862.4061 All Quiet/2

The Ambassador in Germany ( Sackett ) to the Secretary of State

No. 654

Sir: With reference to my despatch No. 646, of December 9, 1930, pages 4 and 5, and to my telegram No. 140, of December 12, 12 noon,27 reporting respectively, the disturbances resulting from the showing in Berlin of the American-produced Universal Film Company’s version of Eric Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the decision of the Appellate Board of Film Censors, on December 11th, to prohibit its further production in Germany, I have the honor to report further as follows:

As stated in my telegram aforementioned, the film had been approved by the primary Board of Film Censors, but, on complaint of five German States (Saxony, Thuringia, Brunswick, Bavaria, and Württemberg), the Appellate Board of Film Censors ruled that it was calculated to injure Germany’s prestige abroad and therefore should be withdrawn. The chairman of the board declared that, as a whole, the film did not do justice to the frame of mind of those who participated in the war, that it pictured the German defeat and not the war, and that, if the film were continued to be shown, other countries would feel that Germany had approved the representation.

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The chief arguments against the film which furnished the basis for the demands of the Right parties for its withdrawal may be summarized as follows:

The spontaneous, patriotic enthusiasm of the young German volunteers is depicted in the film as artificial, caused by outside influences.
Certain of Remarque’s characters are depicted from an unsympathetic angle, exception being taken particularly to the hard-boiled sergeant, Himmelstoss, and Katchinsky’s “criminal” countenance.
No effort was made to show the struggles and moral conflicts in the armies of Germany’s enemies, who are depicted as well-organized and always eager to attack.
The total impression on German spectators is that the film depicts Germany’s defeat rather than the heroism of the German soldiers.
The original version of the film, which is being shown in America and other countries, contains other scenes injurious to Germany’s prestige.

The representative of the Reichswehr, Kapitänleutenant von Baumbach, incidentally a naval officer, issued a public statement declaring that since the war the hope had been fostered in Germany that the inimical spirit which separated the nations during the conflict would disappear, but that there was one field, that of motion pictures, in which the spirit of Locarno had not been able to prevail. He stated that, although the type of primitive war-agitation film had died out, another kind had taken its place in which Germans were represented as ridiculous, brutal, and cowardly, a subtle form of propaganda, very pernicious as far as Germany is concerned. He also averred that the film version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” expresses anti-German tendencies, and that the Ministry of War, which is the bearer of the glorious tradition of the old army, looks upon it as its duty to oppose the defamation and insult offered the honor and reputation of the old army. Kapitänleutenant von Baumbach further stated that if the Reichswehrministerium is publicly accused of supersensitiveness, it gladly puts up with this reproach, and he asks why the German soldier is not shown in this film in the dignified and serious manner which he deserves after his incomparable service during the war.

The Foreign Office expert declared that reports had been received from German foreign missions showing that the film was actually injurious to Germany’s prestige abroad, but this attitude was clearly a reversal of the Ministry’s earlier standpoint in the matter. Newspapers had reported, without contradiction, that, when the film came up before the primary Board of Film Censors prior to its first public showing in Germany, the representative of the Foreign Office offered no objection and even declared that he was favorably impressed. [Page 311] However, an unfavorable opinion of the film was reported in the press to have been transmitted to the Foreign Office by the German Consul General at San Francisco, who was stated to have protested to the producers against certain anti-German tendencies in the original version. The representative of the Reich Ministry of the Interior declared that the Remarque film depicted only one side of a soldier’s war experiences and that, aside from this, the Minister himself felt that a further showing of the film tended to imperil public order. It is interesting to report, in this relation, that “West Front, 1918,” a talking film, produced in Germany, of a distinctly anti-war character, is now being shown in smaller theaters and no disturbances in connection therewith have occurred.

The immediate cause for the suppression of the film was undoubtedly the pressure of the mob, which made demonstrations every evening under the leadership of members of the National Socialist Party. However, after the first disorders in the theater, reported in my despatch above-mentioned, the management of the theater was able to continue the performance for six days, before crowded houses, without further disturbance. Later disorders took place in the square outside the theater, where hundreds of youths assembled every evening, but were held back at a safe distance by a cordon of police. As a result of the strong guard outside of the theater, the Nazi leaders also conducted demonstrations in nearby public squares.

It is strongly indicated that the showing of the film was only a pretext for demonstrations by the National Socialist Party. Most of the youthful participants in the disorders never saw it at all, and even some of the Nazi leaders who agitated against the film, admit that they had not seen it. On the evening of the first public showing in Berlin several Nazi leaders, it will be recalled, were in the audience, but as the performance was interrupted after the first few scenes they, therefore, did not see the whole picture. Even before the first performance, not only Nazi but newspapers with less extreme tendencies, notably the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, had launched a campaign against the film, the main arguments against it being that the Reichswehr experts were opposed to it and that the version shown in foreign countries had distinct anti-German tendencies which had been deleted from the German version. Although the Prussian Government, which has the direct police supervision of Berlin, was at all times in control of the situation and was willing to protect further performances, it was the Reich Government which capitulated to the Nazi mobs.

Two leading members of the Brüning Cabinet, the Foreign Minister and the Minister for the Interior, encountered especial difficulties in connection with the performance of this film: the Foreign Minister [Page 312] was implicated inasmuch as all attacks on the film were, partially at least, based on the theory that it brought Germany into disrepute abroad, and the Minister for the Interior was involved—although illogically, inasmuch as the two film censorship boards heretofore mentioned, though under the jurisdiction of his Department, are supposed to have judicial and therefore independent functions. Various motions of lack of confidence in these two ministers, predicated upon the foregoing motives, were either threatened or concretely formulated, and it required careful political maneuvering to prevent their passage. Republican circles contend, and this seems to be the case, that both Ministers changed their attitude towards the film in order not to jeopardize their positions in the Cabinet and, as the situation exists today, to imperil the entire Cabinet.

The grounds on which the film was suppressed are not convincing and cannot be accepted by an impartial observer. Some days before the suppression of the film the outcome of the hearing before the Appellate Board of Film Censors was certain. Whatever doubts may have existed were dispelled when the names of the members of the board were announced. The board is composed of persons, serving in rotation, from a panel composed of representatives of certain professional and social welfare groups. With one possible exception the members selected belonged to, or sympathized with, the Right parties. It is of interest that in handing down the decision the chairman of the board was careful to point out that it was not the result of mob pressure, and that the board refused to be influenced by the statement made by the legal representative of the Universal Pictures Corporation, to the effect that if the film should be suppressed the American film industry might withdraw from the German market. The latter statement gains perhaps some significance in the light of the assertion, in some circles, that Dr. Hugenberg’s opposition to the Remarque film was prompted by business as well as political considerations, since he is the owner of the controlling interest in the largest German film concern.

Republican organizations, notably the Reichsbanner, have announced a series of meetings to protest against the suppression of the film. Several held on December 15th were well attended. Another result of this incident has been that the Reich Government has been requested by certain political parties to pass a law which would enable the primary Board of Film Censors to prohibit the showing of films in Germany on the basis of the version shown in the country of origin and not merely on the version prepared for Germany, as at present.

The widespread editorial comment on the suppression of the film was influenced principally by the political affiliations of the respective [Page 313] journals. The Nazi press, of course, acclaimed the decision of the Board as a signal victory over the hated Republic by the “patriotic” elements under their leadership. The Völkische Beobachter of December 14th declared that the Appellate Board of Film Censors had no intention of prohibiting the “Jewish film” and that it was finally forced to take this step as a result of organized resistance by the Nazis. Other Nazi journals, notably Dr. Goebbels’ Der Angriff, boastfully declared that the Nazis would likewise proceed in future against all films and theatrical productions with anti-national tendencies. While the moderate Right journals greeted the decision because it put an end to an incident which was rapidly assuming an importance out of all proportion to the many real political and economical difficulties with which Germany is confronted, Nationalist papers, particularly those owned by Hugenberg, failed to conceal a feeling of triumph.

Perhaps the most daring attitude was assumed by the extreme Nationalist Deutsche Zeitung of December 12th which was not completely satisfied with the course of events, suggesting that the Foreign Office should now take steps to secure the withdrawal of the film in other countries also. The Democratic Berliner Tageblatt of December 13th remarked ironically that, since the Foreign Office had actually expressed the view that the film was injurious to Germany’s prestige abroad, such a step would be only logical.

The Nationalist Kreuzzeitung of December 13th stated that, if the soldiers of Remarque’s film were put in French uniform, France would never permit the showing of the film in that country or elsewhere.

The Nationalist Lokal Anzeiger of December 12th declared that the decision of the Appellate Board of Film Censors could not have been otherwise and that it had merely confirmed the general belief that the film was injurious to German prestige.

Another Hugenberg journal, Der Tag of December 12th, wrote triumphantly that patriotic Germany had “attacked successfully.”

The agrarian Deutsche Tageszeitung of December 12th, taking the reason for the suppression of the film as given by the Board as a premise, came to the conclusion that it was therefore likely to disturb peace and order.

The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (People’s Party) of December 12th expressed satisfaction with the fact that “justified arguments” and the “justified wrath of an insulted population” had succeeded in getting the upper hand. In another issue this journal declared that all further discussion of the unfortunate incident should cease for the sake of the common good.

The Centrist Germania of December 12th sought to repudiate the assertion that Nazi mob influence was responsible for the suppression of the film.

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The Democratic Vossische Zeitung of December 12th stated that the political conflict caused by the showing of the film was not a result of deficiencies “in this American product.” The conflict, it added, was a result of systematic agitation which magnified the nation’s difficulties. This paper declared that the triumph in the radical camp was premature, as the fight would continue, not for the sake of the film but for the cause.

The Social-Democratic Vorwaerts of December 12th declared that the Reich Government had capitulated before the Nazi mob. It stated that the Social-Democrats were fully aware of the dangers to the Republic and were determined to fight to the finish against Fascist mob pressure and a rebirth of the war spirit. This Social-Democratic organ averred that the decision of the Board was contrary to the spirit of the Weimar Constitution, which prescribes that instruction in public schools must be in the spirit of international conciliation.

The suppression of the film version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” has undoubtedly assumed great importance. The National-Socialist Party has succeeded in giving a blow to the prestige of the Government of the Reich, in that it yielded to Nazi compulsion on a clean-cut political issue.

There is no doubt that this incident has given renewed impetus to the constant and unremitting struggle between the Government and the irreconciliable Opposition, and should the latter eventually succeed in its endeavor to force Dr. Bruening to resign, it may well be found that the present event was a very decided contributive factor in such a result. In my opinion the action of the Government in suppressing the film was not dictated in any sense by opposition to the movement for world peace, but in its own eyes was merely a matter of relieving the local political situation from a growing series of disturbances.

Respectfully yours,

Frederic M. Sackett
  1. Neither printed.