BA in History
Background to the novel and its author
The novel All Quiet on the Western Front (hereafter All Quiet, or the novel), was first published in 1929
by author Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque had been born Erich Remark in Osnabruck, Germany on
June 22, 1898(1) and was conscripted at age 18 into the 2nd Guards Reserve Division until suffering serious
shrapnel wounds on July 31, 1917.(2) He then spent the remainder of the war in an army hospital in
Germany being treated for his wounds.
After the war, Erich Remark worked at several jobs, including teaching and journalism, all while trying to
get his literary career started. He was first published (as Erich Remark) in 1920 with his novel The Dream
Room. Remark did not publish another novel until All Quiet in 1929, which he published as Erich Maria
Remarque, a tribute to his mother, as well as the original French spelling of his last name. He had
written the novel in 1927 but struggled to find a publisher. The German publication went on to sell 1.2
million copies the year it came out, and the English translation, published the same year, saw similar
success. Remarque’s novel has gone on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide since its original release.
The highly acclaimed movie was released in 1930 by Universal Pictures in the USA.
Despite this initial success and international acclaim, when the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power
in 1933 they were quick to ban the book and denounce Remarque as descended from French Jews and
claimed that he had not seen active duty in the Great War. The regime even went so far as to publicly
burn his books.(3) Remarque had already left Germany for Switzerland by this time, and in 1928 the Nazis
revoked his German citizenship. In 1939 Remarque and his wife moved to America, becoming
naturalized citizens in 1947.(4)
One particularly sad note from the Nazi era was that Remarque’s sisters stayed in Germany, and in 1943
his sister Elfriede was arrested for “undermining morale.” After a short trial she was found guilty and
executed, with the judge noting that since her brother was beyond their reach, she could not escape.
The cost of her trial and execution was billed to their other sister, Erna by the German state.(5)
All Quiet on the Western Front: the novel
All Quiet as a novel was written in the sparse, straightforward prose of the time that shares space with
writers such as Hemingway and Dos Passos. This is not surprising as all three served in the Great War,
and their struggle to come to terms with their experiences is reflected in their writings. Not afraid to
confront human needs and frailties, such as soiling one’s pants during the first barrage, makes All Quiet
both very real, and markedly different from novels written prior to this time.
The novel begins in medias res and plops the reader down in the rear of the front with our protagonist
Paul Baumer and his unit having just returned from the lines where they were pummeled by the enemy.
The unit is much depleted, but the cooks won’t feed them until the other half of the company appears
as seen with this exchange "They won't be fed by you to-day. They're either in the dressing-station or
pushing up daisies. The cook was quite disconcerted as the facts dawned on him. He was staggered.
"And I have cooked for one hundred and fifty men--".(6) It finally takes a passing officer to tell the cooks
that this is it, the men before them are all that remains. The men are finally fed, and each received
double rations (their own, plus those due the men who aren’t returning). With his opening, the reader is
immediately shown the harsh reality of the war, as well as the pettiness of army rules. I was reminded of
this scene when I read Catch-22 for the first time.
Remarque leads the reader down a path of contrasting scenes. We see the harsh reality of the war:
being nearly buried alive in a bunker during a barrage, an explanation of the utility of a trenching shovel
in hand-to-hand fighting, and the terror of being gassed. These compare with flashbacks to the boys’
enthusiasm at enlisting, their training under a petty little martinet, and the unease felt at returning
home on leave where everything is the same as it was before, except that Paul has changed completely.
Paul progresses through the war, becoming ever more disillusioned with the army and their chances of
surviving. Each lost friend is another step closer to his own death, finally culminating in the death of his
father figure Kat, despite Paul’s best efforts to get him to an aid station. With that death, Paul resigns
himself to the inevitable.
The final scene, of Paul basking in the serenity of the front, despite the destruction that lays all around,
is the ultimate contrast to his own death, peaceful though it may be. The final postscript that, “He fell in
October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined
itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth
as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an
expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come”(7) echoes in the mind of the reader and
drive home the point that even the quietest days of war still have their casualties.
A comparison of the novel and the 1930 film
The film begins with the opening bookend quote found in the novel stating, “This book is to be neither
an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who
stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may
have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”(8)
The opening scene, however, immediately marks the film out as different from the novel. Perhaps it is
harder to tell the story visually through the flashbacks in the novel, but it is jarring to open on an old
couple commenting on the crowds outside while cleaning, and the audience sees through their windows
and then open door the marching soldiers and crowds waving them off ecstatically in the streets.
The viewer then follows the marching troops to the school where Paul and his classmates are lectured
by their professor on the role of them as young men, the “iron men of Germany”, to enlist and fight for
the Fatherland. The professor then offers the rather trope line of Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori
(it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country). This is not in the novel and is perhaps a nod to the
audience of the day that may have been familiar with the poem Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen,
a British soldier and war poet in the Great War.
The entire class ends up in the same training barracks and later in the same unit in the film, in contrast
to the novel where they are parceled out to different units so that it is only a small number of boys from
the class that end up together. The boys are also depicted to know Himmelstoss, their training sergeant,
having been their postman prior to the war. While his pre-war career was discussed in the novel, the
boys have no prior relationship to him in the original writing.
We are introduced to the Company they will serve with when it is behind the lines, and we meet several
older men, experienced veterans, including Tjaden. Kat is mentioned as being out scrounging for food,
which establishes his primary trait from the novel. Kat returns with a whole butchered pig, not
mentioned in the novel, unless the film conflated the suckling pig’s vignette from the book, and
immediately makes the new recruits pay him for the food. While eating, an officer arrives and orders
them to send out a wiring party.
This contrasts with the novel where we meet Paul and the others after they have been together for
some time, and they have an easy rhythm of jokes and a comfort with each other’s lives. The wiring
party also occurs later in the novel when the men have some experience with the front. The thick gloves
Paul mentions in the novel to grab the bundles of wire are missing in the movie, but the film does a
good job depicting the parachute flares sent up by the enemy.
The film is at the 37-minute mark when we first experience an artillery barrage, and it is shown well with
the men in a bunker suffering a long bombardment. As the novel tells us, “The first bombardment
showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.”(9) One soldier
is shown to grow hysterical and must be beaten into submission, as depicted in the novel as well. The
film audience is also introduced to rats for the first time. The rats here are show as a nuisance, not at all
like the ever-present menace in the book. The book also goes into much more detail about their rat
hunting parties, and the dangers they posed to cats and even dogs brought into the trenches. It is here
during the barrage that Kemmerich is wounded, an act that has already happened when the novel opens.
The bombardment ends with an attack by the French. Paul and the others have left the dugout to find
their trenches in tatters, a good detail for the film to show. The French slowly emerge from the haze and
smoke and at a run attack the German lines. It seems like the film was sped up in many of the fighting
sequences, which adds a sense of urgency to the scenes. When the Germans break and fall back, their
system of defense in depth is well depicted as they move into reserve trenches. I did notice one German
soldier grabbing an MG-08 by the barrel with bare hands though...
After beating the French attacks off from the reserve lines, the Germans counterattack. They rush
forward and several are shown leaping over their own front line of trenches in pursuit. The lack of
parados and narrowness of the trenches stand out as inauthentic. Several Germans get into the French
lines, but the counterattack is checked, and the German troops fall back to their original lines. Here the
film follows the novel and shows the troops falling into their trenches exhausted, too tired to even eat
the bread and tins of meat they had stolen from the French.
It is here, at the 50-minute mark, that we get to the scene that opens the novel at the cookhouse, with
Paul and his mates, the 80 left in their company, lined up for food made for a company of 150 men.
Here again the film depicts Paul as a leader of his group, speaking up to the cook and even the officer. In
the novel he is much more of a passive narrator, and lets others take the lead.
After Kemmerich’s death we quickly move into the introduction of Himmelstoss at the front where he
tries, and fails, to order the now veteran soldiers about. They refuse and nothing seems to come of it as
they immediately go on the attack where Paul witnesses Himmelstoss cowering in a shell hole. The
movie does correctly show the change that comes over Himmelstoss once he is ordered to advance and
attack, and he leaps out of the hole and runs forward. The film then quickly moves into a sequence
where Paul is forced to take cover in a graveyard among the dead. This is somewhat jarring to a fan of
the novel and appears as thought the film makers are trying to quickly jam several notable scenes from
the novel into the movie. This is compounded by the next sequence showing Paul leaving the graveyard
only to find shelter in a shell hole where he meets, and stabs, a French soldier.
This meeting between the two is a pivotal part of the novel, but the film portrays it at the end of a long
sequence of action that makes it feel anticlimactic. We see the French soldier slowly dying, and Paul
alternating between hating him, and pleading with him to live, as depicted in the novel, “But now, for
the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your
rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too
late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as
ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me,
comrade; how could you be my enemy?”(10) The acting is effective in this sequence, but it would have
held more weight for the audience if it had not been depicted as the bookend to a long series of action
We are three quarters through the film when we are introduced to the three French girls that come
upon the men while they are bathing in the river. This interaction follows quite closely to the novel,
although depicted quite a bit later. The film is clearly made pre-code as we see the women bartering for
food and later in the scene quite obviously sleeping with the men.
The final thirty minutes of the film gains momentum and we see Paul wounded and sent to the hospital.
While there are some discrepancies from the novel, for instance it is not Paul sent to the ‘dying room’ in
the novel, the overall depiction on their treatment is quite good. Paul then goes on leave, something
that occurs much earlier in the novel. Here Paul sees that his mother is dying of cancer. He also spends
time in the beer garden being lectured by the older men about how the war should be fought. Here the
film does a good job showing the unease Paul feels trying to relate to civilians, and the disconnect
between their views of the war, as Paul asks in the novel, “What is leave? – a pause that only makes
everything after it so much worse.”(11)
By the time Paul returns to the front he is one of the only veterans left. He sees no familiar faces at first,
until Tjaden shows up, and to Paul’s relief tells him that Kat is out foraging for food. He runs to meet Kat,
and here is the climax of the subplot of the novel focused on soldierly comradery. Kat is wounded and
Paul must carry him to the aid station. While the novel slowly spools out their journey and builds the
tension as they talk and stop to rest occasionally, the film has Paul arriving at the aid station to find that
Kat has died while he carried him.
The final scene of the movie shows a lonely, dejected Paul manning a rifle slit in the trenches when he
notices something just beyond the sandbags. As he reaches for the butterfly that has landed, a shot
rings out and his hand goes limp.
The film is missing the final postscript of the novel, “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet
and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the
Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw
that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end
What is missing from the film?
In addition to the missing postscript, there are several other key scenes or moments from
the novel that are missing in the film.
- The death of the horses, which was omnipresent in the war, and noted in the book with:
“The cries continued. It is not men, they could not cry so terribly.”
“Wounded horses.” says Kat.
It's unendurable. It is the moaning of the world, it is the martyred creation, wild with anguish,
filled with terror, and groaning. (13)
The absence of gas. Again, this was an ever-present threat in the war once Germany introduced
it in April 1915 with their attack on Canadian and French North African troops during the 2nd
Battle of Ypres. The book notes how the men died of gas, "choke to death with hemorrhages
The novel shows Paul scrounging for food with Kat and coming across some geese. This brings
some lighthearted scenes and shows that the soldiers were resourceful and took whatever
chance they could to eat well.
Similarly in the film we don’t see Paul and his mates get put in charge of guarding a supply
dump. The novel spends a good amount of time showing the men setting up comfortable living
quarters, eating well, and sharing their largess with passing troops. When they are finally forced
to leave by the retreating of the German army, their sadness marks another turn in the war for
Remarque depicts, in several scenes in the novel, the standard outdoor toilet scenario in the
army. Rows of men squatting in outdoor privies with no doors or screens so that they may all be
viewed at once by officers. He even describes movable toilet boxes in the field that Paul and his
friends move into a circle so that they may commune with nature and each other at the same
time. Remarque writes “...we have learned better than to be shy about such trifling
immodesties. In time things far worse than that came easy to us.”(15)
Of course, this would be difficult to show in a film made at that time, but by leaving it out we miss
the statement such scenes make on how the army and war breaks down individuals to base functions
and recreates them all as equals.
(6) Page 3 of the online version found at
ERICH MARIA REMARQUE - All Quiet on the Western Front - Translated from the German by A. W. WHEEN FAWCETT CREST
(7) Page 140 of the edition noted above.
(8) Page 1 of the above noted edition.
(9) Page 7, ibid.
(10) Page 106, ibid
(11) Page 84, ibid.
(12) Page 140, ibid.
(13) Page 30, ibid.
(14) Page 62, ibid.
(15) Page 5, ibid.
Navy Veteran, WWII enthusiast
The novel vs the 1930 film
Comparing the novel to the first film version, here’s my take. The
secreenplay sticks to the novel pretty closely. All the vignettes covered in the
novel are in the film. Maybe not in the same order, or exactly the same but
still demonstrating what I think Remarque was getting at: That war ruined a
whole generation of boys (for example Adolf Hitler) to no one’s ultimate
benefit. Paul’s inner thoughts as expressed many times was hopelessness.
As the novel wore on Paul became convinced that he could never go back to
his old life. When he was on leave at home he felt out of place and isolated.
Often soldiers during war feel out of place on leave and would just as soon
want to go back to their unit no matter what kind of st storm awaited them.
As time passed Paul came to accept he wasn’t going to survive.In the final
scene of the movie he’s reaching out to capture a butterfly. In the novel “He
fell in October 1918...All Quiet on the Western Front...Turning him over one
saw...his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had
In the beginning, even after the baptism of fire, there were moments
of levity: “Kropp proposes a declaration of war should be a kind of popular
festival with tickets and bands... Then in the arena the ministers and
generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing- drawers and armed with
clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever wins, his country wins.”
In the film, Kat proposes this but propose a cow pasture.
Then there is the episode where three of them sneak over to have a
date with three French girls. Well done in the movie. The movie precedes
the censorhip era, I suppose.
There is plenty of combat in both versions. The senseless slaughter
of WWI was fathfully portrayed. Especially gruesome is the scene with the
French soldier who Paul stabs. The poor man takes a long time to die. Paul
is trapped with him for a day. He harbors a lot of guilt. He promises to write to
his wife. In the novel, he obsesses over it for a few days then forgets it.
Better to concentrate on surviving. The death was faithfully captured in the
The anti-war message is clear in this scene when Paul is on leave: “
After I have been startled a couple of times in the street by the screaming of
the tramcars, which resembles the shriek of a shell coming straight for one,
somebody taps me on the shoulder. It is my German-master, he fastens on
me with the usual “how are things out there?” Then the school master says
“But first you have to give the Froggies a good hiding.” It’s maybe 3 years in
to it and these civilians think one more breakthrough will give Germany
victory. He tries to explain the reality but they won’t have it. No wonder he
wants to escape his home town.
Apparrently Paul and his comrades arrive in 1914 and are at the
front through 1918. The first part they wear picklehaube then we see them in
coal shuttles. Over that period all of Paul’s comrades fall until he remains. He
must have felt alone.
Now for some opionating: This was a very popular anti-war film. It
didn’t glorify war or celebrate it. It was rather stark, unforgiving. We need
more of these. New ones. Something like “Thin Red Line” or “the
Deerhunter.” “Private Ryan” or “Platoon” celebrate war too much in my
opinion. I mean it’s great to see the good guys win but if twenty years of war
in Afganistan have reinforced for me one thing: it’s the futility of war no
matter how the politicians try to justify it. Especially now that the chicken-
hawks are ginning up a bigger war in Ukraine.
What we know of the real history behind the book and Remarque's military service
For much of the greater context of WW1 on the Western Front you can see my write up from 1917. As
for the specifics of what is going on in the context of All Quiet on the Western Front we are left with
some generalities. No specific battles or locations are mentioned in the book, this is a specific attempt
by the author Erich Maria Remarque to make the book not about his specific experiences but a general
“this is the war WE experienced as soldiers” for the people who served in the German Army as a whole.
Remarque was an aspiring writer at the time of WW1 and so we can easily imagine him as every “writer”
character from an ensemble war film. The guy on the squad who’s always talking about how they are
going to take these experiences and turn them into a great novel. The important part is that’s what he
did when creating an absolute masterpiece of literature. If you are wondering if you can make an anti-
war war novel this is a great example. The keys of what he is trying to convey are the horrors of this
new modern warfare. In Germany at the time of WW1 they were not unfamiliar with being at war. It
was a country that had to go to war for its own existence in The Franco-Prussian war and between that
war in 1870 and WW1 was involved in 12 other wars. The speeches of the teacher in the book were
things that Remarque would have experienced. German had won an important war against France
during recent memory, and since then not lost a war they had been involved in. So when our stand in
for Remarque, Paul Baumer, experiences the juxtaposition of the nationalist themes he was being fed
against the realities of modern trench warfare he is revealing the same experiences that he and other
young Germans were feeling.
Remarque was surrounded by a host of young quickly disaffected men, who rapidly learned that love of
country wont protect you from an artillery shell, that killing a man takes something from you, and that
there are few things that can take the place of being fed. Unlike Baumer who volunteered, Remarque
was drafted into the German Army in 1916 as he turned 18. We know his unit, the 2nd Guards Reserve
Division of the German Empire, was on the Western Front for the entirety of the war taking part in the
First Battle of the Marne in 1914 and the battle of the Somme in 1916 which Remarque would have
arrived at the very end of. In 1917 they took part in the battle of Arras. We know he took part in the
Battle of Passchendaele (The Third Battle of Ypres), a battle famous on the Allied side of the war for its
absolute brutality and incredible loss of life (more Germans died in just the battle of Passchendaele than
in all other German wars since its unification combined). Remarque was wounded by artillery at
Passchendaele (one of the five times he was wounded during his years of service) during July right at the
very beginning of that over three month long battle and was sent back to Germany to covalence.
The German Army, as opposed to the Entente forces, did not rotate out units as the war went on. So
Remarque’s experience would have been to join soldiers who had already been fighting for as long as
they had been in service as the unit had been in action for 2 years already. They would have been
constantly under combat conditions for the entirety of their service. Men who had been serving under
the Schlieffen Plan to invade France via Belgium and The Netherlands would then find themselves
constantly serving until they were now experiencing the horrors of trench warfare for years on end.
This time of convalescence is mirrored in the book with Baumer’s return home. The experiences of the
German soldiers are ignored or deflected by the people back home because he “doesn’t see the whole
picture” and while Baumer is happy to get back to the front, where he then sadly meets his fate,
Remarque was forced to remain. Surrounded by people who could not, or would not, try to understand
his experiences. Remarque was briefly recalled to service in October of 1918, shortly before the war
ended. He then went on to finish his education, briefly becoming a teacher before his writing career
found success. Unfortunately his works were not welcome when the Nazis rose to power, with a
showing of the film version of the book sabotaged by a Nazi riot organized by Joseph Goebbels. Once
again Remarque was left in a world where the truth of the horrors of war was detrimental to the
narrative of nationalism and therefore subversive.