War. If one has never participated in this activity, which I think is a safe assumption that applies to most people, then there is very little that we really know about it. What goes on, what people do, and how
they view the outside world are just a few of the uncertainties of war. Most people, though, whether they want to admit it or not, are curious about these things. Since war is an event that affects, during its occurrence, almost every citizen of the cou
ntries involved, if nothing more than indirectly, everyone is fascinated by it. And when the people are presented with a novel that describes the activity that affects so many in such a realistic and simplistic way, in which there is no partisan view so
that any country's citizens can read it and think of their own boys, the response is a flocking to the bookstore to buy their own copy of war. This is what happened with Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.
Erich Remarque had no real intention to write a war novel, much less one resulting in such success. In what took him less than six weeks to write gave him success in almost the same amount. (Owen 69) Serialized originally in Vossische Zeitung in the las
t two months of 1928, the results were astounding as success was instantaneous because readers could not wait to snatch the next issue. The results, once published in book form, were equally as astounding. Selling over a million copies in a single year,
and having Remarque nominated for the Nobel literary prize aided in the book gaining the title "Greatest War Novel." (Barker 32)
Not all of the attention was in favor of Remarque's book, though. Germany and the National Socialists denounced it, claiming it to be an anti-war novel and "denigratory" to the German Volk. Remarque's book was even included in the famous book burning in
Germany on May 10, 1933, along with works of other famous authors, including Hemingway. The following words were spoken as Remarque's book was added to the collection:
As a protest against the literary betrayal of the soldiers of the Great War, and on behalf of the
education of our people in the spirit of truth, I consign to the flames the writings of Erich
Maria Remarque. (33)
Remarque later had his German citizenship revoked. (Barker 32-33)
So why did the German government have such a problem with the novel? It has been argued that the popularity of the book contributed to the hatred of it by the Nazis. The mere fact that so many people were reading a work that they felt demoralized their e
fforts to gain support for the previous war and their future endeavors. They saw All Quiet on the Western Front as a threat to their power and their support. In turn, they burned and banned the book, while exiling the author. This, they hoped, would he
lp their cause.
So why was the book so popular? Was it because it was a literary masterpiece or a page-turner? Was it filled with thrilling suspense and death-defying feats? The answer to these questions is no. The book was popular because of its style and pure conte
nt. It was simple and easy to read. As Wagener comments, "(h)e is trying to imitate the normal spoken language of the German front-line soldier with all its repetitive formulas and filler expressions...," while adding " he consciously avoided the somew
hat stilted and sophisticated language of literature and used expressions that at the time were considered not acceptable for a literary work of art." (29-30)
The result of this type of language, as Wagener goes on to say, was "...to create the impression that a simple soldier and not a professional writer is giving a truthful report about the war." (30) Wagener is not the only one to comment on Remarque's lan
guage and style. Firda calls the language of Remarque's protagonist, Paul Baumer, as "direct, simple," and comments on the style as "identif(ing) expressively with the suffering and distress of the enlisted man's social class." (41) He even goes on to a
dd, quite correctly in my eyes, that the language, tone, and style of the book are not as one might expect, at least in relation to expecting it to "reflect the historical and cultural period 1914-1918," but instead the language is "vibrant and immediate.
The simple style and language of Remarque is not the only factor for its popularity. It is written in such a way that if a reader would not know which war was occurring and if the few references to the French and other allies would not be present periodi
cally in the novel, it would be impossible to determine which side was which. Remarque shows no favoritism nor hatred for neither his own side nor the allied contingency. He writes in a non-partisan way so that the story is important, not whose side was
Through this technique, he attempts to just give the cold hard facts of war. Nothing about whether Germany was right or wrong, but rather simply that war is war. He understands that it is human nature to fight, but he merely attempts, successfully, to s
how what war is. Through this, he allows readers from every nation around the world to find a piece of themselves or their experiences in the book. This is a contributing factor to the popularity because it does not limit the novel to one nation or side
, but rather opens it up to all readers.
Most importantly, though, I feel that the main reason for such popularity deals with the subject matter. It can not be forgotten that without its simple style and language and its lack of partisanship that the book would not have been as successful, but
it is, I believe, the story and the war that makes the book a bestseller. While many novels may deal with a variety of topics, they are usually limited to a particular culture or nationality while the topic of war can breach all lines.
Most contemporary critics seemed to overlook the impact of the war aspect of Remarque's novel, which now appears to be a mistake. They failed to see the true impact of such a subject, especially at the period of the book's release, and failed to see its
importance on the book market. The subject was still fresh in the minds of citizens around the world, which was a contributing factor to its huge sales reception.
With the most comprehensive war, as far as countries and land, citizens around the globe did not survive or live without in some way being affected. Whether their involvement be actual fighting in the war, sending someone in their family off to war, or i
f just watching their own country participate or attempt to stay out of the war, it was a part of their lives. Daily news from the front kept the war close to home. There was no way for people to avoid the war creeping into their lives.
With the war being a part of their lives to some varying degree, it is no wonder why it would interest readers and citizens to learn more about it. For those not participating actively (as far as fighting goes), it is their only window to see into the wo
rld of the soldier. The lives and sufferings as well as the comradeship of foot soldiers in the "Great War" was something that the average citizen would not know anything about, but which they yearned for knowledge. Battles, death, fear, and love were a
ll events and emotions that the loved ones and fellow citizens back home were told were present during war yet they would never know. All that they did know is that whatever war was, it was powerful enough to continually affect the individuals that did c
ome home. For those that did not, the book was a way for their families and friends left at home to have a remaining piece of them, and it was a way to see their death even when they were not there.
For those that did participate in the war, All Quiet on the Western Front was a record of what the soldiers went through during that event. There was no way that someone could ever tell them that it was not real or that they were making too big of a deal
about something because here was a record on paper of what happened. More importantly, it showed the soldiers that they were not the only ones having certain feelings, or dreams because they, through the book, were able to see that someone else had thos
e feelings, dreams, and/or thoughts. It helped them to see that they were not unusual nor alone.
It also helped them to remember past and dead comrades. Here was a record of so many deaths of so many friends, and reading the novel forced former soldiers to remember. How could one forget the new recruit that died beside them when, by reading this no
vel, Paul or another character goes through the same thing. A reader sees this, remembers, and thereby honors that poor soldier's death. It was their window for grief, but also for hope. The war was over, though it would never be truly over for them.
At least with Remarque's book in existence, all that happened there would never be forgotten by the fellow soldiers.
By why does the book continue to remain popular? The answer is that it is popular for many of the same reasons that it was popular decades ago. War is a subject that can span time. It always has been and will continue to be present in our lives. Ther
e always seems to be some conflict going on in the world at some time. People are effected at every turn. War is a part of our society and of our human nature in general. As long as it is a continual part of our lives, it will continue to be a fascinat
ion, and All Quiet on the Western Front, with its vivid and realistic descriptions, will continue to be a bestseller.
Is war and the realistic reason the only reasons why it was a bestseller? Obviously, the answer to that question is no. As Barker states, "(t)his does not, of course, mean that everyone reads Remarque for the same reasons: just as the pit watched Shake
speare for the farce and the fighting, some of Remarque's readers may have scanned the novel for bloodthirsty battle scenes..." She goes on to add that these reasons do not take away from the book or its validity or its strength. (66) In general, no matt
er what the reason is that one may pick up the book, the fact is that one will not be the same nor view war or human nature the same when the book is finally put down.
All Quiet on the Western Front went well beyond its author's and even its publisher's expectations. They knew that it was a good novel, but it was just another war novel so they were therefore unprepared for how well the public, not just in Germany but a
round the world, would receive it. An instant bestseller, the book took the world by storm with its brutal honesty about the truths behind the glamour of war, teaching us all the pain and confusion that is rarely associated with that glorified topic. It
showed us how and why the event alters the lives of all involved so much. One must be cautious though to not read too much into it. Remarque was not attempting to take a stand for pacifism or for war. He is not trying to make some broad political or s
ocial statement. He is just merely telling a story, a story that struck the world with awe. It is a story that everyone must read. It is a story about life, death, and the struggles in between. All Quiet on the Western Front sold because of what it wa
s, plain and simple, and not what everyone wanted it to be. It was war. And it was popular.
Barker, Christine and R.W. Last. Erich Maria Remarque. London: Oswald Wolff Ltd., 1979.
Firda, Richard Arthur. All Quiet on the Western Front: Literary Analysis and Cultural
Context. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Owen, C.R. Erich Maria Remarque: A Critical Bio-Bibliography. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1984.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.
Wagener, Hans. Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 1991.