A Time to Live and a Time to Die is the tenth novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It was published in 1954, after the loud fame of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Three Comrades”, and “Arc de Triomphe”. The novel again refers the reader to the themes of war and the “lost generation”. His characters are trying to live, love, and believe at a time when death relentlessly follows everyone.
This anti-war work was already written during the years of emigration when Erich Maria was deprived of German citizenship, and the writer was forced to emigrate to the United States. At home, his works were under the strictest ban, and old publications were immediately burned on public Nazi bonfires.
Remarque, despite persecution in Germany, was recognized by the world, published successfully, entered high society, and had friendly relations with Hollywood stars. Many of the writer’s works were filmed during his lifetime. A visual interpretation of A Time to Live and a Time to Die was released in 1958. The film was directed by Douglas Sirk. Remarque himself not only worked on adapting the text but also acted as an actor. He played the small role of Professor Polman – the school teacher of the protagonist soldier Ernst Graeber.
Let’s remember the plot of the next masterpiece of Erich Maria Remarque.
Death has a scary face
1944 The outcome of the Second World War is obvious – the Nazis will be defeated. However, the military leadership continues to maintain the illusion of the unshakable power of the German army, the soldiers, in pain of death, are forbidden to talk about the true state of affairs at the front.
Ernst Graeber is a simple soldier, one of hundreds of thousands of German guys who went to the front as boys. He fought in Africa, Europe, and Russia, drank all the sorrows of a soldier’s life, saw thousands of deaths, buried dozens of comrades, and long ago became disillusioned with those high-profile ideas that once inspired him to take up arms and go to kill.
Now Ernst, along with his company, is in the Russian village. April. Snow is melting. Corpses appear on the surface, which he reliably hid from the human eye throughout the long winter. At first, the January dead appeared, ossified from frost. They were thrown into graves like logs. Then came December, softened, like sponges soaked in moisture. There was melted water in their eye sockets and mouths so that they looked like drowned people. The spectacle is not for the faint of heart, but a person gets used to everything. Ernst and his comrades are no longer afraid of death. Day after day, soldiers carry bodies to mass graves. Most of them were Russians.
That day another body was found under the snow. Out of habit, they wanted to dump the common pit, but after looking closely, they found that it was Lieutenant Reike from Graeber’s company, who was wounded and evacuated to the rear. First, they want to put Reika in a coffin and bury it with all honors, but there is no free coffin. It is pointless to make a new one – the body is very softened, and while it is being transferred, a piece of the leg falls off along with the boot. The lieutenant is wrapped in a raincoat in a tent and hastily buried. This is what heroic death looks like on the battlefield. She has a terrible face.
On the same day, four Russian partisans are brought in, they are sentenced to be shot. There is a woman among the partisans. A 19-year-old soldier, a pure-blooded Aryan, and one hundred percent Nazi, one of the few not disappointed, tries to rape a captive. Fortunately, he doesn’t succeed.
Ernst Graeber does not like to shoot, but he is used to this. The main thing is not to think, then everything happens quickly and simply – a volley, and in front of you is a string of corpses. Very soon they will cool down, stiffen and become the same as those that appear daily from under the snow.
The execution was spoiled by the same Russian woman. Before her death, she cursed all the Germans who came to Russian soil. She cursed the children of her executioners and promised that the day would come when her children would shoot their children. A minute later, the woman was lying head first on the wet ground. She was dead.
Return to hometown
Finally, soldier Graeber is given a long-awaited three-week vacation. For two years he was not in his native Werdenbrück. During the war years, the city in which Ernst spent his childhood and youth changed beyond recognition. The cozy streets were deserted, and most of the houses turned into ruins. Now Werdenbrück is more like a huge morgue where the dead coexist with the living.
Ernst’s parents are missing. They are neither on the list of the living nor the dead. He goes to an old friend of his family – a doctor. At home, Graeber finds only his daughter Elisabeth. According to her, her father is in a concentration camp, and she works at a factory in the hope of somehow helping her father.
Surprisingly, Elisabeth, whom Ernst knew as a child, has grown into a very attractive young woman. Mutual sympathy develops between the couple. True, their first date is devoid of traditional peacetime romance. Ernst comes to Elisabeth, they drink vodka and talk about life, and then they go for a walk around the dead city, empty and cold.
In the remaining days of the vacation, Graeber meets with former schoolmate Binding. During the war, he settled down well – he occupies a leading position in the Nazi headquarters. Binding is far from being a fanatic; he sees perfectly the weaknesses of party politics. However, he has one amazing feature – the ability to adapt. This art in many ways helped him climb the career ladder.
Graeber also visits Polman’s former school teacher. With him, they talk for a long time about the war and the troubles that it brings to mankind. Polman, in his own way, tries to resist the Nazis and shelters a fugitive Jew in his own house. This unfortunate man lost his entire family during the war and genocide and went through torture and camps himself. His mutilated body daily reminds me of the torments he experienced. Ernst is especially impressed by the fingers of a Jew – there are absolutely no nails on them.
Marriage. Return to the front. Doom
Ernst and Elisabeth’s romance is developing rapidly. On one of the terrible nights of the bombing, young people become lovers. There is no time for a long courtship, so Ernst offers his beloved a hand and a heart. That way, at least, he can take care of Elizabeth when he goes to fight again because the wives of the front-line soldiers are supposed to help. Elizabeth agrees and becomes Ernst’s wife.
Soon the newlyweds have to leave. Ernst conjures his beloved not to come to the station – the farewell is very painful. When the train is ready to move, Graeber sees Elisabeth in the crowd on the platform. He tries in vain to push his way to the window to say goodbye. The wife’s face blurs in the crowd of mourners. He saw him for the last time.
And nothing has changed at the front – death, blood, the rapid retreat of the German army. The command continues to send recruits who know nothing about the war and die like flies under the pressure of the Russian army.
Once a soldier Graeber was assigned to guard four Russians, alleged partisans. The prisoners are imprisoned in the basement. At night, shelling begins, turmoil. Graeber wants to release the captives because they are completely different from partisans – ordinary civilians. However, Steinbrenner is going to shoot the Russians. A fight ensues between him and Graeber, as a result of which Ernst kills the enemy. He releases the prisoners and throws down his weapons.
The next moment Graeber saw the Russians. They ran in a group, ducking under a barrage of bullets. The old man with whom Ernst had spoken the day before suddenly raised his rifle and took aim. “So, after all, they are partisans,” thought Graeber, and he opened his mouth to say something important, but did not have time. Ernst Graeber didn’t even feel the blow. At some point, he just saw in front of him some kind of half-trampled plant with red tassels. He dropped his head into the thick grass. And the plant grew and grew, now it covered the whole sky. Graeber looked at him a few more times and closed his eyes.
The Return of Remarque summary In our new article, we will plunge into the events described in the novel by Erich Maria Remarque “The Return”, which is a kind of continuation of the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”.
Be sure to read the biography of Erich Maria Remarque, an outstanding writer of the twentieth century, a member of a group of writers known as the “lost generation”.
The concepts of “life” and “death”
The semantic structure of the novel “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” is made up of the concepts of “life” and “death”, which the author skillfully plays with throughout the entire work. Life as a form of existence of matter (i.e., a person) and death as the cessation of the life of an organism is directly opposite realities. However, these polar principles are in constant interaction with each other. Life, according to the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, is separated from death by only a moment. When someone lives and is born, someone else dies and expects to die.
The antithesis “life-death” is stated in the symbolic title “A time to live and a time to die.” The inextricable connection in which these concepts are located is indicated by the connecting union “and”, not accidentally chosen by the author.
The concepts of “life” and “death” are implemented by Remarque everywhere. He begins the novel with a detailed, very naturalistic description of the soldiers’ corpses that emerge from under the melted snow. The protagonist, Ernst Graeber, who recently returned from Africa, compares death in the sands with death in Russia. There, at the equator, death was dry, while in Russia death was sticky and fetid.
Today, death has ceased to be something intimate, intended for a narrow circle of initiates. The war exposed the mystery of death. The protagonist now and then faces her terrible pictures. A shot Russian partisan, soldiers in mass graves, strangers on the streets, a little girl stabbed with an iron spike during a bombing raid – Graeber saw the dead by the hundreds, and now they all goggle their terrible eyes of their past.
Amazingly, while dying, the protagonist finds some time to live. He meets his love, creates a family, and gropes for the meaning, without which there is no life. Graeber’s outcome is tragic. He is dying. But it is fundamentally important that the main character dies, showing mercy. He broke the nefarious rules of war and was out of the game. Graeber’s death is the hope that the world will be restored.
Symbolic in this regard is the image of a flower that stretches to the sky. Who knows (the author deliberately keeps silent about this), perhaps Elisabeth, Ernst’s wife, is now carrying a child under her heart, who will become the embodiment of her father in a new, changed world.