In the late 1920s, Erich Maria Remarque published All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows a group of disillusioned German soldiers navigating the horrors of World War I. The novel gave voice to a generation of young veterans on both sides of the conflict who had struggled—and were still struggling, even a decade after the armistice—to reacclimate to civilian life. Nearly a century later, it’s still considered one of the most searing war (or, rather, anti-war) stories ever written. Here are eight facts about its history and legacy.
1. Erich Maria Remarque based the novel on his own experiences in World War I.
Erich Paul Remark was born in Osnabrück, Germany, on June 22, 1898, to Anna Maria and Peter Franz Remark. (He would later replace Paul with Maria as a tribute to his mother and adopt his French ancestors’ spelling of his surname: Remarque.) The future writer was an 18-year-old student when, in November 1916, he was drafted into the Imperial German Army. He spent about six weeks at the front in the early summer of 1917 before a shrapnel injury landed him in the hospital, and those harrowing memories eventually inspired All Quiet on the Western Front.
Remarque experienced depression in the decade following the war, and it wasn’t until 1928 that he finally linked his malaise to military trauma. “I could observe a similar phenomenon in many of my friends and acquaintances,” he said in a 1929 interview. “The shadow of war hung over us, especially when we tried to shut our minds to it. The very day this thought struck me, I put pen to paper, without much in the way of prior thought.” Six weeks later, the novel was finished.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t a direct translation of the book’s German title.
The Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung printed Remarque’s story in serial form in 1928; and the Ullstein Verlag, a German publisher, released it as a book the following January. But it wasn’t called All Quiet on the Western Front: The German title was (and is) Im Westen nichts Neues, meaning “Nothing New in the West.”
That line is the army report from the day of protagonist Paul Bäumer’s death shortly before the end of the war. In the English-language edition, however, Australian translator Arthur Wesley Wheen rendered it in the novel as “All quiet on the Western Front,” which also became the title. Like Remarque, Wheen fought for his home country and was wounded in the war, and he readily admitted that it was these parallel experiences—more than his grasp of German, “which I had but imperfectly”—that made him understand the story. In short, Wheen was generally less concerned with direct translation than capturing the essence of Remarque’s words.
3. Early American editions were censored.
After Little, Brown and Company bought the rights to publish Wheen’s translation in the U.S. in 1929, editors made some updates for two reasons: to abide by obscenity laws, and also to help ensure that the Book of the Month Club would choose it as a future book pick. Little, Brown went so far as to accept edits suggested by the club’s judges, a decision ethically dicey enough to set off a modest media hubbub in which the publisher tried to downplay the revisions.
So what were the revisions? Literature scholar Sarah Eilefson found that most were small phrasal omissions involving sex or bodily functions—plus two pretty significant deleted scenes. One is a description of the public outdoor latrine where the soldiers would pass hours playing cards and reading letters.
“The soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines. Three-quarters of his vocabulary is derived from these regions, and they give an intimate flavour to expressions of his greatest joy as well as of his deepest indignation,” Remarque wrote in part. “We feel ourselves for the time being better off than in any palatial white-tiled ‘convenience.’ There it can only be hygienic; here it is beautiful.”
In the other passage that was removed, Paul and his fellow hospital patients “make a great clatter and play skat noisily” in their communal room so their bedridden friend can enjoy a conjugal visit with his wife. “We now feel ourselves like one big family, the woman is rather quieter, and Lewandowski lies there sweating and beaming. … We call [the woman] Mother, she is pleased and shakes up our pillows for us.”
4. Remarque wrote a sequel.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, the soldiers—the young ones in particular—struggle to imagine returning to regular life after the war, and Paul has a tough time just being home on leave. Remarque explored the difficulties of reassimilation more fully in his sequel, Der Weg zurück—The Way Back, or, in Wheen’s original and better-known translation, The Road Back. The novel was first serialized in Vossische Zeitung in late 1930 to early 1931 and published as a book later that year.
According to Christine Barker and R.W. Last’s biography, Erich Maria Remarque, the author intended for the sequel to be hopeful. “We want to begin once again to believe in life,” he said. “He who has pointed out the danger must also point out the road onward.” It still ended up being pretty bleak. The story follows several of Paul’s surviving contemporaries—mostly new characters, though the ever-ravenous Tjaden from All Quiet is among them—in their troubled attempts to reintegrate into a society that they no longer understand (and that no longer understands them).
5. The 1933 Nazi book burnings included All Quiet on the Western Front.
On May 10, 1933, far-right German college students congregated in nearly three dozen towns and cities to burn some 25,000 books deemed “un-German.” The piles included works by Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and Sigmund Freud. Though Remarque had maintained that All Quiet on the Western Front was “unpolitical,” it, too, was burned, along with The Road Back.
That wasn’t the extent of nationalist efforts to discredit Remarque: The Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter actually claimed that the author was Jewish, and had changed his name from Kramer (Remark in reverse). Other detractors insisted that Remarque had never even fought at the front. The general feeling among German nationalists was that All Quiet on the Western Front was damagingly unpatriotic and disrespectful to the German military. Shortly after the Nazi takeover in 1933, Remarque fled to Switzerland, and he relocated to the U.S. during World War II.
6. But two Nazi newspapers were tricked into publishing excerpts as true accounts.
Nazis also tried to undermine the veracity of Remarque’s work by publishing true stories from the front lines that clashed with those of Remarque’s characters. “After all the lies told by people like Remarque, we now bring to you the experience of a soldier who took part in the war, of which you will say at once: that is what it was really like,” read a 1936 issue of Völkischer Beobachter.
But the account that came after that somewhat smug message was literally just an excerpt from All Quiet on the Western Front. And it wasn’t even the first time Nazis had fallen for the trick: Someone had previously sent an excerpt from the novel to Der Angriff, a newspaper founded by Joseph Goebbels himself, and its editors had printed it as a “genuine tale from the front line.”
7. All Quiet on the Western Front inspired three film adaptations …
The first and most famous film adaptation of Remarque’s magnum opus hit theaters in 1930 and won Oscars for Best Picture (then called “Outstanding Production”) and Best Director (Lewis Milestone). In 1979, CBS aired a TV movie starring Richard Thomas as Paul and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky, Paul’s middle-aged mentor and closest friend at the front. It, too, was well received, earning a handful of Emmy nominations and one win for film editing.
The 2022 Netflix movie, helmed by German director Edward Berger, is the first German-language adaptation. With nine Oscar nominations, it’s yet more evidence that the story of Paul and his ill-fated comrades is just as moving on the silver screen as it is on the page (or at least that awards voters are suckers for war movies).
8. … And one Elton John song.
The novel also inspired an Elton John song called “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the last track on his 1982 album Jump Up! Longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics, though the Rocket Man did ask him to replace one line: “thin white men in stinking tents.” According to Elizabeth J. Rosenthal’s biography, His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John, the superstar felt it wasn’t “an attractive line to sing.”
Even without it, the song failed to make a splash. “It’s the worst-selling single in Phonogram’s history, but we like it,” John said before performing the song at London’s Eventim Apollo (then the Hammersmith Odeon) in December 1982.