Of course I knew Erich Maria Remarque. Everyone in middle school and again in high school has 20C history class and you can’t avoid reading a few pages of his bestseller about the First World War: All Quiet on the Western Front. And so I did like millions of French teenagers, and I did not feel the need to read the whole book, because I got the idea. And so is Remarque’s name forever associated with the trenches, the gas attacks, the murderous deadlock between several nations at war for years on end.
Of course I guessed that these short stories were about the First World War, from a pacifist standpoint, and after reading a few of them I came to expect these vignettes of soldiers who had survived the war itself but still lived with the fallout. Wasted lives, missed opportunities, physical trauma, emotional trauma, isolation, loss of family and friends, loss of jobs and status. None really stood out, but the collection painted a rather complete landscape of the defeat’s aftermath. Except for one disturbing point: people didn’t seem angry or vengeful. Not the kind of anger and hatred that would explain how people came to see Hitler as the one man who could give the country its honor back.
I was grateful to read the invaluable introduction to the book by Maria Tatar and Larry Wolff, that was probably the most memorable part of the book. These eight stories’ publication spanned originally from 1930 to 1934 in American magazines, and I must say that this lone fact was highly disturbing to me. Remarque left Germany in 1933, just a day before Hitler was named chancellor. He went first to Switzerland, then to the US in 1939 right before the war broke out. So it’s weird (let’s put it mildly) that none of these were mentioned in any of the stories. As if Nazi violent ideology was not born out of the previous war’s defeat and resentment. As if Remarque could detach his present circumstances from the past.
I don’t quite understand what his intent was. Was he a blind pacifist? He wasn’t so blind as to remain in Germany, at any rate. His books were banned and tossed into bonfires. Did he think that the US readers were not ready for a more contemporary rereading of the previous war? Was he worried that people forget the previous war? Was he just cashing in on his bestseller, that was made into a movie in Hollywood in 1930, or did he think that American readers needed to be reminded that Germans were victims too? The collection doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it was intriguing to read and wonder.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.