Erich Maria Remarque was born Erich Paul Remark on June 22, 1898 in Osnabrück, Germany. He received an education in private Catholic schools and subsequently enrolled in a training school for teachers, which he attended until he was conscripted into the German army. At this time, he also began writing fiction.
World War I
World War I played a crucial role in Remarque's evolution as a writer. In November 1916, Remarque, along with a number of his classmates, was drafted into the German army. After a period of military training, his unit was sent to the Western Front. There he took part in the trench warfare in Flanders, Belgium. In July 1917, he was wounded by shell fragments during a heavy British artillery attack. After a lengthy convalescence he was recalled to active military service in October 1918. Shortly thereafter, Germany's imperial government was toppled in a revolution, and the country became a republic. On November 11, 1918, the new government signed the armistice with the Allies, which ended the fighting. Remarque's wartime experiences, including the loss of some of his comrades, made a strong impression on the young man and served as inspiration for All Quiet on the Western Front.
He returned to Osnabrück, where he finished his educational training. He subsequently took up teaching, but his career was short-lived, He quit this profession in 1920. To make ends meet, he gave piano lessons, served as an organist, and wrote theater reviews for a local newspaper. During this time, he published his first novel, Die Traumbude (The Dream Booth) as well as some poetry and other fiction. In 1922, he moved to Hannover, where he took a position as a writer and editor for Echo Continental, a magazine owned by the Continental Rubber Company, a leading manufacturer of automobile tires. Here he wrote advertising copy, crafted slogans, and published articles on travel, cars, and outdoor life. He also adopted the name Erich Maria Remarque, using the original French spelling of his family's name.
In 1925, he relocated to Berlin, where he served as an editor for the popular sports illustrated magazine, Sport im Bild. In the German capital, he mingled with leading writers and film makers, including Leni Riefenstahl, who later created Triumph of the Will and other films in Nazi Germany.
All Quiet on the Western Front
In 1929, Remarque scored his greatest, and most lasting, success with the novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues). The work graphically depicted the horrors and brutality of World War I (1914-1918) through the tragic experiences of a group of young German soldiers. The novel, a lasting tribute to the “lost generation” that perished in the Great War, became an immediate international bestseller. In Germany alone in 1929, the book sold almost one million copies. It was translated into more than a dozen languages, including English, French, and Chinese. All Quiet on the Western Front earned Remarque accolades generally from the liberal and leftist press for the work's pacifist stance. The Nazis and conservative nationalists immediately denounced it as an assault on Germany's honor, as a piece of Marxist propaganda, and the work of a traitor.
That same year, German-born Hollywood producer Carl Laemmle, acquired the rights to make a film of the book. In May 1930, the American film premiered in Los Angeles and won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. That summer, audiences in France, Britain, and Belgium flocked to the film and it received popular acclaim.
Almost immediately the American film ran into trouble in Germany. When it was proposed for showing, a representative of the German Ministry of Defense urged that its screening be rejected on the grounds that it damaged the country's image and shed bad light on the German military. In response, the Berlin censorship office urged Laemmle to make cuts to the film, which were done. Remarque's former boss, the press and film magnate, and outspoken German nationalist, Alfred Hugenberg, indicated that because of the movie's alleged anti-German bias it would not be shown in any of his theaters. He subsequently petitioned German president, Paul von Hindenburg, to ban the film.
In December 1930, when the edited and dubbed version of the film was shown to the general public in Berlin, the Nazis sabotaged the event. The Party's leader in Berlin and its propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, organized a riot to disrupt the showing. Outside, SA storm troopers intimidated movie goers, while inside they released stink bombs and mice and harangued the audience. At subsequent showings, the Nazis carried out violent protests. In response to these actions and conservative attacks on the film, the government banned the film. Liberals and socialists condemned the action, but the prohibition lasted until September 1931, when Laemmle produced a more censored version for German audiences.
Book Burning and Beyond
In 1933, Remarque was forced by the rising tide of Nazism to flee his native Germany for the relative calm and security of Switzerland, where several years earlier he had purchased a lakeshore villa. Seeing the writing on the wall, he left Berlin just one day before Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor on January 30, 1933.
Several months later, in May 1933, pro-Nazi students consigned his works to the flames during the fiery book burning spectacles staged throughout the country. In Berlin, as the students assembled on the Opernplatz opposite the university with piles of books for the pyres, the Nazi speaker denounced various authors for their un-German spirit, concluding with the following comments:
“Against literary betrayal of the soldiers of the World War, for the education of the people in the spirit of truthfulness! I surrender to the flames the writings of Erich Maria Remarque.”
Subsequently, German police purged his works from bookstores, libraries, and universities. In 1938, the Nazi government stripped him of his German citizenship. From 1933 onward, Remarque spent his remaining days outside of Germany, except for occasional trips made after the Nazi defeat in 1945.
Though he lost much of his German-speaking audience when the Nazis banned his books, his novels, in translation, continued to find new readers in the United States and elsewhere. In contrast to many of his fellow German exiled writers, Remarque did not suffer a significant loss of fame or fortune when he left Germany. Major publishers still printed his work, magazines, like Collier's serialized his new fiction, and Hollywood filmed a many of his novels.
World War II
In September 1939, Remarque left Europe for the United States, just as World War II was beginning. Dividing his time between New York and Los Angeles, he continued to write popular novels, which echoed, in part, the experiences of refugees forced to flee Nazi rule. Much of his post1933 fiction, such as Liebe deinen Nächsten (Flotsam), Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph), Die Nacht von Lissabon (The Night in Lisbon), and the posthumous, Schatten im Paradies (Shadows in Paradise), depicts the lives and suffering of anti-Nazi emigres, their often ambivalent feelings towards Germany, and their sometimes difficult adjustments to life in exile.
In 1944, Remarque wrote a report for America's Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the country's foreign intelligence organization and the forerunner to today's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In it, he urged the Allies to adopt a systematic policy for re-educating the German population after the war. Germans, he believed, had to be exposed to Nazi crimes and evils of militarism.
After the War
In his postwar novels, Remarque attempted to continue to expose Nazi crimes. As such, he was among the first and most prominent German writers to address Nazi mass murder, the concentration camp system, and the issue of the population's culpability in these crimes, in such works as Der Funke Leben (Spark of Life) and Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben (published in English as A Time to Love and A Time to Die).
After the war, he also learned that his younger sister, Elfriede, had been arrested and tried before the Nazi People's Court for making anti-Nazi and “defeatist” remarks. Convicted, she was sentenced to death and beheaded on December 16, 1943. He dedicated Der Funke Leben (Spark of Life) to her memory. In an attempt to bring those who denounced her to justice, he hired Robert Kempner, one of the US prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals, to investigate this matter.
In 1948, Remarque returned to Switzerland as an American citizen. His works were once again published in Germany, although they frequently received negative criticism and were revised to edit out politically “unpalatable” passages. In 1958, he married American film star Paulette Goddard, with whom he remained until his death in 1970.
1920 Die Traumbude
1929 Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)
1931 Der Weg Züruck (The Road Back)
1938 Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades)
1941 Liebe deinen Nächsten, (Love Thy Neighbor), published in English as Flotsam
1945 Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph)
1952 Der Funke Leben (Spark of Life)
1954 Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben (A Time to Live and A Time to Die), published in English as A Time to Love and A Time to Die
1956 Der schwarze Obelisk (The Black Obelisk)
1961 Der Himmel kennt keine Günstlinge (Heaven has no Favorites)
1962 Die Nacht von Lissabon (The Night in Lisbon)
1971 Schatten im Paradies (Shadows in Paradise)
Critical Thinking Questions
- Investigate German society’s view of WWI in the 1920s.
- If Jews were the principal target during the Holocaust, why were books written by non-Jewish authors burned?
- How did the German public react? What was reaction like outside of Germany?
- Why do oppressive regimes promote or support censorship and book burning? Why might this be a warning sign for mass atrocity?
Baker, Christine R. and Last, R. W., Erich Maria Remarque. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1979.
Cernyak-Spatz, Susan E., German Holocaust Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Eksteins, Modris, “War, Memory, and Politics: The Fate of the Film All Quiet on the Western Front.” Central European History, vol. XIII, number 1 (March 1980), 60-82.
Gilbert, Julie, Opposite Attraction: the Lives of Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Glunz, Claudia and Schneider, Thomas F., eds. Elfriede Scholz, geb. Remark: Im Namen des Deutschen Volkes; Dokumente einer justitiellen Ermordung. Osnabrück: Universitätsverlag, 1997.
Gooch III, Herbert E.,“Isolationism in All Quiet on the Western Front.” In Reelpolitik: Political Ideologies in '30s and '40s Films. Beverly Merrill Kelley with John J. Pitney, Jr., Craig R. Smith, and Herbert E. Gooch III. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998, 95-113.
Kamla, Thomas A., “The German Exile Novel During the Third Reich: The Problem of Art and Politics,” German Studies Review, vol. III, number 3, (October 1980), 395-413.
Owen, C. R., Erich Maria Remarque: a critical bio-bibliography
Schneider, Thomas F., and Westphalen, “Reue ist undeutsch” Erich Maria Remarques Der Funke Leben und das Konzentrationslager Buchenwald. Katalog zur Ausstellung. Bramsche: Rasch, 1992.
Schwarz, Wilhelm Johannes, War and Mind of Germany. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1975.
Taylor, Jr., Harley U., Erich Maria Remarque: a literary and film biography. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Tims, Hilton, Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003..
Wagener, Hans, “Erich Maria Remarque.” In Deutsche Exilliteratur Seit 1933, vol. 1: California, edited by John M. Spalek and Joseph Strelka. Bern and Munich: Francke Verlag, 1976. 591-605.
Wagener, Hans,, Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1991.