This is the cover of the novel that we had at home, the one I read. The hand, the barbed wire and the butterfly make an image that has stuck in my memory. Erich Maria Remarque, born Erich Paul Remark, on this day in 1898.
Remarque is remarkable for three main reasons.
- He wrote of World War 1 from the German perspective.
- He wrote the defining novel about a war that is celebrated in reams of poetry.
- He began the tradition of war veterans writing about their own experience of war.
Novels about war were not new. Stephen Crane wrote the Red Badge of Courage in 1893 and it tells of the US Civil War from the standpoint of an ordinary soldier. It reads like a personal account, but Crane was a novelist, not a soldier. He was born after the war and based his book on interviews with veterans of the war.
Remarque fought in WW1, and was wounded. He became a teacher after the war and then wrote the novel in 1928. In the novel he is particularly hard on teachers who instill mindless nationalism in their students. Above all it is an anti-war novel.
The Nazis hated it. Remarque was declared “unpatriotic” and his books were removed from German libraries and added to the bonfires. He moved to live in Switzerland. In Germany the facts of his military service were denied by the Third Reich and his citizenship was revoked. He moved with his wife to the USA before the outbreak of the war and eventually became a US citizen in 1947.
His sister in Germany, Elfriede Scholz, was tried on a charge of undermining morale and was beheaded. The court stated “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach — you, however, will not escape us”.
“Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting“. (3.42)