On December 5, 1930, just over 12 years after the end of World War I, German moviegoers flocked to Berlin’s Mozart Hall to see one of Hollywood’s latest films. But during the movie, a cadre of 150 Nazi Brownshirts, nearly all too young to have fought in World War I, were led into the theater by propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Spewing anti-Semitic invective at the screen, they repeatedly shouted “Judenfilm!” as they tossed stink bombs from the balcony, threw sneezing powder in the air, and released white mice into the theater. A somewhat shocking turn of events, considering the movie was the highly anticipated adaptation of countryman Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, the blockbuster novel that had transfixed the nation months earlier.
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First serialized in 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitunghe, the book was published on January 31, 1929, and instantly became a literary juggernaut. In Germany, the initial print run sold out on release day, and some 20,000 copies moved off the shelves in the first few weeks on its way to more than a million books sold by year’s end. Abroad, All Quiet on the Western Front was a big hit as well, selling 600,000 copies in both Britain and France, and 200,000 in America. The film rights were snatched up by Universal Pictures for a record $40,000 and the motion picture went into production immediately.
All Quiet on the Western Front is, as most American high school students know, the story of a company of volunteer German soldiers stationed behind the front lines in the last weeks of World War I. Based on Remarque’s time as an infantryman, it’s the first-person account of Paul Baumer, who joins the cause with a group of his classmates.
It’s a gritty pull-no-punches look at the horrors of war. Limbs are lost, horses are destroyed, starving soldiers root through garbage for food, the troops are ravaged by poison gas and artillery bombs, and few make it out alive. Baumer himself dies on a tranquil day shortly before the Armistice is signed. Apolitical in terms of policy and strategy, Remarque’s anti-war masterpiece tapped into the global sorrow following a conflict that led to more than 37 million casualties between 1914-18. The humanity of All Quiet on the Western Front was captured in The New York Times review as, “a document of men who—however else there lives were disrupted—could endure war simply as war.”
Ironically it was this very humanity, and relentless political agnosticism, that made Goebbels see the All Quiet on the Western Front film as a threat to the Nazi ideology. A few weeks prior to the December screening, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party surprised the nation on election day, garnering 6.4 million votes, 18 percent of the total. It was a stunning victory for Adolf Hitler that gave his party 107 seats in the Reichstag and made the Nazis the second-largest political party in Germany. His leading campaign message, to unite Germany and make it strong again, resonated with voters in the midst of the Great Depression. Hitler, believing that treasonous Jewish-Marxist revolutionaries at home were to blame for Germany’s defeat in the Great War, proposed tearing up the Treaty of Versailles and ending war reparations to the Allies. This “stabbed in the back” theory was historical nonsense, but allowed workaday Germans to place blame elsewhere for the conflict that took an estimated 3 million lives, military and civilian, an easy sell that undermined the Weimar Republic.
All Quiet on the Western Front may have been the first runaway international bestseller, but its utter lack of pro-German propaganda and honest, downbeat look at war made the book a Nazi target. As Hitler’s power grew, Remarque’s critically acclaimed novel (which would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931) became a proxy for Nazi rage over its portrayal of German infantrymen as dispirited and disillusioned. Hitler refused to believe Teutonic soldiers could be anything but a magnificent fighting force, a nationalistic historical rewrite that took hold amongst the battered German citizenry.
“One of the great legacies of World War I is that as soon as the Armistice is signed, the enemy is war itself, not the Germans, Russians, or French. The book captures it and becomes the definitive anti-war statement of the Great War,” says Dr. Thomas Doherty, professor of American Studies at Brandeis and the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-39. “The movie has the same depressing tone, the hero doesn’t achieve battlefield glory. He dies in the famous scene reaching for the butterfly. It’s an extraordinary film, the first must-see of the early sound era not starring Al Jolson. Unfortunately, the premiere was an animating moment in the history of Nazism, reclaiming the World War I memory not as meaningless slaughter, as Remarque says, but as a glorious noble German enterprise.”
The $1.25-million film had actually quietly debuted in Germany on December 4 under heavy police presence. According to a Variety reporter, when then lights came up, the audience was too rattled or moved to disapprove or applaud. However, Goebbels correctly guessed that the theater would let its guard down during the December 5 showing. His surprise mob attack went far beyond the realm of boyhood fraternity pranks like mice and sneezing powder. The projectors were shut down and in the chaos, savage beatings were handed down to moviegoers believed to be Jewish. (Also in attendance: Future Nazi filmmaker—and occasional drinking buddy/confidant of Remarque—Leni Riefenstahl.)
Goebbels, a tiny man with a clubfoot, had been unfit to fight in World War I and his physical rejection consumed him. His hatred of All Quiet on the Western Front was both a personal vendetta and one of the first major public displays of Nazi thuggery. The main goal was simply to create chaos, to terrorize moviegoers, to rally support against the film. “Within ten minutes, the cinema was a madhouse,” Goebbels gloated in his diary that night. “The police are powerless. The embittered masses are violently against the Jews.”
Goebbels would lead torch-wielding hooligans for the next few days as other riots broke out. In Vienna, 1,500 police surrounded the Apollo Theater and withstood a mob of several thousand Nazis trying to disrupt the movie, but vandalism and violence still erupted in the streets. Other disturbances, like one on December 9 in Berlin’s West End district were more sanguine. The New York Times described it as “fairly polite rioting, the sort one could take one’s best girl to see.” Only scary in that it proved others were heeding the Nazi call.
By week’s end, the Supreme Board of Censors in Germany had reversed its original decision and banned All Quiet on the Western Front, even though Universal Pictures had already revised the film, sanitizing the trench warfare scenes and removing dialogue blaming the Kaiser for the war. Universal founder Carl Laemmle, a Jewish emigre from Germany, was shocked at the movie’s controversial reception. He sent a cable to Berlin newspapers, which ran as an ad, basically saying that the film was not anti-German and that it portrayed a universal war experience. (His point was made in Poland, where All Quiet on the Western Front was banned for being pro-German.) Laemmle’s efforts were fruitless, the Nazi intimidation tactics worked. Perhaps the most insidious part of the damage done was emboldening the Brownshirts to go after people where they live. As Doherty eloquently puts it in his book:
“Whether in the cathedral-like expanse of a grand motion picture palace or a cozy seat at the neighborhood Bijou, the movie theater was a privileged zone of safety and fantasy—a place to escape, to dream, to float free from the worries of the world beyond the Art Deco lobby, a world that, in the first cold winter of the Great Depression, was harder and harder to keep at bay. All the more reason to view the Nazi-instigated violence as the desecration of a sacred space.”
Throughout, Remarque stayed relatively quiet, a habit he would later come to regret. He’d been recruited by Laemmle to write the screenplay, and as the legend goes, to play Baumer, but neither came to fruition. In his biography The Last Romantic, author Hilton Tims says Remarque was visited by a Nazi emissary prior to the premiere, who asked him to confirm that the publishers had sold the film rights without his consent. The idea was he’d been swindled by Jews, which Goebbels could use as propaganda, in exchange for protection from the Nazis. Remarque declined.
On the night of May 10, 1933, four months after the Nazis had come to power in Germany, Nazis raided bookstores and libraries, stampeding by torchlight to ritually hurl the books of more than 150 authors on to flaming pyres of gas-soaked logs. Students screamed into the night, condemning each writer as some 25,000 books were incinerated. Goebbels would call it “the cleansing of the German spirit.”
Remarque, neither Communist nor Jew, had been in Berlin on January 31, 1933, the day Hitler was appointed chancellor. He was tipped off that the Nazis were gunning for him and drove through the darkness to escape. On that May evening, Remarque was ensconced in his palatial Swiss home. By year's end, the Nazis would made it a crime to own All Quiet on the Western Front or its sequel-of-a-sort, The Road Back. All private copies had to be turned over to the Gestapo.
Remarque would finish his trilogy with Three Comrades, the tale of three German soldiers who open an auto body shop and all fall for the same dying woman. Like The Road Back, it sold well and was adapted into a milquetoast film, albeit it the only movie with F. Scott Fitzgerald credited as a screenwriter. Concerned about his safety in Switzerland, Remarque sailed to America in 1939, where he would be reunited with one of his many paramours, an actress he’d met in the South of France, Marlene Dietrich. Although married, for the second time, to the dancer and actress Jutta Ilse Zambona, Remarque would have countless affairs. From barmaids and prostitutes to Hollywood royalty like Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Luise Rainer and Maureen O’Sullivan (long rumored to have aborted his only child), Remarque had an insatiable sexual appetite.
As World War II raged on, Remarque lived the high life unbeknownst of his family’s tragic suffering. His brother-in-law became a prisoner-of-war; his father’s second wife committed suicide, but it was what befell his youngest sister that haunted Remarque for the rest of his life. In September 1943, Elfriede, a fashionista dressmaker living in Dresden, was turned in by her landlady and arrested by the Gestapo for “defeatist talk” and “subversion of military strength.” She was sentenced to death in a sham trial ‘as a dishonorable subversive propagandist for our enemies’. On December 12, Elfriede was beheaded by guillotine.
Records of the judge’s summation at trial were destroyed in an air raid during Elfriede’s incarceration. According to Tims, in pronouncing the decision the judge allegedly stated: ‘We have sentenced you to death because we cannot apprehend your brother. You must suffer for your brother.’ Remarque would dedicate his 1952 novel Spark of Life to Elfriede, but in a final twist of the knife, it was omitted in the German version, a snub chalked up to those who still saw him as a traitor.
As for the book and film that started his career and ended his relationship with his native country, they went on to be stunning successes. An estimated 30 to 40-million copies of All Quiet on the Western Front have been sold since it was first published in 1929, and the film would win that year’s Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Production. It is still regarded as one of the best war movies ever made.