Although All Quiet on the Western Front goes a long way in educating readers about the brutality--and, occasionally, banality--of daily war life, it helps to have an understanding of the political climate that precipitated World War I, known at...
Critic Richard Firda wrote in retrospect of German author Erich Maria Remarque that he was "destined to span a wide range of political, social, and historical changes that affected not only Germany but Europe and the United States." Born as Erich Paul on June 22, 1898 in Osnabruck, Germany, Remarque was the second son (and third child) of the lower middle-class family of Peter Franz Remarque and Anna Maria Stallknecht. It was in Osnabruck where Remarque was raised, developing boyhood interests of fishing and butterfly collecting. In Catholic school, he was labeled as talented and gifted, though many biographers believe that his idealistic nature often gave way to depression and discouragement in real life situations.
Music, specifically the piano, became an important part of the author's life as a young adult, and it is often speculated that Remarque had considered a profession in music. But Remarque's dreams proved to be untenable after being hit in the wrist by shrapnel during World War I. WWI brought more than a shattered music career for Remarque; around the start of the war, his mother fell ill with cancer - a tragedy that is echoed in his novels. In 1916, Remarque was drafted into the army along with his fellow pupils with a less than enthusiastic attitude about serving the "Fatherland" in a time of war. In the suburbs of his hometown, Remarque underwent basic training and in June of the next year, was sent to fight at the western front. The work was dirty, dangerous, and difficult; tasks were assigned during unbearable weather conditions and the next five months brought many images of slaughter. Remarque was seriously wounded by English long-range artillery shells during battle and it was decided by the authorities that his wounds were severe enough to warrant his transport to St. Vincenz hospital in Duisburg. For Remarque - unlike his colleagues in battle - the shooting was over.
His hospital stay was interrupted by two deaths: his mother's as well as that of his close friend, Fritz Horstemeier. Although both events dealt him an emotional blow, Remarque's artistic talent had been revived. His interest in writing and publishing was sparked and the writer even submitted his first attempts at writing to a German periodical. But in October of 1918, Remarque was declared fit for garrison and was released from the hospital. Assigned to the First Replacement Battalion of Infantry Regiment 78 in his hometown, the writer was examined by a battalion physician and pronounced fit for duty. Luckily for Remarque, the World War I armistice was signed four days later.
Though the guns were silent on the battlefields, post-war turmoil brought social and political unrest for the nation. Whether Remarque was discharged from duty or simply returned home is unclear. However, by 1919, the author returned to his unfinished studies. Upon his return, he was able to obtain a teaching position, which he reluctantly accepted. But the idea of becoming a teacher stemmed from his parents' rather his own wishes, and he declined any further offers. Though his teaching career declined, his literary career advanced in 1920 with the publishing of his first novel, Die Traumbude (The Dream Room).
For the next two years, Remarque held various odd jobs until securing a position as editor and publicity director for the Continental Rubber Company's advertising and trade journal. In 1925, the young author moved to Berlin where he became the picture editor of the Scherl Publishing House's weekly magazine. Berlin appealed to Remarque particularly because it was bustling and the drinking scene was convivial. In Berlin, he married Jutts Else (Jeanne) Sambona who had come to Berlin with Remarque from Hanover, where they first met. Although he had obtained the status of a bona fide ladies' man (frequenting cafes and cabarets alike), Remarque entered this marriage with what biographer Harley Taylor describes as "the enthusiasm of a man really in love."
In 1928, Remarque's works i[Station on the Horizon] and i[All Quiet on the Western Front] were serialized in various publications. The successful installments of All Quiet prompted the printing of the novel in 1929, and it was translated into 12 languages - selling more than a million and a half copies. (At the time of the author's death, over 40 million copies of the book had been sold worldwide.) The novel was met with much criticism, so much so that the German Officers' League wrote to the Nobel Prize Committee after hearing a rumor that Remarque might be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Along with his success and his criticisms, Remarque gained the attention of several women. Whether or not Remarque's extra-marital affairs were the basis of their problems, Remarque and Jeanne divorced in 1930. Despite their divorce, the couple did not sever their relationship and even vacationed in Switzerland together in 1930.
Meanwhile, Remarque fell under attack by the National Socialists in Germany who were appalled that he had failed to glorify German militarism. Remarque was included in the mass exodus of artists and intellectuals who were repressed and persecuted by the Nazis. In 1933, Remarque was exiled from Germany - where All Quiet on the Western Front was being tossed into fires - and found refuge in Switzerland.
His third novel, Three Comrades, was completed in 1937 and in 1938 Remarque lost his German citizenship. Around the same time, Remarque and Jeanne remarried. The coming years brought several trips between the United States and Europe But despite having obtained his U.S. citizenship in New York in 1947, he returned to Switzerland in 1948 permanently. In the next decade, Remarque published four more novels that were translated into several languages, though some controversy arose over whether certain German translations had been censored. Meanwhile, Remarque's friendship with actress Paulette Goddard grew stronger, and after being granted a "friendly" divorce from Jeanne, the two married in Connecticut in 1958. Over his last years, the author accepted several awards for his literary accomplishments but his health declined in spite of his acknowledged success. By 1970 he was admitted into the Saint Agnese hospital in Locarno, Switzerland, after suffering the results of two previous cardiac infarctions and a stroke. His death on September 25, 1970 was credited to heart failure.
Even after his death, Remarque's literary career flourished with the success of several films based on his novels. But perhaps what will most characterize his career is not the success or copies sold of his novels, but what Taylor calls "the lasting literary fame conferred on him by his readers."