Born Erich Paul Remark on June 22, 1898, he grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Osnabrck in the province of Westphalia, Germany- a city in the northwest part of what is now West Germany. He adored his mother, Anna Maria, but was never close to his father, Peter. The First World War effectively shut him off from his sisters, Elfriede and Erna. Peter Remark, descended from a family that fled to Germany after the French Revolution, earned so little as a bookbinder that the family had to move 11 times between 1898 and 1912.
The family’s poverty drove Remarque as a teenager to earn his own clothes money (giving piano lessons). He developed a craving for luxury, which he never outgrew. His piano playing and other interests, such as collecting butterflies and exploring streams and forests, later appeared in his fictional characters. His love of writing earned him the nickname Smudge. Because of the frequent moving, Remarque attended two different elementary schools and then the Catholic Praparande (preparatory school). He loved the drama of Catholic rituals, the beauty of churches, the flowers in cloister gardens, and works of art.
He later wrote with a sense of theater, and he featured churches and museums, flowers and trees as symbols of enduring peace. While in school, he had problems with teachers, however, and eventually paid them back by ridiculing them in his novels. At the Praparande he argued so much with one teacher that he used the man’s personality and another’s name (Konschorek) to produce a specific character in All Quiet on the Western Front: Schoolmaster Kantorek. In November 1916, when Remarque was eighteen and a third-year student at Osnabruck’s Lehrerseminar (teachers college), he was drafted for World War I.
After basic training at the Westerberg in Osnabruck (the Klosterberg of All Quiet), he was assigned to a reserve battalion, but often given leave to visit his seriously ill mother. In June 1917, he was assigned to a trench unit near the Western Front. He was a calm, self-possessed soldier, and when grenade splinters wounded his classmate Troske, Remarque carried him to safety. He was devastated when Troske died in the hospital of head wounds that had gone unnoticed.
Still, he rescued another comrade before he himself was severely injured- also by grenade splinters- and sent to the St. Vincenz hospital in Duisburg for much of 1917-1918. He was there when his mother died in September 1917. A year later, still grieving for her, he returned to Osnabruck for further training. After the war he substituted her middle name, Maria, for his own, Paul. The war ended before Remarque could return to active service, but even though he had not experienced frontline fighting at its worst, the war had changed his attitudes forever. He had learned to realize the value- and fragility- of each individual life, and had become disillusioned with a patriotism that ignored the individual.
To him and many of his companions, civilian careers no longer held any meaning. The next few years in Germany brought shortages, profiteering, runaway inflation, unemployment, riots, and extremist politics- including the rise of National Socialism from the postwar German Workers Party, a group almost fanatic in stressing nationalism. For lack of anything better to do, Remarque and several friends returned to the Seminar, but they found the studies and the older teachers’ attitudes ridiculous. Remarque became involved in many disputes.
For example, to ridicule the town authorities for their continued belief in the glory of war, he had himself photographed with his dog for the local paper- he in an officer’s uniform decorated with two Iron Crosses and other medals. The scandalized Osnabruck officials demanded a public apology. Still, at graduation he was given the customary letter of recommendation (although it did describe him as more freethinking than the average teacher), and in June 1919 he began two years’ work as a substitute for teachers on leave. He was blond, strikingly good-looking, and very muscular, and managed to dress elegantly whatever his income.
He stayed out of politics but became interested in all sports, especially cars and racing. Finally, bored with teaching, he wandered from job to job: playing organ on Sundays in an insane asylum, working for a tombstone firm, working as a small-town drama critic, writing advertising copy for an automotive firm. He married an actress, Jutta Ilse Zambona, in 1925, shortly after taking a job in Berlin as associate editor of the illustrated magazine, Sport im Bild, and became a regular in Berlin society, often sporting a monocle, superficially happy.
Early in 1920, as Erich Remark, he published a novel so poorly received that the embarrassment caused him to adopt his great grandfather’s spelling of Remarque. His journalistic writing was stiff often mediocre and overly sentimental. Thus, the great success of his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929, astonished him and everyone else. He hadn’t even set out to write a bestseller but had written, instead, to rid himself of the bleak moods that he and his friends were still experiencing. “The shadow of war hung over us,” he said, “especially when we tried to shut our minds to it.
The result, known in German as Im Weston nights Neuse, deeply moved people on both sides of the Atlantic who were also still seeking to make sense of the war. In its first year, German readers alone bought more than one million copies of All Quiet; and the British, French, and Americans bought thousands more. The novel also attained success as an American motion picture. (One of the first “talkies,” the film, starring Law Ayres and Lewis Wolheim, is still considered a classic. A 1979 made-for-television version starred Richard Thomas as Paul, Patricia Neal as Mrs.
Baumer, and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky. ) By 1932 All Quiet had been translated into 29 languages, and the unknown journalist had been transformed into a world-famous author. Despite its popularity, the book generated a storm of controversy. Some people charged that Remarque had written solely to shock and to sell. Others called the book sentimental pacifism. The Nazis chose to read it as an attack on the greatness of the German nation. Ignoring the book as literature, they spread rumors to undermine Remarque’s popularity.
They variously claimed that he was a French Jew, an old man who had never seen a battlefield, or the worthless son of millionaire parents. Remarque refused to comment, later telling an interviewer, “I was only misunderstood where people went out of their way to misunderstand me. ” During the controversy Remarque and his wife lived in Berlin. They were divorced in the early 1930s after the Nazis exiled him but remarried almost immediately so that Ilse, who suffered from tuberculosis, would not lose her Swiss residence permit. They lived separately until their final divorce in 1951.
Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet, based on his and his friends’ experiences after they returned from the front, was published in 1931. It was called Der Weg zurck, or The Road Back. At the time, Remarque was neutral (or noncommittal) rather than a convinced anti-Nazi, but the sequel aroused further Nazi persecution. Goebbels, chief organizer of the witch-hunt, had first brought things to a head in 1930, when the American film version of All Quiet was screened in Berlin.
His bands of Hitler Youth had rampaged through the theater hurling stink bombs, scattering white mice, and shouting, “Germany, awake! The film was banned, and in 1931 Remarque was forced to leave Germany, where both his novels were thrown into the fire during the infamous book burning of 1933. Remarque commented in 1962, “I had to leave Germany because my life was threatened. I was neither a Jew nor orientated towards the left politically. I was the same then as I am today: a militant pacifist. ” It is said that Goebbels later invited Remarque back, but that Remarque replied, “What? Sixty-five million people would like to get away and I’m to go back of my own free will? Not on your life! ”
In 1932 German officials seized his Berlin bank account- supposedly for back taxes- but he had transferred most of his money as well as his Impressionist paintings to Switzerland, where he bought a villa at Porto Ronco on Lake Maggiore, gradually filling it with valuable antiques. By the time Remarque was actually deprived of his German citizenship in 1938, his first three books had already been made into films in America and he was sometimes called the King of Hollywood. Until 1939 he divided his time between Porto Ronco and France from 1939 to 1942 he rented a bungalow in Hollywood.
His female companions included Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo his male friends, Charles Chaplin, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Eventually, he tired of the Hollywood glitter, and in 1942 began to divide his time between New York and Porto Ronco. In 1957 he received critical acclaim as an actor for his role in the film version of his novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die. In 1958 he married an American actress, Paulette Goddard, whom he had met in the 1940s. When he first came to America in 1939, Remarque had none of the passport difficulties experienced by most German political exiles at that time.
But he felt the injustices of his fellow countrymen deeply and described them fully in his novels. He applied for American citizenship in 1941, becoming a citizen after the time required by law. He loved America- especially the easygoing friendliness of the people- but never felt fully accepted by the Germans and always resented the loss of his German citizenship. Nor was he the only member of his family to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. In 1943 his younger sister Elfriede Scholz was beheaded for spreading subversive propaganda.
He was deeply moved when Osnabruck named a street for her in 1968. In 1971 the authorities also named a section of road along the town walls the Erich-Maria-Remarque-Ring. Wherever he was living he continued to write, and, despite his financial success and love of fine living, never forgot the lessons of World War I. His work eventually included 11 novels, all written in German but immediately translated and published in English as well. They developed themes first introduced in All Quiet. (Each is described in the Further Reading section of this guidebook.
Early in the 1950s Remarque returned briefly to Germany to collect material for a book, but he never returned to his hometown, even when attending his father’s funeral near there in 1956. He felt that the new city, rebuilt after World War II, wasn’t the town he had enshrined in All Quiet, The Road Back, and The Black Obelisk. A series of heart attacks in the late 1960s obliged Remarque to choose Rome instead of New York for his winter quarters, and he lived there and in Porto Ronco until his death in a hospital in Locarno on September 25, 1970.
Tributes from the world press were varied, and sometimes stressed strange things. In his native Germany, the weekly journal Der Spiegel published an obituary that managed to omit his ever having written a great World War I novel. Remarque would not have been surprised. The news media had always been far more interested in his glamorous life than in his novels. But the public had bought more than 13 minion copies of his books. And All Quiet on the Western Front, accounting for 8 million in sales, is still one of the greatest European bestsellers of the 20th century.