By Modris Eksteins from the British Library Website
For a decade publishers, convinced that the public did not wish to read about the war, resisted war material. Then suddenly in 1928–29, everything changed. The public couldn’t get enough of the war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, first serialized in a Berlin newspaper in December 1928, led the way. It depicted the destruction of an entire class of students, one by one, not in order to make the world a better place but simply on account of the cupidity, arrogance, and narrow-mindedness of its elders. The book became a huge international success, the first genuine modern bestseller, rushed into some 30 translations around the world and filmed by Hollywood. In Germany, Remarque was joined on the bestseller lists by Arnold Zweig, Ludwig Renn, and Ernst Glaeser; in England by the memoirists Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as the dramatist R.C. Sherriff, whose play Journey’s End had 594 performances at the Savoy and Prince of Wales theatres in London from 1929 to 1931. London buses were plastered with the words "All roads lead to Journey’s End." The notion of the "lost generation" became common coinage. "It is time," wrote the respected American critic and veteran Malcolm Cowley in 1933, the year the decorated soldier Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, "for us to admit … that all of us fought in vain." The German Führer of course disagreed. For Germany, he claimed, the war had been a spiritual victory. Yet he, too, wished to reshape the world on the basis of his own experience, his personal struggle—Mein Kampf, as he called it.
The end of history?
For many, fiction had displaced historical writing. The study of history, a dominant intellectual impulse of the late 19th century, was too constrained by rules; fiction represented freedom. In the 1920s everyone seemed to be waiting, not for the comprehensive historical account but for the supreme literary masterpiece that, like Homer’s Iliad or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, would invoke and explain all. For Ernst Kantorowicz, author of a widely applauded biography of the medieval emperor Frederick II, the genres blended. At a conference of German historians in 1930, he stirred up a hornets’ nest when he suggested that "historical scholarship and historical fiction are, despite their mutual animosity, rightly interchangeable concepts."
All is not quiet
Many of these issues, particularly the ongoing crisis of authority and the concomitant disintegration of category and definition, still resonate. Novelists and filmmakers keep being drawn to the First World War as a major source of this process of deconstruction and liberation. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Timothy Findley, Jane Urquhart, Sebastian Faulks, and Pat Barker, among others, have used the war as a setting to probe contemporary concerns about art, gender, social relations, psychology, and remembrance.