Erich Maria Remarque had his novel, Im Westen nichts Neues (In the West Nothing New) serialized in the magazine Vossiche Zeitung in 1928. The pacifist work alienated Remarque from Germany. Ultra-nationalists and Hitler’s propagandists incited the hate of the German people against him. He was burned in effigy in 1933 in the Obernplatz, and his work was reduced to ashes in front of the Berlin Opera House. Remarque was stripped of his citizenship in 1939, and his sister was beheaded in a Nazi prison. Even with all the trouble it caused him, Remarque could not possibly wish he had not written it. A year after it appeared in Vossiche Zeitung, Im Westen nights Neues appeared in English as All Quiet on the Western Front. It sold a million and a half copies its first year in print, and was translated into 29 languages. All Quiet on the Western Front is known as one of the literary masterpieces of the twentieth century. Remarque showed such mastery in writing this pacifist work that Josef Goebbles, Hitler’s main propagandist, spread lies about him and forced him out of the country. Goebbles in effect believed that Remarque’s compelling anti-war writing could have stinted German approval of World War II.
Goebbles did not fear for any reason, All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It is obvious that Remarque had been in the front lines himself from his vivid, gut-wrenching description of trench warfare. The story is told in the first person by Paul Baumer, a young man who, encouraged by his teacher, enlisted in the German army as one of a group of seven boyhood friends. Between the beginning of the war and rumors of the armistice, every young man in the group is killed, except for Paul. The boys are ravaged by mustard gas, bombs, grenades, rifle shots, and shrapnel in the horrible attacks suffered by the front line. When the characters are in combat they are animals, but when they are behind the lines, they develop into titillating three dimensional entities. Paul and his friends discuss the real cause of the seemingly pointless massacre, and show the extent of their damaged psyches in their ponderings of what the world will be like and what they will do when the war is over. Rarely, Remarque slightly overemphasizes his pacifist agenda through Paul, but it hardly takes away from the rest of this great war book.
Besides an incredible description of World War I battle, All Quiet on the Western Front has a page-turning story line and colorful exchanges. The reader never knows when the Second Company(Paul Baumer’s company) is going to be called to or back from the front line, or how long Paul will be taking shelter in a shell-crater before he can run back to safety, or which character will die next from some stray artillery fire. To top it off, away from the fighting, Remarque gives the boys sharp wits and makes the story interesting by mixing the boys with Himelstoss, their former drill instructor who is now in the second company and ranks lower than the boys, and Kantorek, the boys’ former schoolmaster who encouraged them to fight. Kantorek becomes a soldier himself, and is a pathetic specimen.