Camaraderie in Weimar Republic

I had mentioned previously that I was reading a book called “Three Comrade” by Erich Maria Remarque and I finished it some time ago. After reading the book, I thought and thought for some time and decided it will be apt to write a note about it!

I am not going to start by praising or deriding it, but rather take a detour and talk about Erich Maria Remarque, before plunging into the work. (Have patience! Mr Remarque was a remarkable man of his time and its worth reading about such real life heroes as well.) We might have heard of Mr Remarque’s other more “popular’ book called “All quiet on the Western front”…..right it was also made into an Oscar winning film; but it was a book for a long while before it became a Hollywood magnum project. Anyhow, my trusted source (you got it: Wikipedia) informs me that Mr Remarque was born in Germany in 1898 and began writing from the age of 15. He was drafted into the German Army and served in the Western Front (Yup! You can finally make the “connection”….All Quiet on the Western Front was novel derived from his war experience!). Post the war, he dabbled in various occupations including teaching, journalist, librarian and a businessman. He published some minor works; fame finally came with his magnum opus “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1927. He would then go on to publish various other works, The Road Back, Arch of Triumph, Flotsam etc. and of course Three Comrades. Before divulging into the book, I just want to share one small nugget about his life which makes him a hero – he wrote in dangerous times – Nazis were gaining power in Germany. Mr Remarque, a true humanitarian was horrified at what Germany was becoming and went on a self-imposed exile to Switzerland and became a naturalized US citizen in 1947. While in exile in Switzerland, he was in turns coaxed and coerced into returning to Germany. When all means failed, his sister and her family were arrested and executed for ‘undermining morale” of the State and his book were banned. He never went back to Germany. He died in 1970.

Cover of "Three Comrades"
Cover of Three Comrades

Now for the book – Three Comrades. The tag line of the book says “A novel of Germany between the two wars”. In the simple direct style, that Mr Remarque is famous for, his tag line encapsulates the very essence and meaning of the novel in these lines. The story is told in first person by one of the three comrades – Robert Lohkamp, a cynical protagonist who has been disillusioned by his experience in World War 1. The story begins in about 1923 and ends with that decade. It traces the camaraderie between Robert and his two friends – Otto Koster and Gottfried Lenz and their struggle in running a garage in an increasing jobless and bankrupt country. Their lives change when Robert falls in love with Patricia Hollman, a beautiful girl from an erstwhile wealthy family. She too becomes a comrade and joins the three in all their adventures from auto racing to drinking parties through the night. Interlacing with these four principal characters are other minor but true portraits of everyday men and women struggling to find their hold on their lives in time and place they had no choice for – Rosa, the prostitute who leaves her baby in the country while she walks the roads, The Hasses, Alfonso, Gustav the taxi driver with a soft heart and of course Karl, one cannot forget Karl. The book’s end (I will not disclose) becomes obvious well into the middle, but hang on and read it and you will be surprised by an unexpected turn of events.

Ultimately, the book is a vivid portrayal of nation and her people who are trying to come in terms with changes in their lives on which they have no control over. Written in a simple direct language, it has some lovely interplay of words that leave you wondering, like ‘Two photographs – one life.” Simple, beautiful and ethereal! What is perhaps the most wonderful feature of this book is that though there is melancholia all round, Mr Remarque manages to weave a sense of wonderful laugh out loud humour – check out the racing scenes or the events at “The International” or even the doctrines of the “Last of the romantics”. It’s a moving tale, where if you are like me, a lump will form in your throat and will find its way through your eyes!! Read it, like you would enjoy a glass of wine…in fact read it with a glass of wine!! It’s worth it!

P.S. Hollywood also decided to make a movie on this and starring Robert Taylor and Margret Sullivan, it was released in 1938 in the same name. Rumour has it that the 1978 Oscar-winning film The Deer Hunter was inspired by this book. I have not seen either….I have no wish to disappoint myself with a let-down which most films based on books are (except The Godfather, but then it’s The Godfather), but if you feel adventurous, please watch them, but I would strongly recommend reading the book first!!


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