Of War and Capitalism: The Debate About All Quiet on the Western Front Goes All the Way Back to the Book

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One of the most important books ever written in the German language,” All Quiet on the Western Front (originally titled Nothing New in the West), is now an Oscar-nominated film causing some international turbulence. Imagine Saving Private Ryan told from a German soldier’s perspective, and you can begin to appreciate the disquiet elsewhere about All Quiet.

For many Germans, World War I isn’t a good versus evil tale. As the film’s German director, Edward Berger, explains to the Los Angeles Times: “We don’t have your history. It’s laden with guilt and shame. We can’t make a movie where a German soldier kills, quote-unquote, an enemy and it’d be a good thing.” In addition to that problem, one prominent German newspaper calls the film “war kitsch,” a film designed to guarantee profits.

This debate about Erich Maria Remarque’s work as it appears on screen parallels one that took place immediately after the book’s appearance in 1929, and was spearheaded by a forgotten Jewish writer named Salomo Friedlaender. In his time, Friedlaender interacted with luminaries from the Berlin cultural scene whose fame has endured, such as Martin Buber, Georg Simmel, and Siegfried Kracauer. Walter Benjamin was a fan of Friedlaender’s work, particularly of Friedlaender’s Creative Indifference (1918).

A hybrid of Immanuel Kant and Charlie Chaplin, Friedlaender responded to the buzz around Remarque’s novel with a satire entitled Did Erich Maria Remarque Really Live? (1929), a work modeled on an 1835 text, How Napoleon Never Existed. In his satire, Friedlaender treats Remarque as the George Santos of the Roaring Twenties.

Imagine Saving Private Ryan told from a German soldier’s perspective, and you can begin to appreciate the disquiet elsewhere about All Quiet.

Friedlaender suggests that Remarque’s public embraced a mythical author concocted by Remarque’s publisher, Ullstein, where Remarque’s manuscript, with the help of several editors, morphed from novel to “authentic war testimony.” Like Santos, Remarque had changed his name, from Erich Paul Remark. Another time, Remarque registered as “Erich Freiherr von Buchwald.” Furthermore, what happened to Remarque during his time as a soldier remains locked in a fog of conflicting reports, including an allegation that Remarque shot himself in order to be sent home. Friedlaender offers evidence that Remarque did not return from the war as a lieutenant, had not been part of Infantry regiment 91, and did not receive a special medal claimed in his biography.

In his response to Did Erich Maria Remarque Really Live?, Tucholsky calls Friedlaender’s use of Remarque’s personal history “indecent.” Friedlaender retaliated with a 1931 book about Tucholsky, Back to the Untrodden Path (Der Holzweg zurück). This hermeneutical contretemps at the end of the 1920s over All Quiet on the Western Front has given way to an encrusted view that Remarque’s text is a classic of anti-war literature.

Biographical inconsistencies and distortions weren’t Friedlaender’s only concerns about All Quiet on the Western Front. He also criticized the work from a moral position. A lifelong fan of Immaneul Kant’s work, especially Kant’s take on perpetual peace, Friedlaender objects to the book’s “mediocrity” and accuses Remarque of “tragically misrepresenting war.” For example, Friedlaender labels All Quiet on the Western Front a “bellicose peace book” (bellizistisches Friedensbuch).

At his publisher’s request, Remarque not only attempted to neutralize any political dimension to the novel, but also increased the amount of war horrors for the final draft. (War sells.) In the first six months of publication, Remarque’s book sold half a million copies, which looks meager in comparison to, say, Prince Harry’s Spare, which sold 1.43 million copies on its first day. A comparable book might be Margaret Atwood’s Testaments, which sold about 103,000 copies in its first week of publication.

Once Remarque’s book caught fire, exploiting war themes for profit became commonplace both for book publishers and for filmmakers.

Questioning the capitalist motivations driving the success of All Quiet on the Western Front, Friedlaender says the novel is an example of “Geldliteratur,” literature for money. Modris Ecksteins verifies Friedlaender’s complaint. Remarque’s novel triumphed, in part, due to a publicity campaign by his publisher. Once Remarque’s book caught fire, exploiting war themes for profit became commonplace both for book publishers and for filmmakers. This symptom of capitalism persists over a century later. Think Top Gun: Maverick, another Best Picture contender.

To underscore his distaste for trafficking in disinformation, in a 1913 essay about toys for children, Friedlaender imagines figurines equipped with artificial blood so children could have “more fun” (mehr Spass) when the toy soldiers were wounded during play. “To achieve grenade-like effects, all you need are magnetized little soldiers whose limbs dislodge on impact.” Friedlaender also proposes a toy “hospital with well-imitated wounded, on whom toy doctors can perform operations, amputations and the like. For my little ones, I had a hospital train with corpses, wounded, doctors, nurses, accompanying widows, orphans and other black-clad mourning dolls made by honest craftsmen.” Friedlaender’s satire might be difficult to square with a country in which politicians send out Christmas messages with their children cradling rifles.

In keeping with Kantian doctrine, Friedlaender championed a principled pacifism. Remarque wasn’t the only writer who drew Friedlaender’s attention on that topic. Friedlaender skewered Thomas Mann for presenting war as healthy, as redemptive violence. Unsurprisingly, Friedlaender’s anti-militaristic position did not make him popular with the National Socialists. He was forced to flee Germany and lived in exile in Paris (Mann refused interventions to assist with Friedlaender’s migration to the US) until his death in 1946.

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