by Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front became an immediate best-seller in nearly every country in which it was published. In only a few months, this war novel written by a German veteran had sold nearly a million copies in Germany (where it was both praised and reviled), nearly a half-million each in France, England, and the United States, and an impressive number in several other European countries. In constant demand by the public and the press, Erich Remarque, for the most part, avoided commenting publicly on his book. When Remarque’s English publisher sent an advance copy of the novel to Sir Ian Hamilton, a British general, Hamilton wrote a letter to the publisher thanking him and telling him how true he felt the book was and how deeply it had touched him. The publisher forwarded the letter to Remarque, who responded with the letter below. The correspondence between the two men showed how two former enemies were able to find common ground in Remarque’s description of the war experience of the common soldier.
June 1st, 1929
Dear Sir Ian Hamilton,
An extract from your letter to Mr. Huntington concerning my book, All Quiet on the Western Front, was very kindly sent on to me by the publishers, Messrs. Putnam. I intended to write to you about it at once, but was prevented from so doing during long weeks of illness which denied me the quiet hour I needed for my reply.
I cannot even now tell you which feeling was uppermost in me on receipt of your letter—whether that of personal pleasure, or of amazement and admiration at having been so clearly, so completely, so justly understood. Probably both were equally strong. You will be able to appreciate that I was entirely unaware what effect my work might produce outside Germany—whether I should have succeeded in making myself intelligible to all, or not.
A book on the war is readily exposed to criticism of a political character, but my work should not be so judged, for it was not political, neither pacifist nor militarist, in intention, but human simply. It presents the war as seen within the small compass of the frontline soldier, pieced together out of many separate situations, out of minutes and hours, out of struggle, fear, dirt, bravery, dire necessity, death and comradeship, into one whole mosaic, from which the word Patriotism is only seemingly absent, because the simple soldier never spoke of it. His patriotism lay in the deed (not in the word); it consisted simply in the fact of his presence at the front. For him that was enough. He cursed and swore at the war; but he fought on, and fought on even when already without hope. And of this there is, I believe, for those who can read, enough in my book.
But you, Sir Ian, have in a few words, exposed the very heart of my book, namely, the intention of presenting the fate of a generation of young men, who at the critical age, when they were just beginning to feel the pulse of life, were set face to face with death. I thank you for that most sincerely, and am delighted to hear these words from a man of high military rank. Your words are prized by me as those of a voice speaking clearly from England. In Germany it has never been forgotten how fair the English were, even in the midst of the battle, and so I am particularly pleased to find it confirmed in letters from English soldiers and English officers, that the background, the little things, but things so important for the individual soldier, were apparently similar on all the fronts.
Understanding for a Lost Generation
I have not felt myself called upon to argue about the war. That must be reserved for the leaders, who alone know all that it is necessary to know. I merely wanted to awaken understanding for a generation that more than all others has found it difficult to make its way back from the four years of death, struggle and terror, to the peaceful fields of work and progress. Thousands upon thousands have even yet been unable to do it; countless letters from all countries have proved it to me. But all these letters say the same thing: ‘We have been unable, because we did not know that our lethargy, our cynicism, our unrest, our hopelessness, our silence, our feeling of secession and exclusion arose from the fact that the regenerative power of our youth had been dissipated in the war. But now we will find the way, for you in your book have shown us the danger in which we stand, the danger of being destroyed by ourselves. But the recognition of a danger is the first step towards escape from it. We will now find our way back, for you have told us what it was that threatened us, and thereby it has become harmless.’
You see, Sir Ian, it is in this vein that my comrades write to me, and that proves that my book is only seemingly pessimistic. In reality, as it shows how much has been destroyed, it should serve as a call to them to rally for the peaceful battle of work and of life itself, the effort to achieve personality and culture. For the very reason that we had so early to learn to know death, we now want to shake off its paralysing spell—for we have seen it eye to eye and undisguised—we want to begin once again to believe in life. This will be the aim of my future work. He who has pointed out the danger, must also point out the road onward.
I have as yet never spoken my mind so fully; but your charming, appreciative letter compelled me to take up the pen in order to emphasize the two things in my book which, though not there in any very explicit way, are nevertheless there implicit I mean, in the first place, the quiet heroism of the simple soldier, which lay precisely in the fact that he did not speak of it, that he did not perhaps so much as once realize it himself speaking only of ‘beans and bacon,’ while all the time so much more lay behind that was other than this; and secondly, the fact that my book does not desire to preach resignation but rather than to be an S.O.S. call.
The Fundamental Human War Experience
You are right, Sir Ian, my book is not a ‘perfect war book’. But such a war book, in the comprehensive sense, may not be written for yet another ten, perhaps even another hundred years. I restricted myself to the purely human aspect of war experience, the experience through which every man who went up to the front had to make his painful way: the fighting, the terror, the mastery, the power, the tenacity of the vital forces in the individual man faced with death and annihilation.
I like to regard that as the universal, fundamental experience; and I have aimed at describing without rhetoric and without political exploitation, this fundamental experience alone. And to this, I believe, may be attributed the success of my book, which in Germany has been read not merely in literary circles, but by those also who almost never take a book in their hands—by artisans, labourers, business people, mechanics, postmen, chauffeurs, apprentices, and so on; for many hundreds of letters all say: ‘It is my own experience’. The outward experience was, perhaps, in each case merely similar (though, as far as possible, I described only typical, standard situations, such as constantly recurred), but the decisive factor undoubtedly was that the book represented a part of the inner experience—Life confronting and fighting Death.
In conclusion, Sir Ian, allow me to thank you once again for your letter, and you may judge from the length of this how highly I valued it. I am happy to have met with such appreciative understanding.
(Signed) Erich Maria Remarque
SOURCE: Excerpted from Erich Maria Remarque’s letter to Sir Ian Hamilton, June 1, 1929, in Life and Letters, edited by Desmond MacCarthy, vol.3, July 1929 to December 1929 (London:n.p.)