This month has seen international commemorations of the Battle of the Somme, which resulted in over a million men being killed or wounded. Even with this anniversary to remind us, World War One is very distant now. But in the years immediately following it, the Great War was of course still very much in people’s minds. Gradually over the 1920s, memoirs, novels, plays, poetry and official histories began to appear.
One of the best remembered today is All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque*. The novel, describing the experiences of German soldiers in Western Europe (where Remarque fought briefly as a conscript), attracted both great acclaim and criticism. Millions of copies were sold and there were over 20 translations from the original German. But the book was seen by some in Germany, including the Nazi Party which was then rising to power, as a condemnation of their war effort and even as a betrayal of the country itself. In 1933, Goebbels banned Remarque’s books and had them publicly burned and Remarque left Germany to live in Switzerland.
In November 1929, not long after the novel’s publication, Sheffield Public Libraries commented on All Quiet on the Western Front and war literature generally in its publication, Books & Readers. The terms used are unusually strong for what was a free monthly bulletin listing new books and announcing library news:
Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” of which there are sixty-five copies circulating in our libraries, has set a fashion in war books which is now being feverishly copied by writers and publishers. “All Quiet” has been criticised in some quarters because of its frankness. It has been said that however true the book may be of the German side, it is certainly not true of the British. Anyone who saw the war at close quarters must realise that “All Quiet” suffers from the defect that all war books must share – the whole truth is too foul ever to appear in print. J. L. Hodson’s “Grey Dawn, Red Night” describes the gradual moral, spiritual, and physical degradation that sapped away the humanity of a fine soul. It deals with a war foreign to Bairnsfather and the war correspondents with a restrained yet devastating realism. It is to the good of humanity and the coming generation that those who were stricken dumb for ten years by their war experiences can now write as truthfully as ordinary decencies will allow about them. There is no surer encouragement for the efforts of Britain and America to make war unthinkable, than the realisation of what the four years meant to those who in the words of Remarque’s dedication of his book, “were destroyed by the war, though they may have escaped its shells.”
‘…the whole truth is too foul ever to appear in print,’ and the novel ‘deals with a war foreign to Bairnsfather and the war correspondents,’ says the unknown author. This sounds like bitter experience talking. No doubt men and women who worked in Sheffield’s libraries suffered and died because of the war, and after ten years the author felt that the truth could, or should, be faced. The war correspondents dismissed here had perhaps massaged their reports to keep up morale or spare feelings; and the very popular ‘Old Bill’ cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather were there to make people laugh. That 65 copies of All Quiet were bought for the libraries in 1929 is an indication of the interest in the war, the need to reflect on it and perhaps to process it, as we might say today. There are by the way a few copies of All Quiet available from Sheffield Libraries today, including one, in storage, which dates from 1929. Perhaps the last of the original 65?(There are no library copies of the other novel mentioned, J L Hodson’s Grey Dawn, Red Night, also published in 1929. Hodson was an English journalist who fought in the war and dedicated his novel to the people who went to France with him, but did not return. Why Remarque’s book survives and Hodson’s does not is not clear. Perhaps All Quiet is simply a better book, or perhaps the Nazis’ treatment of it ironically ensured its survival.)
Today’s reader is of course conscious that, just ten years after this Books & Readers was published and only 21 years after the war to end all wars, World War Two broke out. The League of Nations – presumably what the author had in mind when writing ‘the efforts of Britain and America to make war unthinkable’ – had failed.
* The novel was one of those read by Reading Sheffield interviewee Sir Norman Adsetts before he went to university. Here is his reading journey.