When Erich Maria Remarque was mustered out of the Great War in 1918 on a medical discharge, he returned home to a life devoid of hope and changed forever. His earlier dreams had included becoming a concert pianist, but, because of war wounds, that ambition was no longer a possibility. During the time he had been in combat, his mother had died and now he had time to mourn and regret. Remarque, like many of his lost generation, suffered postwar trauma and disillusionment. This one huge and overwhelming event in his life — World War I — would haunt him forever and influence practically everything he would write. Again and again, Remarque would return to scenes of the war and to postwar Germany for subjects of his novels. The world would read his words and understand the questions of his generation, and the critics would treat his book kindly. Modern readers return again and again to his words because their powerful message delineates a dehumanization vastly surpassed by modern technological warfare.
An interview from the state archives in Osnabruck gives the reader some understanding of Remarque's reasons for writing All Quiet on the Western Front. The author states:
"It was through . . . deliberate acts of self-analysis that I found my way back to my war experiences. I could observe a similar phenomenon in many of my friends and acquaintances. The shadow of war hung over us, especially when we tried to shut our minds to it. The very day this thought struck me, I put pen to paper, without much in the way of prior thought."
Modern medicine knows more about post-traumatic stress disorder, but in Remarque's day it was unchartered water. His point of view — similar to the common soldier of any nation — provides the reader with insights concerning the shocking events that led to the alienation and displacement of his entire age-group. Remarque's words brought swift reactions in postwar Germany and positive responses from critics.
Although the German government — especially the Third Reich — banned and often burned Remarque's book because it dared to criticize the government and militarism, western critics were largely positive about his novel. Their words predating World War II — a time when military leaders were optimistically predicting the end to international aggression — addressed the poignance of the World War I German soldier's naivete and vulnerability, particularly during the aftermath, when the massive destruction of innocence produced a generation of drifting, traumatized men. Whether the survivors were German or American, British, Russian, or French, their post-traumatic stress could be seen across cultures and languages. Later criticism of Remarque after World War II dealt with the realism, existential alienation, and war profiteering outlined by Remarque's novel.
Despite Remarque's words and the millions of readers who have read his novel through the years, the modern era has seen great cataclysms that redefine the inhumanity of war with technological innovations that Remarque's generation could never have imagined. World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Israeli Seven-Day War, Russia's attack on Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War — all were fought with even more terrible weapons, including the atomic bomb, biological exterminators such as anthrax and nerve gas, and computerized missiles capable of sniffing out targets with little or no danger to the programmer. Instead of the hand-to-hand combat and the trench warfare of the past, today's modern wars can kill millions at the push of a button. More than ever, Remarque's characterization of war as a dehumanizer has much to say against this backdrop of a civilization creating efficient and impersonally fired weapons of mass destruction.