The third film awarded “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards in 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front, was presented to a nation processing the impact of what was then known as The Great War. Overseas in Germany, the rising Nazi Party rallied their base against the picture, causing riots and the eventual banning of the film in Germany. A pacifist film that unwittingly played a part in the rise of the Nazis was at the time celebrated as a realistic depiction of the horrors of war. I took a deep dive into the Library of Congress archives and history journals to uncover how this film played a role in the rise of the Nazi party.
Billed as “the story your soldier son never dared to tell you,” the film, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarch, promised audiences insight to the silence and trauma that accompanied the soldiers home from the war. Known today as PTSD, it was referred to as “shell-shock” at the time.
All Quiet on the Western Front: The Plot (Spoilers)
The plot of this movie is tragic and brutal. In the beginning, a group of innocent boys is attending school in a German schoolhouse. A military parade passes by, and the teacher encourages the boys to live an honorable life of military service. The boys are optimistic and carried away with patriotism and they join the military. The typical “drill sergeant” shown in films may have started here, making boot camp miserable for the men.
The men go to the front lines and one after the other, they are all wounded and killed. The film’s protagonist, Paul Baumer, is wounded early on and sent to a hospital. He returns home on leave and speaks to the school children, telling them there is no glory or glamour in dying for a country. They mock him as a coward.
He recovers, but by the time he makes it back, everyone in his company has died except two men, Tjaden and Kat. Sadly, Kat is injured and then killed by a bomb. Paul is in the trench, and he sees a butterfly. He reaches up to touch the butterfly, and is shot by a snipers bullet. He dies.
1929-1930 Academy Awards
This ceremony took place only seven months after the 1929 presentation of Best Picture for “The Broadway Melody.” Quite frankly, Hollywood was capitalizing on the lightening fast move to talking films from silent films. There was food and drink, and then the Oscars were presented. Louis B. Meyer said, “I hear there’s talk that the motion picture we honor tonight may win a Nobel Peace Prize.”
This was the first ceremony with the “democratic” voting process, but the results still raised questions. The Best Actress winner, Norma Shearer, was the wife of MGM’s second in command. At this point, the awards were not taken very seriously, but offered a fun party and a way to promote Hollywood films to the world through news columns and press releases featuring celebrities dressed to the nines, all in one room. It hasn’t changed so much now, has it?
The presentation is seen below – it is not nearly as full of pomp and circumstance as we see today, but is still a beautiful glimpse into the past.
Germany Bans ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’
In Berlin, on the evening of December 5, 1930, at the Mozart Hall, a sold out showing of All Quiet on the Western Front is about to begin. This is the German premiere of the movie that has already won Best Picture in America. “Ten minutes into the performance, a small, dark haired man arose from his front row balcony seat and stalked up the darkened aisle toward the exit. This man, Joseph Goebbels, was giving a signal to the Nazis that had packed the seats and were patiently awaiting their signal.. They rose and began chanting “Judenfilm, Judenfilm!” They threw stink bombs and released mice into the theater. These actions continued for several nights, and led to the German Board of Censors banning the film in its entirety. (The Historian, Vol. 52, 1989, Simmons, Jerold).
You and I live in the future, and we have some hindsight about these events. The Nazis had begun forming coalitions and winning elections by stoking nationalist anger at the harsh treatment Germany had received post-Great War (World War I). The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to accept guilt for the World War, dissolve their military, cede territories to the Allies, and pay reparations, among other things. This lead Germany into an economic depression. Right-wing Nazis used the angry reaction to this film to further their anti-Semitic propaganda.
Protesting this movie gave Germans, angry and resentful of the sacrifice required by the Treaty of Versailles, an outlet for their rage. Not only was the movie anti-war, but it made the people who had stolen their land and demanded their money look like heroes. Young Germans who were too young for the first war and had admired the Great War Veterans as heroes missed the point of the movie altogether. The anti-war message was seen as an anti-German message.
When news spread that the Germans were viewing an edited film, Joseph Goebbels stoked the fires further by spreading rumors that the version of the film shown in other countries depicted Germans even worse than the version they saw with their own eyes.
Hell hath no fury like a young man who feels insulted and powerless. The Nazi party capitalized on the anger stoked by this movie and brought more young people into the nationalist fold. This played into the Nazi narrative that “they” were the victims and must “take their country back.” Five short years later, the Germans were marching into Rhineland, an area of Germany near France that had been demilitarized after World War I.
This article in the Indianapolis Times attempts to explain the outrage over the film. “The censorship has become a target of political criticism and movie-halls are being turned into battle grounds where those of different opinions fight out their differences, not merely with words, but often with their fists.”
This blog is about bringing historical context to the films that are remembered as the best of an era. I’ve presented three different articles about this censorship in Germany along with some context as to why so many Germans became angry, knowing what we know today. I also consulted a scholarly article published in The Historian in 1989, that can be accessed through JSTOR. (The Historian, Volume 52, p. 40-60).
We learn history so that we are not doomed to repeat it. As nationalism rises both on the left and the right of the political spectrum in 2020’s America, beware aligning oneself with a demagogue who uses your anger as fuel for his or her own power.
In the example of All Quiet on the Western Front, the novel and the movie were meant to tell the story of young people at war. The nationality of these people wasn’t the point. The point was that war crowds the young souls right out of us, leaving behind only the shells of what we once were.
This article from The Guardian, printed in December of 1930, digs a little deeper into the reason the German censorship board decided to ban the film. First, the Nazi party strongly opposed the American film, “because the film was detrimental to German prestige.” This gave the Nazi party a rallying cry to get their nationalist, conservative base riled up.
The Nazi party had recently over-performed expectations in the election of 1930. The Guardian reported, “The new militarism of Germany has won its first victory since the general election. The authorities have given way to the anti-pacifist mob. The film All Quiet on the Western Front has been forbidden. The movement against it was in no sense a popular movement – it was organised and led by the National Socialist party with the support of the Conservative newspapers, notably the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, who, amongst other things, maintained that the film is calculated to injure Germany’s prestige abroad, though it is difficult to imagine anything more likely to injure Germany’s prestige abroad than its suppression.
Yesterday evening the film was shown to a crowded house. The performance was again disturbed – this time it was not white mice, but slow-worms that were released by the disturbers. These animals seem to have caused quite a stir, although there is no creature in the world more harmless than the slow-worm. They were caught by the police, and handed over to the Berlin Aquarium – though not, one may hope, so as to be placed amongst the fishes, unless to be eaten by the larger ones, for the slow-worm, half-snake and half-lizard, lives on dry land. Open-air demonstrations were prohibited yesterday, and the picture theatre was strongly cordoned off.“
“The Conservative press is full of talk about police brutality, although there has in the last few days been much less use of the truncheons than there is when the Communists try to demonstrate. The newspapers that now attack the police are all approval when the police use not only their truncheons but also their firearms in the poorer quarters of Berlin. When hungry people demonstrate for bread and work they are beaten. When well-fed people demonstrate against peace they are treated with exemplary correctitude.“
“The Nazis hold that the film is anti-German and insulting to ex-soldiers. The majority of the people do not see anything anti-German in it, and it is asserted that the real reason for the Nazi leaders’ agitation is that they do not want their youthful followers to see what the horrors of war are like.” Oh, if only that was all it would have taken.
This source proved helpful to this blog, but was not quoted: Rearming Germany | Facing History and Ourselves
As my husband and I have watched these Best Picture awarded films in order, we learned so much more about the history of the world we live in than we expected. None of us live in a vacuum, and studying how films changed culture, or in this case, history – perhaps inciting the movement it deigned to warn us about – can teach us all important lessons about how we affect the world around us. The Butterfly Effect is what I think about when I consider how a pacifist anti-war film stoked the anger of young Germans enough to add momentum to the rising tide of anti-Semitism that just a few years later cost the lives of millions of people. As the Butterfly flies from the trench in the last scene of All’s Quiet on the Western Front, the term “butterfly effect” seems most appropriate here.