Published in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front masterfully depicts the horror of war. Erich Maria Remarque based the book on his own experience as a young infantryman in the German army during World War I, and was partially influenced by Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu Journal d’une Escouade, (1916) a war novel published while the war was still being fought. His avowed purpose in writing the novel was “to report on a generation that was destroyed by the war-even when it escaped the shells.” More than a million copies of the book were sold in Germany the first year it appeared, followed by millions more when translated and distributed in the other nations. However, Nazi Germany took away Remarque’s citizenship in 1938. Later on, he became a citizen of Switzerland and the United States. Though Remarque published ten novels and various screenplays, he was known primarily as the author of this novel.
The story is about a lost generation, as seen through the eyes of Paul Baumer, a nineteen-year-old German volunteer, during the last two years of World War I. The book alternates between periods at the Western front and peaceful interludes, horrifying battles and scenes of young comrades passing time together, episodes in the field hospital and at home on furlough. Fresh out of high school, Paul and his classmates idealistically enter military service, but the realities of war soon transform Paul and his comrades into “old folk” and “wild beasts.” War destroys these men: their hope in a seemingly hopeless situation attests to the endurance of the human spirit.
In his vivid chronicling of the infantryman’s view of the German experience in this century, the book found a major audience in non-German readers; Remarque’s episodic style and use of both the first person and present tense endowed the novel, published in German as Im Westen nichts Neues, with an eyewitness authenticity and added to its enduring appeal.