Today in labor history: Germans ponder “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Excerpted from an original article published on on December 6, 2010. Read the full article here.

On December 5, 2010, hundreds left a movie theater in Berlin, mostly silent and deeply moved, though the film they had seen was first released in 1930. This American-made epic was “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the date of its showing here was no coincidence.

Exactly eighty years earlier to the day, Joseph Goebbels, later to become Hitler’s notorious propaganda minister, had led 200 Nazis in violently preventing the showing of this same film. At the shout of Goebbels, who was in the balcony, the Nazis, storm troopers blew whistles, attacked the rest of the audience and then let hundreds of white mice out of cardboard boxes to scurry through the rows and the showing was stopped. Then thousands of Nazis waiting outside joined Goebbels in a march and rally in the downtown area.

The tumults continued for a week, after which the Censorship Office, made up of Nazi sympathizers or men fearing the growing Nazi pressure, bowed to the demands of several pro-Nazi states to have the film banned altogether in Germany. This was a first major success of the Nazis and was accompanied by an obscene barrage of propaganda against this “defamation of our boys in uniform” by the “Jews in Hollywood” and in Berlin’s “elite” West Side.

The film was totally forbidden in many countries, including France, Austria and Australia, and was eviscerated even in the USA, despite its two Oscars: as best film and, for Lewis Milestone, best director. A final wish of Milestone was to have the film restored to its original length and principles. It took two decades after his death in 1980 before this was finally achieved.

The film shown December 5, 2010, was the original, uncut version with German sub-titles, based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Before showing began, two historians described what had happened in 1930, which had made this a major step in the Nazi take-over of German culture and, two years later, of the whole country, resulting in the destruction of both.

In one unforgettable scene the hero, played by Lew Ayres, bitterly regrets killing a French soldier lying next to him. The glories of “fighting and dying for one’s country”, so mercilessly satirized and exposed by the film, went against all the efforts by nearly every government in those years to honor the dead in such a way that the next generation would dutifully follow in their fatal footsteps.

Photo: Père Ubu cc 2.0


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled the U.S. in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive and became a freelance journalist and author. One of his books is available in English: "Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany" (2003, University of Massachusetts Press).