Erich Maria Remarque was born in Osnabrück, Germany, in 1898 into a lower-middle-class family. In 1916, he was drafted into the German army to fight in World War I, in which he was badly wounded. Ten years after the war ended, he published Im Westen Nichts Neues, translated into English a year later as All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel about the experiences of ordinary German soldiers during the war.
Though other books, most notably Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), had explored the violence and brutality of war in a realistic light, the literary tradition of war stories still tended overwhelmingly toward romanticized ideals of glory, adventure, and honor. In presenting his grimly realistic version of a soldier’s experience, Remarque stripped the typical romanticism from the war narrative in the staunchly antiwar All Quiet on the Western Front. The novel instantly became an international, critically acclaimed success. An American movie based on the book was released in 1930.
After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the early 1930s, the fiercely nationalistic Nazi regime attacked All Quiet on the Western Front and Remarque as unpatriotic. Remarque made no attempt to resist the Nazis’ attacks on his reputation because he feared retaliation. Despite Nazi hostilities toward him, in 1931 Remarque published a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, entitled The Road Back, which details the postwar experience of German citizens. This work provoked further Nazi opposition, and Remarque fled to Switzerland with his wife, Jutta Zambona, in 1932. In 1933, the Nazis banned Remarque’s two novels and held a bonfire to burn copies of the books.
Remarque and his wife divorced in Switzerland but eventually remarried so that she could retain her Swiss residency. In 1939, he followed the path of many persecuted German intellectuals and immigrated to the United States, where he obtained citizenship in 1947. His family was not so lucky: the Nazis killed his sister during World War II, in part because of her relationship to him. Remarque and his wife had separated; in 1951, they finally ended their estranged marriage.
In the Unites States, Remarque had a tempestuous affair with the actress Marlene Dietrich, which inspired his novel Arch of Triumph. In 1958, he married another film star, Paulette Goddard. They eventually left the United States and moved to Porto Ranco, Switzerland, where Remarque died on September 25, 1970.
Most of Remarque’s novels deal with political and social upheaval in Europe during the First and Second World Wars. Several of his novels were adapted to film. However, All Quiet on the Western Front remains his masterpiece; none of his other works approaches its critical acclaim and popularity. The novel and its first film adaptation are still influential as antiwar works and important chronicles of World War I. One of the remarkable aspects of the book’s success in England and America is that, unlike most other works dealing with World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front deals with the experiences of German soldiers—detested enemies of the English and Americans during World War I and World War II. That American and English reception of the book was so positive from the outset testifies to its ability to speak for all soldiers who suffered through the horrors of World War I.