Total War and Totalitarianism
All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most famous examples of the horrors of war. Even though All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 1930, it can be compared to more modern movies that display the horrors of war such as Saving Private Ryan which was released in 1998 or Dunkirk which was released 2017. All Quiet on the Western Front was not without its controversies, the movie was banned in Germany for its anti-war and perceived anti-German messages. Paradoxically All Quiet on the Western Front was also banned in Poland for being pro-German. This essay will explore how this artwork is representative of how film can be used as both nationalistic propaganda and an enemy of the state.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1930 war film adapted from the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. The novel describes the horrors of war through the perspective of German soldiers as the war places extreme physical and mental stress on them, the novel also explores the effects of war on soldiers that returned home. The film is quite faithful to its source material displaying the horrors of war in such a way that it shocked audiences at initial release and was later selected to the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as they deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”. It was also the first film to win both best picture and best director at the academy awards.
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In 1930, Germany and the world were starting to feel the effects of the great depression. Germany was still recovering from the lost and reparations from World War 1, this caused massive hyperinflation to Germany’s currency in 1923. This and other factors led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his appointment as chancellor in 1933. However, in 1930 when All Quiet on the Western Front was released the Nazi party was still rising in power and influence. On December 4, 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front was quietly debuted in Germany under heavy police presence. When the movie was over the audience was too disturbed to disapprove or applaud. Joseph Goebbels was a German Nazi politician that led a mob attack in a personal vendetta, as the Smithsonian states “His surprise mob attack went far beyond the realm of boyhood fraternity pranks like mice and sneezing powder. The projectors were shut down and in the chaos, savage beatings were handed down to moviegoers believed to be Jewish.” (Sauer 2015). Goebbels’ main goal was to create chaos, to rally support against the film. Goebbels states in his diary that night “Within ten minutes, the cinema was a madhouse, the police are powerless. The embittered masses are violently against the Jews.” (Doherty 2015). By the end of the week, the Supreme Board of Censors in Germany had banned All Quiet on the Western Front on the reason that it was “endangering Germany’s reputation.” (Sauer 2015).
With the cancelation of All Quiet on the Western Front, the Nazi party had won some symbolic and ideological victories. All Quiet on the Western Front was labeled an enemy of the state for being anti-German and being anti-war while the Nazi were using propaganda to persuade the German people that war was necessary and good for them, the Nazis wanted to the German army to be view as a magnificent force. Later in 1933, the Nazis had come to power and raided bookstores and libraries, grabbing and throwing books into a flaming pyre, all in all about 25,000 books were reduced to ashes. Goebbels would declare it “the cleansing of the German spirit.”.
The film All Quiet on the Western Front has scenes where it can be interpreted as nationalistic propaganda, such as the scene in the beginning when Professor Kantorek gives a passionate speech to his class about enlisting in the military, “Now, my beloved gents, this is what we must do. Strike with all our power. Give every ounce of strength to win victory before the end of the year. It is with reluctance that I bring this subject up again. You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys. You are the iron men of Germany… But now our country calls! The Fatherland needs leaders!! Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country!”
This speech empowers the young men to enlist, they are all motivated to enlist and are pressuring their peers to join in along. This scene can be interpreted as nationalistic propaganda. Later in the film, Paul, one of the boys that enlisted, returns to the professor’s classroom finding Professor Kantorek giving a similar patriotic speech to even younger students. Paul tells Professor Kantorek and his class about the true horrors of war and what he has experienced on the front lines,
“I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their countries… You asked me to tell them how much they’re needed out there. [To the boys] He tells you, “Go out and die.” Oh, but if you’ll pardon me, it’s easier to say “go out and die” than it is to do it… Up at the front, you’re alive or you’re dead and that’s all. And you can’t fool anybody about that very long. And up there, we know we’re lost and done for, whether we’re dead or alive. Three years we’ve had of it. Four years. And every day a year, and every night a century. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you.”
This speech gets rid of the notion that this film could be pro-war nationalistic propaganda. This speech truly reflects the real theme of this movie, that war is hell.
All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most famous examples of the horrors of war. It portrays the gritty real hell that is war. When the film was first released it was met with wide praise in the United States, and wild controversy in Germany from the Nazi party. This film shows how an artwork can be labeled as an enemy of the state by a totalitarian regime.
- Milestone, Lewis, director. All Quiet on the Western Front. Universal Pictures Corp., 1930.
- Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939. Columbia Univ. Press, 2015.
- Sauer, Patrick. “The Most Loved and Hated Novel About World War I.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 16 June 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/most-loved-and-hated-novel-about-world-war-I-180955540/.
- Simmons, Jerold. “Film and International Politics: The Banning of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany and Austria,1930-1931.” The Historian, vol. 52, no. 1, 1989, pp. 40–60., doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1989.tb00773.x.