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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 Westen nichts Neues, 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 Lew 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 zuruck, 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 bookburning 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.