A Nobel Prize to "All Quiet on the Western Front?"

By Asle Sveen
The German version of the famous novel.
The German version of the famous novel.
A poster for the American film from 1930.
A poster for the American film from 1930.

In 1929 Erich Maria Remarque published the anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. From a German viewpoint he described the indoctrination of youth in schools before WWI, the mass slaughter of young men in an industrial war and the lack of understanding in the civil society for the suffering of the front soldiers. The novel is based on Remarque´s own experiences as a young front soldier in 1917.

In 1930 an American screen adaption was made by Universal Pictures, and both the producer and director won an Oscar that year. The American film magazine Variety wrote: "The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word war is taken out of the dictionaries. (1)

In 1931 Remarque was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Polish professor and member of The International Court in The Hague (2). In his opinion the description of the horrors of war in Remarque´s novel would serve the cause of peace. In 1931 All Quiet on the Western front was published in 25 countries and had sold more than three million copies.

Author, novel and film attacked
Author, novel and film, however, came in almost immediately for severe criticism. The German Nazi party spread a false rumor that Remarque was a descendant of French Jews and claimed that Remarque had never served as a front soldier.

When the film was shown in Germany, Joseph Goebbels organized the setting off of stink bombs and releasing white mice in the theaters. Violent demonstrations against the novel and film followed in Berlin and Vienna. This resulted in a ban on the film in Germany, Austria and Mussolini´s Italy shortly after the premiere.

When rumours went around that Remarque might be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature or the Nobel Peace Prize, the German Association of Officers reacted. In a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee they protested Remarque´s candidature labelling him "a representative of defeatism." (3)

Joseph Goebbels in a Nazi parade in Weimar 1930. Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. Wikimedia Commons.

The adviser's report
Nevertheless the Nobel Committee put Remarque on the short list and historian and former officer Jakob Worm-Müller wrote a report on him. (4) The report was the longest and most thoroughly written that year. Worm-Müller first paid attention to the letter from the German Association of Officers. They also doubted if Remarque had been a front soldier and concluded that his novel was "a grave offence against the German army and the German front soldier." (5) Worm-Müller was not satisfied with the information provided to him by Remarque´s publishing house. Even if he did not believe in the most severe accusations against Remarque, he wrote in his report that he "partly was responsible for the attacks against him. He must have given out incorrect information about himself."(6) Despite this remark Worm-Müller also praised All Quiet on the Western front and wrote that the novel "with no doubt is created by a person who has gone through the horrors and desolations of war." But he was of the opinion that Remarque had been too negative. Apparently the old officer in Worm Müller became visible in the following part of the report: "Even if war more and more has become a war of masses and machinery and not of individual character, it is not without value when it comes to producing results. The fight of the German army was heroic with a common will, a common ideology, which one should not forget. And what would the destiny of the country have been without all these sacrifices?"(7)
In a long concluding part Worm-Müller also raised grave doubts about the value for peace by such an anti-war novel: "The description of horrors (..) has never led to a moral disarmament. Usually it does not frighten, but leads to the opposite result (…) .Thus the showing of the film Im Westen nichts Neues has been a doubtful experiment when it comes to the cause of peace. Teachers have reported that their students, after seeing the film, have not been discouraged. The spectators expect more horrors, they were not satisfied. (…) A novel or a screenplay which put too much emphasize on the horrors of war will never convert the younger generations to the cause of peace (..) Remarque´s novel describes both the horrors and meaningless of war. But his negative pacifism is not sufficient. One should not only try to warn against war, but also try to create a new atmosphere, a new opinion. One may only achieve that by educating the broad masses towards active participation in the work for peace, teach them the opinions of foreign peoples, show them how conflicts can be solved and war avoided, train them to see the interests of all peoples in a world community, to learn peaceful cooperation - which makes moral disarmament and organisation possible.
It is this active spirit of peace that is apparent in the writings of Tolstoy and Bertha von Suthner's novel Die Waffen nieder. This novel has (...) a grand simple idea, a glowing ideal that lifts it up to another dimension. Remarque´s novel does not achieve this despite all its good intentions."(8)

The debate in the Nobel Committee

Member of the Nobel Committee Halvdan Koht wrote down some short remarks in his diary from the decisive meetings in the Nobel Committee in November 1931. (9) The debate was about who should join the American pacifist Jane Addams as a second Peace Prize laureate. Addams had been a strong opponent to the participation of the U.S. in WWI, and during the years she had several times been nominated to the Peace Prize and had reports written on her. In 1931 she was nominated by the German pacifist and Peace Prize winner Ludwig Quidde.

The declared pacifist in the Nobel Committee, Bernhard Hanssen, suggested that Remarque ought to share the prize with Addams. However he gained no support from the other committee members. Koht wanted the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, as a laureate together with Addams, and this became the result. (10) Butler was by no means a pacifist. Except for his support for an international court, he had little in common with Jane Addams. Most notably, as president of the university, he had fired professors who, like Addams, spoke out against the participation of the U.S. in WWI in 1917. (11)

Koht did not report on the pro and contra arguments in the discussions in his diary, so we can only speculate why Butler was preferred to Remarque. Worm-Müller´s report did not give support to Remarque´s candidacy - quite the contrary. Worm-Müller´s definition of a suitable work for peace which underlined education and organization was more in line with Butler´s view. It may be relevant to point out that Butler, as a president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had for several years been in contact with Halvdan Koht and Christian Lous Lange, the first secretary of the Nobel Committee and Peace Prize laureate.

What happened to Remarque?

Nazi book-burning in 1933. Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. Wikimedia Commons.

When Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 All Quiet on the Western front was publicly thrown into fire with all other novels the Nazis defined as harmful, Jewish or Marxist.

Remarque himself stayed in Germany till 1938 when he lost his citizenship. This was the same year that his countryman, concentration prisoner and Peace Prize laureate of 1935, Carl von Ossietzky, died of mistreatment and illness. Remarque first fled to the USA, then to Locarno in Switzerland where he lived till his death in 1970.

During WWII the Nazis cruelly revenged themselves on Remarque´s sister who stayed in Germany. In 1943 she was accused of harming the moral of the people because she supposedly had uttered that the war was lost for Germany. In court the prosecutor declared that although sadly her brother had escaped, she would not. Remarque´s sister was sentenced to death and beheaded in December 1943. (12)

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_(1930_film)
2) Dr. Sigismond Cybichowski - professor at the University of Warszawa.
3) Adviser Jakob Worm-Müller wrote that Bjørn Bjørnson (the son of Norwegian National Poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and former director of the National Theatre in Oslo) in an interview had wanted the Peace Prize to Remarque. Redegjørelser 1931 s 33.
4) According to Store Norske leksikon (Dictionary), Worm-Müller, as a historian, was especially concentrated on wars and a strong supporter of strong willed men.
5) Redegjørelser 1931, page 34
6) Ibid s 35. Worm-Müller himself apparently had bought some of the Nazi propaganda. They claimed that Remarque´s real name was the Jewish sounding Kramer (Remarque backwards) and Worm-Müller put Kramer in brackets behind Remarque in the headline of his adviser report. Redegjørelser 1931, page 33.
7) Ibid page 42
8) Ibid
9) Koht´s diary. He reported from two meetings in the Nobel Committee, November 26 and 28 1931.
10) Ibid. Neither committee chairman Fredrik Stang nor Johan Ludwig Mowinckel originally wanted to award a peace prize in 1931 - but in the last meeting they both supported Koht.
11) On Butler in Stenersen, Libæk, Sveen: The Nobel Peace Prize. One hundred years for peace. Cappelen 2001, page 112-13. Butler kept close contact with leading politicians in the USA and Europe. He viewed fascism positively in the 1920s and he did not speak out against Hitler and Nazism before WWII.
12) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Maria_Remarque