Monday, April 2, 2018

Book of the Day: "Dark times always reveal good people."

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (A.W. Wheen, trans., Grosset & Dunlap authorized reprint of the Little Brown ed. of 1929, February, 1930). Hardcover, no dust jacket, 299 pp. Gray cloth boards with debossed cover and spine titling in black. Some wear to the corners and top and bottom of the spine; some sunning of the text block and spotting on the back cover. slight forward cant to text block. 7.5 x. 5”. HBB price: $20.

It’s hard to imagine, ninety years later, the impact of this book. 

Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) is now remembered for only one novel, this 1928 war chronicle. All Quiet On the Western Front appeared in serial form in a periodical in January 1929, then as a book, and for a year he was one of the most famous and popular authors in the world.

The book was a smash sensation. It sold a million and a half copies in its first year. What people thought of it split along ideological lines: conservatives thought it unpatriotic; liberals lauded its implicit denunciation of the folly of war.

The general public loved it for its all-too-real portrayals of a band of average German men and boys plucked from home, dropped in trenches, and told to live as long as possible to kill as many as possible.

Literary critics couldn't imagine a story so simple being so popular and chided Remarque for cashing in on the 10th anniversary of the Great War's end. The book was nominated for the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

He was a working-class German who yearned to write, but at eighteen Remarque volunteered for the German Army and saw service on the front lines of World War I for two years and survived shrapnel and other wounds five times.

During the fraught Weimar Years, he bounced around a variety of jobs, including teacher, stonecutter, race car driver, and copywriter for a German tire company's ad department. He published a few books that didn't sell well.

At thirty Remarque published his war novel, changed his middle name to his late mother as a tribute, and altered the spelling of his surname to an earlier version. Eric Paul Romark was now Erich Maria Remarque.

Remarque was not only suddenly famous and rich, he was catnip to movie stars. He and his wife divorced in 1930 and he bought a villa in Switzerland while spending the season in France. He had affairs with Hedy Lamarr; Delores Del Rio, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Rainier, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Greta Garbo over the coming years.

The American edition was rushed to production as a movie and won the Oscars for best picture, best direction, and outstanding production. It was the first non-musical all-talking film to take home Academy Awards.

When it opened in Berlin in December 1930, 150 Nazi Brownshirts stormed the movie house, disrupting the showing and assaulting patrons.

The main goal was simply to create chaos, to terrorize moviegoers, to rally support against the film, Smithsonian Magazine recalled in 2015.

“Within ten minutes, the cinema was a madhouse,” [propaganda chief Joseph] Goebbels gloated in his diary that night. “The police are powerless. The embittered masses are violently against the Jews.” 

Goebbels would lead torch-wielding hooligans for the next few days as other riots broke out. In Vienna, 1,500 police surrounded the Apollo Theater and withstood a mob of several thousand Nazis trying to disrupt the movie, but vandalism and violence still erupted in the streets. Other disturbances, like one on December 9 in Berlin’s West End district were more sanguine. The New York Times described it as “fairly polite rioting, the sort one could take one’s best girl to see.” Only scary in that it proved others were heeding the Nazi call.

Among the audience was a friend of Remarque's, an actress and aspiring film director called Leni Riefenstahl. She did well out of the war, hitching her star to Hitler's, dodging a war crimes trial over her astonishingly powerful propaganda movies, and denying she was a collaborator, with dwindling success, until she died, in 2003, at the age of 101.

After the terror campaign, the Nazis banned the movie for being anti-German; the Polish government banned it for being pro-German.

In one account, Goebbels offered Remarque an out:

[A]uthor Hilton Als says Remarque was visited by a Nazi emissary prior to the premiere, who asked him to confirm that the publishers had sold the film rights without his consent. The idea was he’d been swindled by Jews, which Goebbels could use as propaganda, in exchange for protection from the Nazis. Remarque declined.

Goebbels- whose clubfoot barred him from war service, envied and despised Remarque and spent years hounding him. In May 1933, the Nazis banned and publicly burned his books. Tipped off that he was marked for arrest, Remarque decamped, driving through the night to Switzerland with his ex-wife, whom he then remarried to prevent her deportation back to Germany.

By the end of 1933, the German government declared All Quiet on the Western Front illegal to own. Citizens were required to turn in their copies to the Gestapo, who kept careful records for future reference.

For all its success and controversy, Remarque went through a profound crisis over it. He worried, rightly, that he would never be remembered for anything but All Quiet on the Western Front. At thirty, he feared his career was over.

Worse, he came to believe anyone who survived war service could have written it. What made it universal in appeal was its profound ordinariness. The experience of his characters was the shared experience of millions of soldiers; he had simply lived to tell it.

The Nazis revoked Remarque's citizenship in 1938 and with his wife, he fled to America. There he continued writing books that delighted readers and irked the German government. Living large in Manhattan, he was cut off from news of his family, who endured the endless persecutions of Goebbels alongside the perils of war. His stepmother was a suicide; a brother-in-law a war prisoner.

When one of his sisters who remained at home was heard to say the Second World War was a hopeless cause, her landlady turned her in. The Nazis arrested and tried her for undermining morale. "Your brother has unfortunately escaped our reach," the judge told her, "but you will not." She was promptly found guilty and beheaded, and the bill for her trial and execution was sent to another surviving sister.

After the war, wracked by guilt, Remarque dedicated his 1952 novel, Spark of Life, to his sister. His German publisher, pandering to a reading public who'd come to see him as a traitor, left it out.

Having become naturalized American citizens, the Remarques returned to Switzerland in 1948. They divorced again and a year later he married the American actress Paulette Goddard. It was a happy union, and after her death in 1990 Goddard left his papers to New York University with a $20 million gift to create a European studies institute in Remarque's name. Its first director was the eminent historian Tony Judt.

All Quiet on the Western Front has never gone out of print, selling some fifty million copies. It has been filmed three times.

Depending on the interview, it is also President Trump's second or third-favorite book, after the Bible and The Art of the Deal.

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