Remarque, Erich Maria (1898–1970)

views updated



German writer.

Erich Maria Remarque, born Erich Paul Remark in Osnabrück, Germany, on 22 June 1898, was the son of a Catholic printer and was educated in the Catholic schools of Osnabrück. He was a gifted child, excelling in class and playing the piano with great distinction. At eighteen he was inducted into the army and posted to the eastern front, where he was severely wounded after seven weeks. His wounds ruled out the possibility of his following the career he had been envisaging as a concert pianist.

In the chaos of postwar Germany, Remarque worked variously as a street vendor, a tombstone engraver, an organist, and a teacher. Some of his experiences of this time supplied material for his fiction: thus a headstone-engraving workshop between the world wars is the setting for the novel Der schwarze Obelisk (1956; The Black Obelisk, 1957).

Remarque's decision to write was motivated both by passion and by the need to earn a living. He published an unsuccessful first novel, Die Traumbude (The dream room) in 1920, and he found work as a music, theater, and sports reporter. In 1925 he married Ilse Jutta Zambona, a union that turned out to be tumultuous. Remarque would later have romantic liaisons with the German-born actress Marlene Dietrich, the Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo, and the American actress Paulette Goddard, whom he eventually married in 1958.

Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was first published in 1929 and met with immediate worldwide success. The next year the novel was turned into a Hollywood film by the director Lewis Milestone. The film was also a great success, initiating Remarque's long-standing relationship with the cinema and with the American cinema in particular. As many as nineteen films or television films have been made in five countries on the basis of Remarque's work. All Quiet itself was adapted a second time in 1979. Appearing as it did at the end of the 1920s, Remarque's book marked the return to European and world consciousness of the repressed experience of the First World War, and it heralded a new wave of war literature of every persuasion in all the former belligerent countries.

Remarque's trademark was a realistic description of combat, of the suffering and death of soldiers, suffused by a measure of pathos. All Quiet and its author very soon became icons of international pacifism, and this status was only reinforced when the film was banned in Germany in 1931, Remarque forced into exile, and his books burned immediately after the Nazis came to power in 1933. Remarque settled at first in Switzerland, where he had bought several properties with his royalties. In 1935 the prominent Nazi leader Hermann Goering (1893–1946) invited him back to Germany—in vain, for Remarque was an unwavering anti-Nazi. After 1939 he spent much of his exile in the United States, where he had many connections, especially in Hollywood. He was an active member of the exile community, as witness his participation in congresses of exiled and antifascist writers in Paris in June 1935 and in New York in May 1939.

The success of All Quiet was followed by that of Der Weg zurück (1931; The Road Back, 1931) and Drei Kameraden (1937; Three Comrades, 1938), novels that continued their predecessor by describing the upheavals of the postwar period in Germany. These works too were soon filmed in the United States, the first in 1937 by James Whale, and the second in 1938 by Frank Borzage.

In 1943 Remarque's sister Elfriede was executed by the Nazis. The next year, working for the Americans, he wrote a manual of political reeducation to be used in the rehabilitation of Germans after the war.

In Arc de Triomphe (1946; Arch of Triumph) —filmed in 1947 with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer—and later in Die Nacht von Lissabon (1962; The Night in Lisbon, 1964), Remarque took the experience of exile as his theme. In 1947 his own exile status ended when he was naturalized as a United States citizen. Der Funke Leben (1952; Spark of Life) dealt with the concentration camps, while the action of Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben (1954; A Time to Love and a Time to Die), filmed by Douglas Sirk in 1958, took place on the Russian front in the Second World War; once again, the subject was the tragedy of the individual swept up despite himself in the maelstrom of war. In 1955 Remarque cowrote the screenplay of Der Letzte Akt (Ten Days to Die), a West German film directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst evoking the last ten days of the life of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).

Remarque's literary activity as well as his cinema work continued unabated through the 1950s and 1960s. During these years many distinctions and honors were bestowed on him.

Erich Maria Remarque is too often looked on as a one-book author. All Quiet on the Western Front was indeed one of the first worldwide bestsellers. But if Remarque never surpassed this first great success, he produced many other best-selling novels. It is not unfair to say, however, that he was an author with but one main theme, namely war and the disruptions it entails.

See alsoCinema; Dietrich, Marlene; Pacifism; World War I.


Barker, Christine R., and Rex W. Last. Erich Maria Remarque. London, 1979.

"Erich Maria Remarque-Peace Center Osnabrück." Available at

Owen, Claude R. Erich Maria Remarque: A Critical Bio-Bibliography. Amsterdam, 1984.

Schneider, Thomas. Erich Maria Remarque: Ein Chronist des 20; Jahrhunderts, Eine Biographie in Bildern und Dokumenten. Bramsche, Germany, 1991.

Westphalen, Tilman, ed. Erich Maria Remarque: 1898–1970. Bramsche, Germany, 1988.

Nicolas BeauprÉ