By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front was not his first, but it was the work that catapulted him onto the world stage. It follows Paul, a young German soldier who has been at war for two years. His life is one of deprivation and misery interrupted by moments of sheer terror.
Remarque’s work has not diminished in the nearly 90 years since its publication, though many subsequent novels–some of them masterpieces–have covered the same territory using different wars as a backdrop. He had been a German soldier during the Great War, and his book has an immediacy that comes only from experience. It’s a powerful anti-war statement, delivered matter-of-factly.
The book became an international bestseller and was subsequently adapted into Lewis Milestone’s Best Picture-winning 1930 film of the same name. The movie is less horrific than the book–these were different times–but must have packed a wallop to audiences of that time. Exquisitely shot with state of the art special effects, it is notably more violent than other films of its era. If it seems quaint now, that owes more to Platoon and Saving Private Ryan than to any missteps on Milestone’s part.
Remarque’s novel was banned by the Nazis for encouraging pacifism. He fled to Switzerland, but his sister was eventually arrested, tried, and executed for saying Germany would lose World War II. The harshness of her sentence was no doubt a response to her brother’s reputation. This tragedy is a reminder of the power of great art, which can inspire both peace and hatred but never indifference.