Germany at a crossroads: Nazis, pacifism, and why the lessons of All Quiet on the Western Front still matter today
It took nearly a century for a German movie production of Remarque’s seminal novel to be made, recently launched on Netflix. Dr Akil N Awan explores why Germany’s collective memory of the First World War has long been corrupted by the trauma of the Nazis, but that now the anti-war masterpiece may be needed more than ever amidst the rise of the far right
When the American-made war epic All Quiet on the Western Front was released in Germany in December 1930, it was greeted with outrage – but carefully manufactured outrage orchestrated by a rising and intolerant Nazi Party; a grim portent of the bleak future that awaited the country over the coming decade. Enraged by the temerity of an impudent foreign film that had dared to question Germanic ideals of militarism, honour, valour, and sacrifice for the Fatherland, the Nazis strove to have the movie shut down.
The Brownshirts, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing of thugs who had already gained notoriety for intimidation and street violence, were tasked with sabotaging the film’s screening on 5 December at Berlin’s ornate Mozartsaal (Mozart Hall), the day after its nationwide premiere. They destroyed ticket counters, attacked ‘Jewish’ attendees, released scores of white mice, and lobbed stink bombs and sneezing powder into the throngs of patrons.
Above them from his balcony seat, Joseph Goebbels, who would go on to become the Nazis’ supreme propagandist, screamed anti-Semitic invective at the movie’s Hollywood producers and director – yelling “Out Jews!” and “A Jewish film” – while surveying the mayhem unfolding below with deep satisfaction.
Over the course of the following week, the Brownshirts maintained an ominous torchlit vigil outside the Mozartsaal, threatening to burn the theatre to the ground were the movie to be shown again. The bullying tactics worked. Many theatres subsequently refused to screen All Quiet on the Western Front, and those who did could only do so under heavy police protection. Soon, the liberal Weimar Republic, painfully aware of the growing Nazi menace and its own precarious grip on power, caved into pressure.
Barely seven days after its Berlin premiere, the movie was banned under the pretence of restoring public order. The episode only served to embolden the Nazis’ attitude towards censorship and suppression. “Within ten minutes, the cinema resembles a madhouse. The police are powerless. ‘Jews out!’ ‘Hitler is standing at the gates!’ The police sympathise with us,” gushed Goebbels in his diary. “The box office outside is under siege. The screening is abandoned, as is the next one. We have won. The newspapers are full of our protest. The nation is on our side. In short, victory!”
A heavily cut version of the movie would be briefly authorised in 1931, before being banned outright following the Nazi party’s rise to power two years later. It would not be shown again in public until 1952. The novel on which it was based, Erich Remarque’s bestselling Im Westen nichts Neues (1929), similarly provoked the ire of Adolf Hitler and his supporters, and was one of the first works to be publicly burnt on the Nazis’ pyres of “degenerate” books. Remarque himself had escaped to Switzerland by that point, but the Nazis mollified their wrath by arresting and beheading his younger sister in his stead. In a further tragic footnote, Hanns Brodnitz, the Jewish manager of the Mozartsaal, whose ‘crime’ of screening the movie was never forgotten, would be murdered in a gas chamber in Auschwitz in 1944.
The original anti-war masterpiece
The Nazis’ seething overreaction to All Quiet on the Western Front seems inevitable in hindsight. Outside of Germany, however, the movie was a resounding critical and commercial success, being showered with numerous accolades including the Academy Award for Best Picture (then known as Outstanding Production) and Best Director, and quickly achieved iconic status. It was a brilliant technical achievement, arriving at a critical juncture in cinematic history that allowed it to capitalise on the advent of new technologies.
The new soundscapes reproduced with frightening authenticity, the terrible cacophony of the battlefield – from the deafening roar of artillery bombardments to the rapid staccato of machine gun fire – both shocked and thrilled moviegoers transitioning between the silent and talkie eras. To demonstrate just how deftly All Quiet on the Western Front straddled this liminal period, Charlie Chaplin’s classic silent movie City Lights was released the following year, in 1931.
Sophisticated new cameras and complex wheeled cranes allowed dynamic and innovative filming techniques, which drew the viewer directly into the action. One particularly memorable, minute-long tracking shot running parallel to the trenches captures French infantry being viciously decimated across No Man’s Land by scythe-like machine gun fire. A hefty $1.2 million budget; the employment of German veterans from the war as advisors and extras; and the use of genuine war relics and memorabilia repurposed as movie props, all helped in creating the film’s remarkable sense of verisimilitude.
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However, the movie’s iconic status, and the reason it rankled the Nazis, was down to more than its pioneering audio-visual accomplishments. Rather, it left a tremendous legacy in shaping popular attitudes towards not just the First World War, but war and pacifism more generally. One solemn contemporary review in Variety declared: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy the master print, reproduce it in every language for every nation to be shown every year until the word War shall have been taken out of the dictionaries.”
All Quiet on the Western Front presented a realistic and harrowing account of a meaningless war that had led to disillusionment, suffering, death, and ultimately ignominious defeat. The war was presented as an incomprehensible tragedy in which a generation of naive young men, swept up in romanticised appeals to valour and blind patriotic fervour, had been churned out callously by the terrible machine of war.
The enemy were not the opponents on the battlefield. Enemy soldiers were in fact comrades, equal in suffering and death: a generation of peers caught up in an interminable war of attrition and senselessly squandered in brutal mechanised slaughter. The true enemy were the old men revelling in tales of glory, who had betrayed their nation’s youth by selling them a lie; or it was the society at home that had happily packed them off to be dutifully sacrificed at the nation’s altar and remained detached from the unpalatable reality of the frontline. Perhaps most profoundly, both novel and film concluded that the true enemy was war itself.
In short, this was a damning indictment of the war, lamenting “a generation of men, who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war”.
Almost every anti-war movie made afterwards relied on many of the tropes invented by the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front: the lost innocence of youth; the bonding between brothers in arms; the boredom and banality in the lulls between fighting; the incompetent generals yearning for glory; the soldiers as expendable fodder; and war as an affront against both humanity and nature.
The need for the new German adaptation
Today, historical films (and other forms of popular culture) are the most important mediums through which publics engage with the past. Consequently, they often tell us as much about the societies that create them, as they do about the past being portrayed on screen. The 2022 German production of Im Westen nichts Neues, which launched on Netflix recently, illustrates this point well.
The timing is striking as it immediately begs the question of why it has taken Germany close to a century to make an adaptation of their own native son’s internationally renowned literary classic. One of the reasons that Remarque’s 1929 novel was met with such widespread acclaim on its release, both within and outside of Germany, was that it managed to relate an everyman soldier’s story. Its German protagonist could easily have been substituted for a French poilu or British infantryman, whilst preserving the universal themes and lessons of the novel.
Indeed, more remarkable was the fact that just a year later, one of the largest American film studios of its day could produce a sympathetic account of the same enemy German soldiers who, barely a decade earlier, had been reviled as bloodthirsty ‘barbaric Huns’ in US war bond propaganda posters. “It showed the Germans as having the same values that you and I have… just people caught in this thing that’s bigger than all of us,” stated Lew Ayres, the lead in the 1930 movie, in an interview. “All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the first voices for universality… that unity was possible within the world.”
Carl Laemmle, a German-Jewish émigré to the US at the age of 17 who co-founded Universal Pictures, regarded his studio’s movie as having “done more to establish good will toward the German people than any factor since the Armistice”.
Why then has it taken so long to translate this powerful story that encourages empathy with the German perspective and experience, into the German cinematic vernacular? Much of the reason lies with the fact that Germany’s popular memory of the First World War has largely been supplanted by the traumatic damage done to the national psyche by the conflict that came afterwards, the Second World War.
Feelings of pain, shame and guilt over the belligerence and atrocities committed by the Third Reich have overshadowed, and to some extent tainted, the cultural memory of the First World War
Feelings of pain, shame and guilt over the belligerence and atrocities committed by the Third Reich have overshadowed, and to some extent tainted, the cultural memory of the First World War. “Everything we now know about German history is imbued with the Nazis that came after,” says the director of the new version of All Quiet on the Western Front, Edward Berger.
An intriguing parallel could be drawn with the US experience in the Vietnam War. The traumatic collective memory of disillusionment and defeat in Vietnam profoundly altered the way in which the American public viewed all war in its aftermath. Almost all post-Vietnam War movies were stridently anti-war in their outlook, reflecting this darker cultural mood of increasing cynicism, a rejection of authority, and a repudiation of visions of US moral righteousness. Even the ‘good fight’ of the Second World War could not escape the distorting prism of Vietnam’s narrative of loss and failure in a deeply unjust war against an underdeveloped nation. It was not until the 1990s that jingoistic films like Saving Private Ryan could again be made, allowing the rehabilitation of war’s image for a whole new generation. “With Saving Private Ryan, war is good again” wrote a contemporary review in The New York Times with apparent relief.
Germany’s journey towards reconciliation with the ghosts of its past has been difficult and convoluted, and one which is still incomplete. However, the nation’s relationship with its past is changing. Berger alludes to that in explaining his motivations as filmmaker, saying that he wanted to tell the story of All Quiet on the Western Front now “from the point of view of a societal understanding which is very specifically German, that embraces the guilt that is also connected to the memory of the First World War… [to] mirror those feelings with which we have all grown up, with which my children are still growing up.” He goes on to say: “For us it has a lot to do with shame, with feelings of guilt and pain. This is precisely what we wanted to convey.”
As pertinent now as ever
No work is created in a vacuum, and there are contemporary concerns that equally animated Berger, helping to explain the timing (or, indeed, urgency) of this movie at this particular historical juncture. Chiefly, there is the current socio-political context of rising nationalism, populism, Euroscepticism, cultural intolerance, and the resurgence of the far right. Berger states: “I’m sensitive to nationalist movements, so with the rise of Trump and Brexit and the far right in Hungary and Italy, it’s important to remember that 100 years ago, this all led us to a catastrophe.”
He is right to be concerned. The resurgence, evolution and mainstreaming of far-right politics across Europe has shocked and appalled many. Recent electoral gains in Sweden, Italy and France by unapologetically far-right political parties – with others expected to follow suit – has positioned Europe at a dangerous precipice.
In Germany, the rise of Die Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), who in 2017 became the third-largest political party in parliament, has shocked those who naively assumed that the traumatic memory of the last 80 years might have forestalled a turn to the radical right. Last year, the AfD was formally placed under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence service on suspicion of trying to undermine the country’s democratic constitution, making it the first party to be monitored in this way since 1945.
Perhaps even more pertinently, Germany has gradually relaxed its pacifist orientation in recent years, most obviously with military deployments in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission there. Russian belligerence and its invasion of Ukraine have prompted greater reversals of established policy. In June 2022, Lars Klingbeil, co-leader of Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party, said that the country must strive to become a “leading power” and accept “military force as a legitimate political tool”. He stated: “After almost 80 years of restraint, Germany has a new role in the international system. Over the last decades, Germany has earned itself a great amount of trust. With this trust come expectations… We should meet these expectations.”
This sort of assertive rhetoric, justifying a significantly increased defence budget that would grow Germany’s army to become once again the largest in Europe, naturally proved deeply troubling for many Germans. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, realising the stark rupture with long-held pacifist views in the country this represented, used an appropriately momentous term to describe this new era for Germany’s security and defence policy: zeitenwende, an historical turning point.
Perhaps films like All Quiet on the Western Front are needed now, more than ever, as a reminder for a new generation of Germans standing at this historical turning point.
Dr Akil N Awan is associate professor of modern history and political violence at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is director of the Conflict, Violence and Terrorism Research Centre