(See also Post-365: Scenes from the End of the Great War, Plus 100 Years.)
A June 1930 printing, English translation ("All Quiet on the Western Front") was among my grandfather's books, and it is the rediscovery of it that is inspiration for this post.
Aged a not quite ninety years, here is the book as it appears today:
The oldest few books in the house I believe belonged to my grandfather's grandfather [1857-1917], which I base on years of publication, subject matter, language, and especially the font used (a few of the oldest volumes use that awful font called Fraktur). Some of the books were those my grandfather bought himself. Others somehow ended up, this way or that way, over the decades, at the house (which my grandfather, his wife, daughters, and other relatives lived in from the 1940s through the 1990s), as in those from relatives. This copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those. It originally belonged to George Kosswig, my grandfather's brother.
Now, I think this is a great discovery not because it is a rare book (which it is not; it would be easy to find for free in any library, and probably without difficulty online for free somewhere in PDF form, in a pinch, if you really want the text). It is rather, I would say, an example of a "time capsule" in book form.
This book-as-time-capsule idea came to me suddenly to me from the inner cover of this copy of All Quiet. Luckily for us here in the future, my great-uncle wrote his name and date of acquisition on the inner cover, fixing it at a point in time.
And so that handwritten inscription, on the inner cover, is the inspiration for this post.
I went through several conceptualizations of this, but what it has turned out to be is a look back at the 1914-1918 war, "through" 1930 (the time of book acquisition) "from" 2018 (the time of this writing) (really from the 1990s to 2010s, my own life memories, experiences/memories of people involved, family history research, and understanding of history).
An item like a book can be useful here to signal or "signpost" the way towards a little portrait of the owner/reader/purchaser at the specific moment in time he/she possessed it. I think this one does that. Hence Book-as-Time-Capsule.
For this book-as-time-capsule idea to work, of course, we need supplementary or background information.
What was going on in 1930?
For one thing, here is what the George Kosswig's younger brother, my grandfather Ernest Kosswig, looked like at the time (picture taken at his confirmation, about 1930). (Note also that this picture was taken about sixty-seven years before the first Harry Potter book came out:)
That is one thing we can immediately conclude: July 31, 1930, was just weeks before the film's nationwide U.S. premier. George Kosswig, my great-uncle, was "in on" the wave of interest in this book at the height of its popularity. Did he buy it or was it given to him as a gift (it was not his birthday)? I cannot be sure.
The book's popularity pre-dated the hype surrounding the movie, though. The book's sales success was immediate following its Jan. 1929 publication in German(y), where it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its first weeks. It had been partially serialized in a newspaper in November and December 1928.
It is notable that it quickly sold very well across all the Western, former belligerent countries. These numbers I find in an essay by Hilton Tims, in a book of essays about the novel, called Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (Harold Bloom, ed.) [Link] (p. 158):
- Over 1 million copies sold in Germany by Dec. 1929; a second million German copies sold by July 1930 (according to an article in the Irish Times)
- 300,000 copies sold in France by about late spring 1930;
- 300,000 copies sold in Britain by early 1930;
- 215,000 copies sold in the USA by spring 1930; reaching 300,000 copies sold by June 1930 (according to the first essay in World War II, Film, and History, "The Anti-War Film and the Image of Modern War," by John Whiteclay Chambers, p.14).
By 1929-1930, when the book and then film came out in succession, the academic consensus on war origins (the Kriegsschuldfrage debates [Krieg: War; Schuld: Guilt; Frage: Question]) had been resolved with the so-called Revisionists decisively winning. They rejected the argument of unique German war guilt. That is, the international historians' consensus by the mid-to-late 1920s was that the argument for unique German war guilt for the 1914 war was definitely incorrect, and not an innocent mistake but a malicious one (based, understandably in a sense, on wartime propaganda and power politics).
It was a more honest age in many ways, as the capitals involved in the 1914 disaster largely released their internal files in the years after 1918 for scholars to look at. Thorough investigations of these diplomatic documents, as they were released in the early 1920s, proved to the satisfaction of most historians of the world that Germany [was] Not Guilty in 1914 -- the title of one of the Revisionist books of this era. The consensus became rather than a single malicious actor that it was a tragedy caused by foolish behavior all around, a systemic problem and not a good-guy-bad-guy morality play. This understanding has held the mainstream position ever since.
(The reason the Kriegsschuldfrage was so significant in the 1920s was that German war guilt was written into the 1919 Peace Treaty; among the consequences of the war guilt clause was the onerous, hyperinflation-causing reparations system; that and other conditions many viewed as undermining longterm peace. The argument of unique German war guilt had never been valid, it turned out, which turned the historians' controversy into a political one, and many steps to reduce the reparations burden were taken after the Revisionists' decisive academic victory.)
In 1994, Henry Kissinger [b.1923] would use the phrase "a Political Doomsday Machine: European Diplomacy Before the First World War" as the title of his chapter on the 1914 war's origins, in his 900-page Diplomacy. (The next chapter was "Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine." Both are references, I think, to Dr. Strangelove.)
(A side note on the book design: Notice the author's name is in larger font that the book title.)
Kissinger wrote in 1994: "No one country can be singled out for that mad dash to disaster [i.e., in July-August 1914]," which endorsed directly and explicitly for academic posterity, from his authoritative position, the Revisionist victory of the 1920s.
Kissinger would have started coming into cultural-political consciousness in the early 1930s, in the immediate wake of the Kriegsschuldfrage.
I think it's fair to say that by 1930, anger over the war was past; reconciliation had been achieved as evidenced by the international consensus on the war guilt question. All Quiet on the Western Front burst onto the scene in this context, which is probably a key to its international success.
When my own cultural-political consciousness began to emerge in 1990s USA, the 1914-1918 war occupied at best a minor place in the pantheon of events which we are supposed to remember and through which we are supposed to understand the world.
The 1914-1918 war narrative seems to have been "puppetized" by the 1939-1945 war narrative, the earlier war made to serve the latter war's purposes in popular historical memory, which represents a net loss of historical understanding of that which prevailed in 1930. I have come to what I think is a now-common understanding, that the 1914-1918 war caused Western Man to lose something that I don't think we have regained in the 100 years that have followed. (Maybe the next hundred will be better, but it looks likely to get worse before it gets better.)
It is not a surprise, given the reconciliation achieved by 1930, that the film was produced and treats the German soldier (civilian-soldier) so relatively sympathetically. I know of no Hollywood movie from my lifetime that treats the German soldier sympathetically. Nothing like this from any era of German history, despite plenty of good material to draw from over 2,000 years. The film is, by that merit, a time capsule of its own right: A present-day White American watching this 1930 U.S. film is liable to be surprised that a U.S.-produced, major, award-winning film like this shows the German soldier sympathetically.
The war itself is depicted as a kind of natural disaster, rather than a heroic fight against an enemy (we never see or hear the enemy speak). I believe this is All Quiet's strength as a film. We see the protagonists as civilians and soldiers -- first as the one, then as the other -- but the two roles never quite separate: They are civilian-soldiers, the same as the French they are fighting (we do see a single French soldier in one scene but he doesn't speak). It seems to me that is what getting over war and returning to peace is all about: Re-stressing the civilian part and de-stressing the soldier part, of "civilian-soldier."
As to the fate of those unfortunate millions of civilian-soldiers, Remarque ends his preface with the words; "A generation of men...were destroyed by the war."
Looking at Germany alone: Different sources I find say that Germany mobilized between 11 and 13 million men, out of a total male population of about 33 million in 1914 [all ages]. This means that a very large majority of able-bodied 18-to-50-year-olds were mobilized.
The military casualties:
- Germany lost 1.8 to 2.0 million military dead [14-18% of all mobilized] -- of which comparatively few seem to have died of the mystery Influenza epidemic. (That virus killed just over one percent of all mobilized U.S. troops in the war, the highest rate of any army due I think to bad timing, as U.S. forces were highly concentrated in training camps, bases, and cross-Atlantic transit ships during the peak of the pandemic's worst wave in 1918, allowing it to spread rapidly);
- 4.2 million German soldiers were wounded at least once [32-38% of all mobilized], of whom many recovered and returned to the front. But 2.7 million [21-25% of all mobilized] were wounded enough to claim and receive disability benefits from the postwar government. This does not, as far as I know, include the 700,000 taken out of service at some point in 1918 after coming down with the Spanish Influenza [Wever and van Bergen, 2014]. Some speculate that the timing of the mid-1918 Influenza wave may have been decisive in ensuring the loss of the the German Army's strategic coordinator Ludendorff's final attempt to win the war in the middle months of 1918: The Influenza put hundreds of thousands of sorely-needed veteran German troops in sickbeds and not at the front at the height of these summer offensives whereas with them, they could have broken through and taken Paris after all; so the argument goes (I am skeptical...);
- Over a million Germans were captured and became POWs [9-10% of all mobilized],
- Summary of Military Casualties: Accounting for the range of estimates, between one half and two-thirds of all men under arms for the Kaiserreich in 1914-1918 became casualties in one way or another, with at least 35% killed or seriously wounded (eligible for disability payments).
- 0.8%-1.4% of German civilians died of malnutrition due primarily to the wartime British naval blockade;
- Another 0.5% of German civilians died of the 1918-1919 Influenza pandemic of unknown origin (far lower than the worldwide average said to be 3%).
- But the biggest demographic shock of the war was not the millions dying from shells and bullets, the troubling reports of blockade-induced starvation, or the Spanish Influenza, but the alarming crash in the birthrate that led to a birth-deficit in the millions. The 1915-1919 birth deficit was not made up for by any significant post-war baby boom in Germany. These can be counted as millions more losses (3.2 million, estimated by Vandenbroucke ). The same dramatic birth slump also held for France and I presume other belligerents.
I believe this is a good metaphor for the civilizational effect of that war: Major disruption causing a loss in hope for the future, a kind of metaphor for which is the millions never born at all. (Three of my grandparents were born in this time range in the USA; had their parents been under a comparable birth-crash situation -- an abrupt halving of the pre-war birth rate, it means that there a one-in-two chance a baby that "should have been born" in normal circumstances would not have been born -- if this situation had prevailed in the USA, it seems likely I would never have existed at all; in terms of probability, I would need to flip three heads in a row, a 12.5% chance, for all three of my grandparents born in those years to have actually been born.)
The baby deficit is illustrated here:
It is said that nearly seven million men were on German military active duty, in uniform, on November 11, 1918; their uniforms presumably still largely in passable shape even as the regime that issued them had been fraying apart for weeks. In the days before November 11, the regime had received mortal wounds at home: Mutinies, Marxist uprisings, the overthrow of the monarchy.
The seven million returned home over the coming months ("Never Defeated," as the somewhat caricature-inspiring General Ludendorff wrote again and again in rightist periodicals throughout the 1920s). Some of them famously took to political streetfighting against Marxists, whom some veterans blamed for a late-war "Stab in the Back" (Dolchstoss).
Germany, from world-leader in the arts, sciences, and technology, from awe-inspiring economy, from beaming with cultural-political optimism, from the centuries-old tradition of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), to gangs of communists slugging it out with gangs of militant rightists, all within five years...
One good thing about paper-books is that they are final. The paper-book is as a frozen moment of time. A monument built of some solid material on a hilltop, rather than a beach sand castle built within the reach of tide, that is, not subject to ongoing "review" or loss in the way that material on the Internet is.
To use another metaphor, the paper-book is the kind of "engraving on a stone tablet" we speak of proverbially; the Internet, in a parallel metaphor, would be the following set of things: A mishmash of lumps of clay around a confusing array of conveyor belts going off in all directions, with spare writing tools to make marks in the clay laying around; the clay is always malleable and often washed away; the conveyor belts sometimes lead to furnaces that solidify whatever etchings a passerby makes in the clay into 'stone' that could last years or decades, while most conveyor belts lead to oblivion; it is difficult to tell which conveyor belt is which. (Most of what I have ever written on the Internet is already lost forever; this small website itself is now five years old and even in that short time has become littered with dead links due to various issues including URL changes.)
To get around to addressing my main point: My grandfather's brother (George)'s acquisition of the book on July 31, 1930 (a Thursday) happens to have landed on a metaphorical conveyor belt that has transported it safely into my hands, ninety years later.
The book raises a question that I think I can answer:
To answer this question in a full-on way is exactly the value of this book-as-time-capsule / historical signpost.
This is the answer: All Quiet, as a work of anti-war German literature, nestled itself right at a confluence of three different "family traditions," as I see it, making it completely natural that this book ends up in 19-year-old George Kosswig's hands, possibly a gift from his father or another relative. The three family traditions are contained in the three words I used to describe the book there: Anti-War; German; and Literature.
To take these three "family traditions" one at a time:
 Pro-Literature. There was, by 1930, a long tradition of devotion to the printed word in this family, ever since the first Kosswig ancestor on whom I have any information [b. 1857] left the village of his birth along the Saale River, a tributary of the Elbe, about the early 1870s. He got involved in bookbinding as an apprentice in Leipzig in the newly declared German Empire (sometimes called the Kaisserreich). (A 19th-century young man probably ends up around printing because of a pre-existing family orientation towards the printed word; I fully expect that earlier Kosswigs were probably not just literate but enthusiastic readers despite likely limited funds, like the young Lincoln is said to have been.)
This ancestor Kosswig passed on this publishing-oriented trade to his son, who worked in printing in the 1900s and 1910s in Connecticut.
And the interest in books and reading/writing was certainly inherited by my grandfather Ern Kosswig, who was for decades a small-time hobby writer and definitely a reader (I witnessed him read the Civil War novel Killer Angels in one sitting one summer day in the 1990s). Among other endeavors, in the 1970s he attempted to publish a comedic novel he wrote, told from the perspective of a group of anthropomorphic ants who humorously observe human behavior (in the 1990s, two animated movies very similar to his novel came out). That he kept so many books for so many decades, never dumping them as old and useless, also speaks for itself.
Being that All Quiet on the Western Front had literary value, it would have appealed to this family. Here is the first page for good measure. Its literary value is said to be its highly realist style, now seemingly characteristic of early 20th-century writing but then something new, a departure from lofty 19th-century style writing (Hemingway would do the same around the same time in the USA):
My grandfather recorded in an autobiographical essay that his German-born grandfather was involved in this kind of politics. I discovered one of the oldest books in the collection prominently featured essays from circa 1905 by a Karl Kautsky, a leading Social Democratic or Socialist figure of the German-speaking world at the time (Kautsky would come out strongly against the Bolshevik terror-state that was being set up in Russia in the late 1910s and 1920s, and was condemned at length by Lenin).
Another book I found in the house is one I expect my grandfather inherited from his father or possibly from his grandfather. It is an extended polemic against imperialism, war-mongering, war-industry/profiteering, and militarism generally, called War, What For? published in 1912. (The much-later song "War, What is It Good For?"  I presume has such a similar name by coincidence only, but who knows.) I have paged through some of this 1912 book. It must have been an obscure book for its time, but you can't argue that the author was wrong; that is, the author didn't need to wait long to say "I told you so," as the 1914-1918 disaster was just around the corner...;
All Quiet on the Western Front's war-as-tragedy theme would have fit right in this family tradition; even though of course sons and grandsons do not share the same politics as fathers and grandfathers, the tradition is there.
 German Identity. The Kosswig family in Connecticut was of (relatively) recent German origin as of 1930. Patrilineally, I believe the ancestors of past generations would have had primary allegiance to the former Kingdom of Saxony in that state's heyday (hey-centuries?) and probably retained a feeling of Saxon identity through the 19th century, when a variety of successor entities came about on the margins, starting with map-rearrangement organized by Napoleon, then by the Concert of Europe, and finally Prussia. My grandfather's grandfather and other ancestors on whom I have information were born Prussian subjects but were still very close to the Saxony line.
From a big picture perspective, the Kosswig and related ancestors seem to be from the region immediately west of Leipzig.
This was the heart of Germany at the time. In the early 20th century, planners built one of the world's largest train stations at Leipzig because it was considered geographically right in the center of Germany, making for most efficient cross-country transfers. It was from this city (Leipzig) that the Kosswig ancestor had lived in through 1887, when he came to the USA.
So as of 1930, the Kosswig line had been in the U.S. for only forty-some years. There was a relatively strong connection to German cultural and religious traditions, including everyone being involved in the Lutheran church (my grandfather recorded an incident that stuck with him in which he and a boy were punished for playing marbles during the church service), and the first Kosswig male ancestor being one of the founders of the New Britain (Connecticut) Quartette Club (a German singing group).
A lot of German language was spoken, as well, but by 1930 the younger people didn't quite have a native ability in it, and my grandfather once wrote that his parents would speak English together, except when they wanted to keep something semi-secret from the kids, at which time they would switch to German.
I figure I need to include a visual here: Below is my grandparents' wedding picture. The two men in the middle of the picture are my grandfather Ern (smiling, facing my grandmother) and his older brother George, whose book has inspired this long post:
This family and those in its immediate vicinity would have been (and I have no doubt about this) totally against U.S. intervention, including against U.S. financing of the British/French side through loans, and against the selling of war materiel thereto (both of which occurred).
(The consensus among experts, I have read, is that such a position was the clear the majority one in the USA in 1914, 1915, and through 1916, with popular opinion perhaps moving towards favor of intervention only in early 1917 with the leaking of the Zimmermann Telegram offering Mexico an alliance if the U.S. intervened against Germany [January 1917; apparently endorsed publicly by German foreign ministry March 3, 1917] and with the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare [Feb. 1, 1917].)
The family would have been against the out-of-the-blue rebranding of Germany (or of "the Kaiser") as some kind of major U.S. enemy. As for the Kaiser, they were not likely fans; the onerous "political police" of the German Empire in the 1880s appear likely to have been responsible for the Kosswig ancestor's decision to leave Germany in 1887 (what evidence I have seen suggests he may have been co-convicted under the anti-Socialist Law for involvement in publishing proscribed material, and levied with a heavy fine).
The Kosswigs and related families in the period before April 1917 would have said that to go to war in Europe for little apparent U.S. national-interest would be to take up the same poison chalice that the major powers in Europe had taken up in 1914. Kool-Aid was invented in 1927, and the Jim Jones mass suicide event was in 1978, but if this phrasing had been around, they would have said that to go to war at that time in those circumstances would be to "drink the Kool-Aid," in the suicidal sense (i.e., leading to the kinds of major demographic and cultural disruptions that the statistics above and subsequent history bear out).
"This war is one of the most evil things to which we have sacrificed ourselves." --Franz Marc, painter, killed at Verdun.
In short, I am sure the members of this and related families would have seen the 1914-1918 war as a tragedy for all three of the reasons above, which tie back into All Quiet and what George Kosswig and others may have been thinking about the novel in 1930.
As I am not sure I have fully achieved my goal here yet, let me attempt to to end this post by tying these three themes directly back to both 1914-1918 and 1930 with All Quiet on the Western Front :
 Literacy: In 1914-1918, I believe the Kosswigs and related families would have seen the war as a net loss for Western civilization and thus a net loss for intellectual pursuit like the written word.
In one of the opening scenes of All Quiet (the film), we see the high school boys who had just decided to enlist together en masse proceed to gleefully rip apart their textbooks and toss the pages carelessly around the classroom in celebration, certainly a deliberate metaphor. In a later scene, a student-turned-soldier during a rear-area respite quotes some mathematical principle he had learned to an older, not-academically-oriented member of the unit, asking him whether or not he too found that mathematical principle to be fascinating. It is a pearls-before-swine moment as the older soldier replies: "What do you wanna learn that stuff for? One day you'll stop a bullet and it'll all be worthless."
Ironically (or not), a major literary success came out of the war. But the author, who (in real life) was wounded during his frontline mission laying barbed wire and spent months hospitalized, could just as easily have died of his wounds, and that literary contribution would have been snuffed out before it ever emerged. Hence the tragedy of the loss of so many millions to civilization itself.
Consider also this: "Whereas, according to an Italian source, 330 out of 1,000 recruits entering its army were illiterate, the corresponding ratios were 220/1,000 in Austria-Hungary, 68/1,000 in France, and an astonishing 1/1,000 in Germany." (From Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, ch. 5).
 Anti-War: In 1914-1918, the political and cultural tragedy of fighting senseless modern wars for the benefit of empires and other big-money interests (as many anti-war voices saw it) would have been why not to get involved; in 1930, the anti-war feeling of the earlier era and of the book may have still resonated, especially if George's father bought and gave him the book.
 German Ancestry: In the 1914-1918 period, besides some inevitable sympathy for those extended family members in Germany and for the German nation as a whole, there would have considerable worry about the negative impact a major U.S. war effort against Germany would have on German cultural life in the USA.
The major success of All Quiet, a story told sympathetically from the German common soldier's perspective and which does not "bash" Germans really in any way, would have been appealing to this family as of 1930, by which time general reconciliation had occurred and German identity had partially recovered from its low ebb of 1917-1918. (There is really only one character who is really bashed in the film depiction: A peacetime mailman the boys know who becomes a cruel drill instructor; but even he is ultimately harmless and dealt with in a prank by the boys.)
To jump forward just a little in time, and as a kind of coda to the German ancestral-identity stream:
By the late 1930s, my grandfather as a young man and many of those around him (including his cousin Dick Schroeder) were active members of a cultural-civic group called the German-American Council, one of many such ethnocultural identity groups at the time across America.
Surviving photographs show my grandfather with his then-girlfriend (my grandmother; daughter of a German-born mother) on outings associated with the German-American Council. Here is one I found:
I do find this entry in the U.S. Congressional Record, in which a Congressman praises the German-American Council in a June 1938 speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. He praises its pro-U.S. patriotism, and enters remarks by its president, Dr. Frank Zwick into the record:
I have weaved here back and forth between the two eras deliberately. The idea is that there is historical continuity, and that it is worth understanding.
Though we may be weak and insignificant as individuals, we are part of something else, something multi-generational, something that is greater than a sum of the individuals or their individual experiences, you might say. Past-->Present-->Future is not static, but dynamic, organic, and linked together.
Which leads me to these final pictures that complete, in one sense, a link of the chain. The author of these words, with the partial subjects of these words, my maternal grandparents:
My grandfather, at the moment the picture was snapped, could not have imagined that decades later the picture would be accessible from anywhere on Earth through a computer, or through a telephone (and the defacto end of the distinction between the two, computer and phone, he probably could not have foreseen).
This post has been a multi-layered retrospective that I have attempted to anchor on that moment (Thursday, July 31, 1930) that my great-uncle inscribed his copy of All Quiet on the Western Front with his name and date.
If, ninety or so years from now, a descendant of mine finds something I have done or written, and finds it of enough value to comment on in some venue like this one, as I have done here, then the chain will be extended yet further into the future. If I could be so lucky!