trenches. His narrator, Paul Bäumer, shows us soldiers chatting among themselves, satisfied with double portions of stew and cigarettes. Then, in a slow reveal, Remarque explains how the field cook ordered food and prepared for 150, but only 80 soldiers from Bäumer’s company have returned from the front. At a leisurely pace, Bäumer takes readers through his generation’s dehumanising process at the hands of their morally bankrupt elders: “For us 18-year-olds they were supposed to be interpreters and leaders to the grown-up world,” he writes. “The first dead we saw demolished this conviction. We had to realise that our age cohort were more honest than theirs, they were ahead only in adroitness and phrases.”

During training Bäumer grows indifferent to his superiors’ bullying and soon realises he is being “prepared for heroism like a circus pony”. A new reality has been forced on him, he realises, where “a polished button is worth more than four volumes of Schopenhauer”. Transported to the front, he watches the centrifuge of death and violence pull in his comrades, transforming them from “cranky or good-humoured soldiers” into Menschentiere – “humanimals”. “The front is a cage where you have to wait nervously for what will happen,” he observes. “Chance and coincidence is what makes us apathetic. Every soldier only stays alive through a thousand coincidences. And every soldier believes and trusts coincidence.” He learns to recognise the signs of death “working its way out from the inside” of comrades and, eventually realises that war kills all, even those it leaves alive. The only difference, he notes, is that the dead know they are dead whereas those left alive aren’t sure what they are anymore. “We don’t know if we are still alive,” he writes. “We are feelingless dead men who through a trick, a dangerous conjuring, can still run and kill ... I am just 20 years old but I know nothing of life but doubt and death.” A century after the events described, the book’s power lingers, less in Remarque’s digressions into the inhumanity of war as an abstract concept than in his chilly, spare description of its pointless reality. WG Sebald once declared that “the present tense lends itself to comedy”, but there is nothing to laugh at ‑ and plenty to rage at ‑ in Paul Bäumer’s present-tense monologue. His voice, spare but stinging, was what made the book so powerful ‑ and dangerous ‑ in 1929.

Some time after he handed in the manuscript and before the book’s explosion onto the market, Ullstein decided that Remarque’s work ‑ which he had subtitled Roman (novel) ‑ would sell better as a pseudo-memoir. Remarque, on the other hand, saw his work as an “anti-memoir”, an attack on the scores of war-glorifying volumes flung onto the market after 1918. But his publishers were determined the book should strike the right tone with readers and ordered substantial rewrites that transformed Remarque’s anti-hero from conscientious objector to resigned footsoldier.

A day before the newspaper serialisation began, on November 9th, 1928 ‑ a decade after the armistice ‑ the Vossische Zeitung published a front page piece that reads today like an overwrought publisher’s press release: “This is no war novel and no diary. It is life lived and yet set apart through the creative power, the personal experience without artifice, without distortion. ... The memorial for the “unknown soldier” has been created ... stronger than stone and more permanent than ore.”

In interviews to promote the book, the divergence between author and publisher are clear. Remarque told the Literarische Welt newspaper in 1929 that his book was about the “shadow of war” hanging over his generation. “We all were ‑ and often still are ‑ uneasy, without goal, one moment exulting, the next apathetic, at heart unhappy,” he said. But his original intentions were reshaped during Ullstein’s substantial reworking and recasting of the book as a non-fiction “true” image of war. Their overeager editing and marketing would deliver ample ammunition for Remarque’s powerful critics, anxious to play the man as much as the ball. They questioned the book’s veracity, pointing out he had served “only” a month at the front before being injured. Remarque insisted that his work was a literary reworking that conflated many war fates into one. The controversy did no harm to sales, but it weighed heavily on the author. For the rest of his life, Remarque often spent as much time answering questions about the book’s provenance as its content.

In a 1946 interview he admitted that it was a “best-of collection of war stories”, written with the intention of earning money and, with it, financial independence. It did that, but financial success brought him no peace as a writer. In a private diary entry in 1951, he wrote: “Thought. When did my complexes became more strong? After I.W.n.N. The fear. The feeling of being a swindler ...” But he kept his doubts private, telling a 1963 interviewer he was “extremely surprised by the political effect” of the book. The criticism of its anti-war message, he felt, missed the point of a book that he said addressed the psychological consequences of war for its survivors. “My real theme was a human theme, suddenly presenting death to 18-year-olds, who should be confronted with life ‑ and what would happen to them,” he said. “This is more a postwar book in which the question is asked, ‘what became of these people?’”

The controversy rolled on into the next year when the 1930 US film version of the book, directed by Lewis Milestone, won two Oscars. Its highly anticipated Berlin premiere was a debacle thanks to Joseph Goebbels, then NSDAP Gauleiter in Berlin. He organised a crowd of six thousand to protest against the film on Nollendorfplatz while, inside the cinema, Nazi plants booed while the future propaganda minister threw stink bombs and released white mice into the auditorium. The screening was cancelled, police cleared the cinema and the government, shocked by events and under “pressure from the street”, demanded significant cuts to a film they said “endangered German reputation and injured German (national) feeling”. On taking power three years later Hitler banned the film, the book and all other works by Remarque. All the while the Nazi rumour mill worked overtime, suggesting that the author’s birth name, Remark (his grandfather dropped the French spelling), was actually an anagram of his real, Jewish, name: Kramer.

The campaign against the author continued even in his absence. On December 16th, 1943 Remarque’s sister Elfried, a staunch anti-Nazi, was sentenced to death in the infamous Volksgerichthof (people’s court) of undermining the war effort. “Your brother is beyond our reach,” said the court president, Roland Freisler, “but you will not escape us.” She was beheaded and the bill ‑ 495.80 Reichsmarks ‑ sent to her sister, Erna.

By this stage Remarque was far away from the Nazis’ reach. His first marriage, to actress Ilse Jutta Zambona, ended after five years in 1930. They had fled together to Switzerland in 1933 and eventually remarried five years later to prevent her forced return to Germany. Tall, blonde and handsome, Remarque was in great demand during the war period in the United States. A literary celebrity, he had affairs with all of Hollywood’s great European leading ladies: Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr and Greta Garbo. He was stripped of his German citizenship by the Nazis in 1939 and became a naturalised US citizen in 1947, dividing his time between the US and Switzerland. He divorced Zambona in 1957 and got married again a year later to Paulette Goddard, former wife of Charlie Chaplin and Burgess Meredith.

Alongside the colourful private life, the novels continued to appear: Spark of Life (Der Funke Leben) in 1952 and Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, published in English as A Time to Love and a Time to Die. It was filmed in 1958 by fellow German émigré Hans Detlef Sierk, known in Hollywood as Douglas Sirk. Other novels followed ‑ Heaven Has No Favourites and The Night in Lisbon ‑ as well as several screenplays and a stage play. None of his later works achieved the runaway success of I.W.n.N. thought most, if not all, achieved respectful reviews for Remarque’s talent for using narrative ‑ rather than explicit moralising ‑ to explore and develop his pacifist views.

Remarque invested his royalties in modern masters ‑ Matisse, Klee, Picasso ‑ and what began as an investment eventually became a passion ‑ and an antidote to the horrors he had witnessed decades earlier. A despairing Paul Bäumer, watching the slaughter before his eyes, declares “how senseless everything that was ever written and done, that something like this is possible”. His generation will “become superfluous to ourselves, we will grow, some will conform, others comply and many others will be perplexed”.

Remarque survived the First World War, rose above a full-frontal attack by the German conservative establishment that helped trigger it and escaped the Nazis, who started a second one. His posthumous novel Das Gelobte Land (The Promised Land) suggests he found peace as an author and art lover by the time of his death in Switzerland in 1970 aged 72. In the novel, the narrator sits before “still pictures, in the dying summer”. “The pictures were a window into infinity,” he writes. “They were the best things that people had created in a time of the worst things people were capable of.”

Derek Scally is the Berlin correspondent of The Irish Times.

1/09/2014

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