Erich Maria Remarque is considered one of the most significant war novelists in contemporary literature. In his works, he displayed his concern for the physical and spiritual effects of the First World War on a generation in Germany. Born in Osnabruck, Germany on 22 June 1898, Remarque came from a poor family; his father, Peter Franz Remark, was a bookbinder who supported Erich, his mother Anna Maria, and two sisters. The writer took the name of his mother and the spelling of his family name, Remarque, from his French ancestors. At school, he clashed with authorities (whom he later criticized in his character Kantorek). Remarque began writing at sixteen years of age and published his essays, poems, and an early novel later in Die Traumbude or The Dream Room (1920). Though he began training as an elementary school teacher at the University of Munster, he was unable to finish, since he was drafted at the age of nineteen into the German army to serve on the Western front. Wounded five times, Remarque, like his protagonist, Paul Baumer, swallowed poison gas and sustained injury to his lungs. Both visited their mother, to whom they were close, during leave. The similarity ends there, of course, since Baumer makes the ultimate sacrifice. However, shortly after Remarque returned home from duty, his mother passed away in September 1917.
Only months earlier, Remarque participated in the Battle of Flanders against the British. While carrying a wounded comrade back from the attack, he suffered shrapnel wounds that sent him to a hospital in Germany. He spent most of the war recuperating, writing music, and working on Die Traumbude. After his discharge in 1918, he suffered postwar trauma and disillusionment, complicated by regret that his wounds ended his hopes for a career as a concert pianist as well as by grief over his mother’s death. He worked in a variety of positions ranging from an itinerant peddler and organist in an insane asylum to an advertising copywriter. He then moved to Berlin in 1925, where he wrote about car races in and edited the magazine Sport im Bild while continuing to write fiction. Remarque married a dancer, Jutta Zambona. Drawn to local social events, he developed a reputation for high living.
Im Westen nichts Neues (literally “In the West, nothing new”), his first and most famous work of fiction, was written in five weeks in 1927. Following serial publication in a magazine, the book was published in January 1929. The publishers were initially skeptical of the postwar reaction to the book, wondering if readers were still interested in World War I. However, a half million copies were sold in Germany within three months. After eighteen months, the worldwide sales totaled three-and-a-half million copies.
With achieving fame and fortune, Remarque began to live an upscale lifestyle. He bought a Lancia convertible and moved to Casa Remarque in Porto Ronco, on Switzerland’s Lake Maggiore. He ended his marriage but still lived with his wife. Though he lived among priceless paintings and antique Egyptian artifacts, Remarque was unable to avoid the hatred against him by a new force in his native country. In 1933, the National Socialist Party came to power in Germany. Hitler’s propagandist, Josef Goebbels, plotted to punish the writer for his anti-war sentiments. In the Obernplatz, facing Berlin’s opera house, Goebbels burned Remarque’s book and the film that was based on it along with books by Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Maxim Gorki, Bertolt Brecht, and Albert Einstein. Shortly before Hitler invaded Poland, Remarque fled the Gestapo by escaping through France and sailing to America on the Queen Mary. Unfortunately, his sister was murdered by the Nazis, for which he felt personally guilty for the rest of his life.
When Remarque arrived in New York, he was a literary star. Along with other writers in self-imposed exile, he continued to write about the war, worked for various movie studios, and settled in a colony of German expatriates in west Los Angeles until 1942. Remarque became a U.S. citizen in 1947 and married actress Paulette Goddard in 1958. After 1960, he spent more and more time in Italy and returned less often to the U.S. He was awarded the Great Order of Merit of Germany. He wrote ten books after his best seller, but none of them received the acclaim of All Quiet. A sequel, The Road Back, recounts the collapse of the German army and the efforts of returning soldiers to adjust to civilian life.
Remarque died of a heart attack on Sept. 24, 1970 in Locarno, Switzerland. In Germany, he was described as a successful writer of pulp love stories and popular thrillers but was recognized abroad as the chronicler of German destiny from 1914 through 1945. Above all, he was lauded as the writer of All Quiet on the Western Front.