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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Born Erich Paul Remark on June 22, 1898, he grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Osnabruck in the province of Westphalia, Germany-a city in the northwest part of what is now West Germany. He adored his mother, Anna Maria, but was never close to his father, Peter. The First World War effectively shut him off from his sisters, Elfriede and Erna. Peter Remark, descended from a family that fled to Germany after the French Revolution, earned so little as a bookbinder that the family had to move 11 times between 1898 and 1912. The family's poverty drove Remarque as a teenager to earn his own clothes money (giving piano lessons). He developed a craving for luxury, which he never outgrew. His piano playing and other interests, such as collecting butterflies and exploring streams and forests, later appeared in his fictional characters. His love of writing earned him the nickname Smudge.
Because of the frequent moving, Remarque attended two different elementary schools and then the Catholic Praparande (preparatory school). He loved the drama of Catholic rituals, the beauty of churches, the flowers in cloister gardens, and works of art. He later wrote with a sense of theater, and he featured churches and museums, flowers and trees as symbols of enduring peace. While in school, he had problems with teachers, however, and eventually paid them back by ridiculing them in his novels. At the Praparande he argued so much with one teacher that he used the man's personality and another's name (Konschorek) to produce a specific character in Ail Quiet on the Western Front: Schoolmaster Kantorek.
In November 1916, when Remarque was eighteen and a third- year student at Osnabruck's Lehrerseminar (teachers college), he was drafted for World War I. After basic training at the Westerberg in Osnabruck (the Klosterberg of All Quiet), he was assigned to a reserve battalion, but often given leave to visit his seriously ill mother. In June 1917, he was assigned to a trench unit near the Western Front. He was a calm, self- possessed soldier, and when his classmate Troske was wounded by grenade splinters, Remarque carried him to safety. He was devastated when Troske died in the hospital of head wounds that had gone unnoticed. Still, he rescued another comrade before he himself was severely injured-also by grenade splinters-and sent to the St. Vincenz hospital in Duisburg for much of 1917-1918. He was there when his mother died in September 1917. A year later, still grieving for her, he returned to Osnabruck for further training. After the war he substituted her middle name, Maria, for his own, Paul.
The war ended before Remarque could return to active service, but even though he had not experienced frontline fighting at its worst, the war had changed his attitudes forever. He had learned to realize the value-and fragility-of each individual life, and had become disillusioned with a patriotism that ignored the individual. To him and many of his companions, civilian careers no longer held any meaning.
The next few years in Germany brought shortages, profiteering, runaway inflation, unemployment, riots, and extremist politics- including the rise of National Socialism from the postwar German Workers Party, a group almost fanatic in stressing nationalism. For lack of anything better to do, Remarque and several friends returned to the Seminar, but they found the studies and the older teachers' attitudes ridiculous. Remarque became involved in many disputes. For example, to ridicule the town authorities for their continued belief in the glory of war, he had himself photographed with his dog for the local paper- he in an officer's uniform decorated with two Iron Crosses and other medals. The scandalized Osnabruck officials demanded a public apology.
Still, at graduation he was given the customary letter of recommendation (although it did describe him as more freethinking than the average teacher), and in June 1919 he began two years' work as a substitute for teachers on leave. He was blond, strikingly goodlooking, and very muscular, and managed to dress elegantly whatever his income. He stayed out of politics but became interested in all sports, especially cars and racing. Finally, bored with teaching, he wandered from job to job: playing organ on Sundays in an insane asylum, working for a tombstone firm, working as a small-town drama critic, writing advertising copy for an automotive firm. He married an actress, Jutta Ilse Zambona, in 1925, shortly after taking a job in Berlin as associate editor of the illustrated magazine, Sport im Bild, and became a regular in Berlin society, often sporting a monocle, superficially happy.