Many Americans have come to know the work of Erich Maria Remarque through his acclaimed 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front. The novel — often assigned as required reading in high school — is widely considered the German author’s defining work. The book was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 1930, and Remarque earned a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. The book is largely remembered for its theme of pacifism, a subject Remarque explored further in his 1952 novel, Spark of Life.
All Quiet on the Western Front is presented through the perspective of a young German teenager, Paul Baumer, who enters World War I as an infantryman with a group of his high school classmates. The book provides an unflinching account of the horrors endured by those who fought through that war. It delves into what it looks like when young men are encouraged to kill other young men for seemingly no larger purpose other than fighting for the sake of fighting, which Remarque denounces as tragic and unnecessary throughout the book. The characters are portrayed as victims of forces larger than themselves who must band together to survive as best as they can.
Spoiler alert: Baumer is killed at the end of the book as he reaches for a butterfly on one of the final “quiet” days of the war. Remarque’s deft use of imagery, metaphor, and character development create an almost three-dimensional experience, making the reader feel connected to Baumer long after the living memory of World War I feels so far removed.
Remarque served in the German infantry in World War I and was actually wounded on the Western Front. He drew from his experience to craft an authentic, brutally truthful narrative about the destructive exploitation of youth in war. All Quiet strips the varnish from any romantic ideals of that war.
Though All Quiet on the Western Front remains Remarque’s most well known work, he was one of the most famous and prolific writers of his day. Not long ago I was sent a copy of his 1952 novel Spark of Life and found myself as strongly connected to that work as I was with All Quiet. By the end of Spark of Life, it became clear Remarque’s beliefs about pacifism had evolved.
Spark of Life features a political prisoner only initially referred to as his concentration camp number, 509. Remarque describes him as having the appearance of a skeleton. The number 509 represents his lengthy nine-year stay at the camp because he was the 509th person imprisoned there. Of the people who had been imprisoned that long ago, most were already dead. This makes the main character a spectacle and symbol for hope within the camp as his resilient spirit awakens after he witnesses an Allied air bombardment of a nearby town. For the first time in almost a decade, 509 suddenly feels his dormant humanity rise like a spark out of his current life of mechanical subsistence. He suddenly believes he might live and remembers that life is worth living, worth fighting for. He becomes a leading member of the camp’s resistance movement.
By the end of Spark of Life, Remarque makes a clear departure from All Quiet’s theme of pacifism in a climactic scene that appears to clearly endorse the validity of violence in certain contexts.
Spark of Life was clearly influenced by Remarque’s treatment by the Nazis during World War II. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels described in his biography how he directed the sabotaging of All Quiet’s film release in Germany, where brownshirts sympathetic to Adolf Hitler lobbed stink bombs at moviegoers and released mice in a theater. Remarque fled Germany for Switzerland as Hitler rose to power. Copies of All Quiet on the Western Front were part of the famous Nazi book burnings, and the Nazis denounced the author for having portrayed the German experience of World War I in a negative light.
Eventually Remarque became an American citizen and learned after the war that his sister had been guillotined by the Nazis for speaking against the party. Though the pacifism he championed in All Quiet is well known, Remarque’s evolution of thought regarding advocating for violence in certain circumstances remains mostly unknown and forgotten. It is not a stretch to imagine what Remarque’s fate might have been if he had remained in Germany any longer than he did. Spark of Life’s subtitle is A Novel of Resistance, and the book is dedicated to the memory of his sister Elfriede.