Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Erich Maria Remarque captured like none other the chaos of an uncertain daily life in Germany between the two World Wars, and Three Comrades is one of his more iconic works on the subject. The story follows three friends earning a meagre living through a garage they own, searching desperately for a meaning to their wasting lives amidst the upheavals which shook Germany in 1928… a meaning they might just find when a new comrade enters the fold.
Table of contents
Erich Maria Remarque Animates the Days of Uncertainty
At first glance, an outside observer devoid of historical knowledge would find it hard to imagine the sorts of political, social and economical chaos Germany has gone through in the twentieth century, to say nothing of the two World Wars they started. As a result of these sweeping changes, the country looked radically different from one decade to the next, creating many little unique time periods, with one of the more eventful ones being the two decades between WWI and WWII. In Three Comrades, Erich Maria Remarque takes us to the heart of a shifting Germany in 1928.
Before discussing the story, I do find it important to note the author lived during the time period in question himself, drawing on the best source for his material: his personal experience. While it certainly is a work of fiction, I think it’s important to constantly bear in mind that it was, ultimately, meant to be a portrayal of a reality Remarque lived through.
With this being said, the story begins by introducing us to the titular three comrades: Robert Lohkamp, Otto Koster and Gottfried Lenz. They run a small auto repair shop together, making a small, but honest and sufficient living out of it. They spend their days repairing cars, drinking, insulting each other, taking refuge in comedy and self-derision to distract themselves from a world rapidly changing around them.
The Great Inflation may be a thing of the past for them, but storm-troopers are now running amok in the streets, the government is losing its power amidst the rise of various other political factions, and the people at the bottom are only seeing difficulties and greater troubles on the horizon. Veterans themselves of the First World War, the three comrades find it difficult to inject any greater meaning or purpose into their lives, having seen time and time again the worst humanity has to offer.
However, their plans to lead an empty and meaningless existence suddenly come to a screeching halt when Robert, the youngest of them, falls in love with Patricia Hollmann. He brings her into the fold, and without missing a beat she becomes a valued member of the small but exclusive crew, lighting in them the drive they need to survive in a rotting world which they’re powerless to change, and yet are forced to endure.
Life is a disease, brother, and death begins already at birth. Every breath, every heartbeat, is a moment of dying – a little shove toward the end.― Erich Maria Remarque, Three Comrades
Surviving in a Mad World with Three Comrades
To be blunt, the state of the world today is far from ideal, and for as much progress as we make in certain areas, we’re also observing an equal regression in other. I believe all human beings feel that, at times at least, they are living in a mad world, even if for completely different, and often times opposite reasons.
As it turns out, this collective madness which seems to be gripping the globe isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say it’s an inevitable by-product of human “intelligence” (it’s difficult not to put quotes around the word, considering the thoughts some people harbour), something we’ve always had to deal with, even if it manifested itself in different forms.
The madness in late 1920s Germany, as depicted by Remarque in Three Comrades, is perhaps one of the more touching and detailed portrayals I’ve seen of the phenomenon. From the buildings, streets, pieces of furniture and miscellaneous knick-knacks, the world is steeped in a freewheeling atmosphere showcasing the strange and inherent freedom people can attain when they have very little to lose, if anything at all.
From the very first pages I felt like I was instantly forced to understand and accept just how different of a mentality reigned in those times, how different the world was, and accordingly, how different were the values people held dear to them. In time, I learned to think of it as an exhibit on the various ways in which small people learned to survive in an insane world they could never control.
This is where Erich Maria Remarque‘s understanding of the human psyche shines through again, as brightly as it did in All Quiet on the Western Front and The Black Obelisk. Many characters come and go through the chapters, and in each one we see a manifestation of the types of difficulties people had to face in those times, and the countless creative, successful, unsuccessful, and even self-destructive solutions they had for them.
If we move the main plot aside for a moment (I’ll discuss it further just down below), Three Comrades could be considered an invaluable piece of historical fiction, bringing to life 1920s Germany with previously-unseen insights and details, even successfully delving into the psyche of those who lived back then. It’s a testament to the innumerable souls who made it through the dark and strange days those years were, and to the many more who didn’t.
Keep things at arm’s length… If you let anything come too near you want to hold on to it. And there is nothing a man can hold on to.― Erich Maria Remarque, Three Comrades
The Missing Spark
The main plot of the novel, at first, feels rather directionless, presenting a slice out of Robert’s life, showing him going about his daily activities and introducing us to the many people composing his entourage. We get acquainted with Otto and Gottfried, but it becomes quite apparent their ambitions are largely centred on their work, and the inevitable bouts of drinking which follow.
Overtly-speaking, while they aren’t living sugar-coated lives, it’s difficult to say they are wanting for anything, always having solutions to their problems and alternate routes to their destinations. Nevertheless, the emptiness of their directionless existence is palpable from the early going, and the author used his world-famous linguistic abilities to make us not only understand it, but actually feel the weight of it on our own shoulders.
The question as to what makes life worth living comes up time and time again throughout the novel, particularly in Robert’s head, visibly frustrated and dissatisfied with a live spent solely on oneself. Many potential answers are given to the question, but for our protagonist, the answer ultimately comes in the form of Patricia Hollmann.
Once she enters the picture as Robert’s companion and shows herself worthy of being called a comrade by his friends, the story begins to liven up, having received a spark of life. Suddenly, our three comrades have something to lose, something worth fighting for, something to drive them forward in life with the essential hope of a better tomorrow. Even though some things are always lost in translation, Remarque‘s words succeeded in touching me, making me care for the fictional comrades and their happiness.
In the end, Three Comrades, to me, is an ode to friendship and love, how they can allow us to endure the darkest and harshest circumstances life can throw at us… a lesson we like to think we know, but tend to forget a little too easily. In the author’s eyes, other people are the best reason one can find to keep on going from one difficult day to the next, and with how poignantly he portrayed the joy and heartbreak stemming from our connections with others, it’s obvious he truly holds this belief in the core of his being.
|Jan. 27 1998
The Final Verdict
Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque is one of the author’s most acclaimed works for good reason, working both as a detailed piece of historical fiction delving into the life and mentality of late 1920s Germany, as well as a sensitive and expertly-crafted story about finding meaning in a meaningless and oppressive world.
If you’re looking to enrich your library with essential modern classics by Remarque, or in search of a historical fiction novel exploring Germany between the two World Wars through the eyes of its smaller people, then this is, without a doubt, a book you can’t afford to miss out on.
Erich Maria Remarque
(June 22, 1898 – September 25, 1970)
Erich Maria Remarque was a German author whose best-known work to this day remains, without a doubt, All Quiet on the Western Front, though he certainly had other notable works including Three Comrades and Arch of Triumph. His many experiences during the war have rather visibly fueled his many thoughts and ideas he developed in his writings.