“After all, war is war,” muses Paul Bäumer, the 20-year-old protagonist of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front. He has just stabbed a French soldier who tumbled on top of him in the muddy battlefields of the first world war.
Bäumer had volunteered to fight for Kaiser and fatherland, but nothing could have prepared him for the realities of war. Watching the young Frenchman convulse and gurgle as he slowly succumbs to his wounds, the intimacy of the killing temporarily shatters the illusion of abstract conflict. Full of desperate regret, Bäumer tells the dead soldier: “I see you are a man like me.” But, his comrades ask, what could he have done? Killing the enemy is what they had come for. Bäumer agrees: “After all, war is war.”
The German author Erich Maria Remarque wrote these lines as a first world war veteran. Published in 1929, his novel was a product of its time, written for a generation of Germans who felt they had been sent to hell and back for nothing.
Yet, nearly a century later, All Quiet on the Western Front is still central to Germany’s literary canon. It is widely read in German schools, has been translated into 50 languages and sold about 20mn copies globally. While two American films were released in 1930 and 1979 respectively, in its country of origin the novel is so revered that no German director dared touch it. Until now.
Director Edward Berger’s 2022 Netflix adaptation could become the most decorated German film of all time, nominated for nine Oscars and 14 Bafta awards. As antiwar in outlook as the book, it comes at a time when German tanks are being deployed on European soil for the first time since the second world war, in anything other than a peacekeeping role.
There were 93 years between Remarque’s novel and Berger’s adaptation. Ostensibly, they were created in very different worlds. Remarque’s was full of the raw trauma caused by total war and defeat. Berger’s is one of relative peace and prosperity. Yet the concept of war as abstract suffering has endured in Germany. In the collective memory, Bäumer’s words ring as true as ever: war is war, no matter what the context, its purpose or its participants. Higher forces pit humans against humans and care little for the impact on them.
While the futility of war is by no means an exclusively German concept, few other nations give it centrality in the commemoration of armed conflict. Remembrance Day in Britain emphasises those who sacrificed their lives, and many people up and down the country use the anniversary of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in the first world war to solemnly swear, “We will remember them.”
In the US, Veterans Day, too, harks back to the first world war. President Woodrow Wilson set the tone at the first one in 1919, when he said it would always “be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory”. In Russia, where the second world war takes centre stage in the collective memory of conflict, Victory Day is marked on May 9 with references to sacrifice at its core. None of these nations consider the wars they fought futile nor the individuals who took part in them victims.
While other nations talk of duty, heroism and sacrifice, Germany’s history has made such positive commemoration of war difficult. At the heart of Berlin is no Arc de Triomphe, no Cenotaph, no Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but the 19,000 sq m Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. On May 8 2020, the 75th anniversary of VE Day (known as Liberation Day in Germany), the Brandenburg Gate, icon of the country’s capital, was lit up with a “thank you” message in Russian, English, French and German. To this day, Germany is intensely conscious of the suffering the two world wars caused millions of people in Europe and beyond. Where the victorious powers see purpose in suffering, most Germans see only senseless slaughter and guilt.
Berger chose to direct a German film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front to capture this ongoing national trauma. American and British war films, he says, “never show my perspective, the perspective I have as a German. Not that of America, that saved Europe from fascism, or England, which was attacked and drawn into a war against their will . . . For us, it’s the exact opposite. In our national psyche, there is nothing but guilt, horror, terror and destruction.”
Despite few Germans today having any memory of all-out conflict, Bäumer’s words still resonate with them as he describes war as “despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
Germany’s collective conviction that armed conflict is inherently futile has been severely tested by the war in Ukraine. Days before Russia launched its invasion on February 24 last year, Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, was still defending her country’s reluctance to help Ukraine defend itself: “Our responsibility after the second world war was that never again from Germany there will be war, and never again there will be genocide.” There it was, modern Germany’s oft-repeated raison d’être: never again.
But since Baerbock spoke those words, Germany has not only announced a €100bn boost to its own military but has sent significant aid and weaponry to Ukraine — most recently, albeit reluctantly, Leopard 2 tanks — something that sends shivers down many German spines.
Under the banner of general pacifism, many German intellectuals have opposed support for Ukraine. The feminist magazine Emma published an open letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, urging him not to supply weapons as this bore “the risk of a third world war”.
The letter points to “the level of destruction and human suffering among the Ukrainian civilian population” as a reason not to help these very people defend themselves. Like Bäumer, today’s German pacifists see war only as meaningless suffering without purpose. “While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing,” Remarque’s hero muses, “we already knew that death-throes are stronger.”
The open letter was signed by dozens of public figures, among them actors, authors, academics and politicians. It has to date been backed by nearly half a million signatures from the wider public. Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that Remarque’s antiwar novel is finding such resonance again. While Berger said that when he directed his film adaptation, he “couldn’t have anticipated what would be happening in Europe right now, with a war going on”, he feels “the topic never gets old . . . now is the right time to show this film”.
In Remarque’s time in the 1920s, many German intellectuals also responded to the specific conflict of the first world war with a rejection of all wars. Unlike the victorious powers, they found it difficult to find meaning in the enormous sacrifices they had made.
In 1914, Germany stood proud and prosperous, a major European power, despite its inherent faults as a semi-autocratic state with vast social inequality. Four years later, more than 2mn of its men had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, while another 2.7mn had returned home mentally and physically scarred. The country’s mighty economy had exhausted itself; its monarchy had fallen; its pride had been injured.
Women, such as the artist Käthe Kollwitz, couldn’t understand what it had been for. She had reluctantly, and against objections from her husband, allowed her teenage son Peter to enlist. He left for the Western Front on October 12 1914 with gifts from his mother in his bag: a pocket chess set and a tattered copy of Goethe’s Faust. The family hung the back-white-red colours of the German Empire from their window in tribute. Eleven days later, Peter was shot dead in a trench in Belgium.
His mother never recovered. Kollwitz sank into depression and her art began to revolve around the horrors of war. She supported pacifist campaigns with works such her woodcut collection War and a pair of statues titled The Grieving Parents, which stand at the Vladslo German war cemetery in Belgium where Peter is buried. In 1924, Kollwitz designed a poster for the mass protests held at the 10th anniversary of the start of the first world war. Its message echoed a mantra that has endured in Germany to this day: “Never Again War.”
During the interwar period, the views of Kollwitz and fellow pacifists were by no means uncontested. Many Germans, particularly veterans, found it difficult to come to terms with the idea that all their efforts should have been in vain. The manuscript of All Quiet on the Western Front was turned down by S Fischer Verlag, one of Germany’s most prestigious publishers, and Ullstein, which published it in 1929, only did so after Remarque had toned down his antiwar messaging following criticism from several war veterans who had read the first draft.
In 1931, the Prussian state parliament ordered the book to be removed from school libraries. The Nazis burnt it in public in 1933, alongside other literature they considered degenerate. In part, this response was down to fear. Remarque’s book had already sold 1mn copies by June 1930 with a message that ran contrary to Adolf Hitler’s plans for a new European war.
If indiscriminate pacifism was still a controversial view in interbellum Germany, the second world war compounded it into national dogma. “Never again!” became a founding principle of both German postwar states. All Quiet on the Western Front was read in East and West German schools, while pupils in both countries were shown the influential 1930s film adaptation directed by Lewis Milestone.
Compared with the horrors of the first world war, which largely took place on foreign battlefields and could easily be mythologised, Hitler’s war had brought bombs, troops and violence to German soil. Civilians had seen the realities of war for themselves. While this made the majority wary of rearmament, their respective governments quickly became pawns in a cold war game in which they had limited room for manoeuvre.
In 1955 West Germany joined Nato, and East Germany its communist counterpart, the Warsaw Pact. Both states reintroduced conscription for men (the West in 1956, the East in 1962). Three years after the formation of the military alliances, in March 1958, the West German parliament entered into a “nuclear sharing” agreement as a Nato partner. Pilots of its newly formed armed forces, the Bundeswehr, would be trained to deliver US nuclear bombs. This appalled many Germans, just 13 years after the end of the second world war, and over the course of the spring of 1958, 1.5mn people took to the streets to protest against the decision. Pacifism was alive and well.
But neither German state had the option to become a conscientious objector to a cold war in which it was the balance of arms, including nuclear weapons, that secured peace. The US built up a nuclear arsenal in West Germany that would reach an estimated 5,000 weapons. In 1979, the Soviet Union in turn stationed SS-20 Saber missiles in East Germany that had the capability to take out all Nato bases in western Europe.
When Bonn decided to respond by allowing Nato to increase its arsenal in West Germany, Germans in both East and West were terrified. An escalation of tensions involving tactical nuclear weapons would turn their countries into a wasteland. The peace movement that had continued to grow throughout the 1960s and 1970s erupted into the largest demonstrations the country had ever seen. On one single day, October 2 1983, more than 1mn people protested across West Germany. Human chains were formed between and around cities. The whole country seemed on its feet. “Never again war!” chanted workers, intellectuals and even soldiers.
Among the pacifist activists was a young firebrand, an aspiring leader in his mid-twenties with a curly brown mane and gift for sparkling rhetoric. Olaf Scholz had become the deputy leader of the Young Socialists in 1982, the youth wing of the Social Democratic party, which he represents as German chancellor today. In his Young Socialists capacity, he travelled to East Germany to meet with like-minded youth delegations and wrote angry articles about the “aggressive-imperialist strategy of Nato”.
Scholz’s current coalition partner, the Green party, to which Baerbock belongs, also has its roots in the radical pacifism of this period. It was an SPD chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who had supported Nato’s decision to station more missiles in the country. With no major political party to the left of the SPD, there was no real way for people to express their protest through voting. So environmental concerns and political pacifism combined to spark the formation of the Green party in 1980.
When Germany reunified a decade later in 1990 and the Soviet Union collapsed shortly afterwards, it seemed as if the German dream of the end of all wars had come true. It had endured four decades on the front line of the cold war. Now it was time to put the weapons down and live in peace. Successive German governments under Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel spent the next three decades reducing the defence budget, which hovered just above 1 per cent of gross domestic product for much of this time.
When, in 1999, Germany entered into one of its first armed conflicts since the second world war, it was, as now, run by the SPD with a Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. Justifying his support for Germany’s contribution to Nato’s intervention in Kosovo, which he saw as a humanitarian move, given the indications of ethnic cleansing, he pointed to the conflict inherent in unquestioning pacifism and Germany’s dogma: “I have not only learnt the phrase: never again war. I also learnt: never again Auschwitz.” As with Baerbock today, Fischer emerged as a vocal proponent of principle over pacifism in the face of war in Europe, despite their party’s antiwar roots.
But Germany’s trauma sits deep. Despite Bundeswehr deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Mali, the illusion that Germany would never again be involved in large-scale war persisted. Both Schröder and Merkel believed that conflicts could always be resolved by monetary and diplomatic means, a conviction that has seen them bind the German economy tightly to those of autocratic states such as Russia and China.
It was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that woke Germany from its pacifist daydreams. While many German intellectuals continue to abhor the idea of German tanks rolling into battle against Russian ones, large sections of the public have begun to understand that pacifism does not always equate to peace. Recent surveys have shown that the majority of Germans are in favour of the government’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and that includes nearly two-thirds of SPD voters and three-quarters of those who support the once-pacifist Greens.
But Germany still has a way to go towards normalising discussions around concepts such as intervention and deterrence, and to feel comfortable in a role of power and responsibility. Some have called for this shift, including Scholz himself with his announcement of a Zeitenwende, or a turning point for his country. But the “never again” dogma persists as some studies indicate growing war weariness. A survey last month found that 43 per cent of Germans now think the war in Ukraine is not Germany’s problem, compared with 32 per cent last April.
Antiwar ideals have remained sacred to many Germans who are deeply alarmed by Scholz’s decision to approve tank exports to Ukraine. Wolfgang Merkel, a political scientist who has previously been critical of weapon deliveries to Kyiv, deems the move “strategically and morally wrong”, fearing it will bring an escalation of war for civilians in Ukraine. The philosopher Svenja Flasspöhler worries about the “nuclear ace” up Putin’s sleeve.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have prompted many Germans to think differently about war, to recognise that it may sometimes be necessary to defend territory, values and principles. But the German fear of war runs deep and, as the literary heart of this pacifism, All Quiet on the Western Front continues to be read and revered.
As Germans begin to grapple with the changing world around them and attempt to find a new role for their country in it, Remarque’s words still haunt many minds a century after he wrote them. “After all, war is war.”
Katja Hoyer’s ‘Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990’ will be published by Allen Lane on April 6. Her last book was ‘Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918’