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On Tuesday morning, "All Quiet on the Western Front," a German-language remake of the Oscar-winning 1930 film version of the 1929 novel, received nine Academy-Award nominations, tying it for second highest, just days after receiving the most nominations for the British Academy Film Awards. The accolades act as validation for the movie itself, as well as the themes of Erich Maria Remarque's searing war (antiwar, really) classic.
Remarque fought, and was wounded, in World War I trenches. His trenchant novel, written a decade later by the former conscript, flipped the script on how war was portrayed and made his account an international literary sensation.
There's "sort of a deep irony of the fact that you have a German novel that is essentially advocating peace," said Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor whose scholarship includes Remarque. German youth at the time "were reading 'The Iliad,' in which you hear about glory and immortality and the attributes that were earned by the warrior figure." Remarque's novel, conversely, "says that war is basically meaningless."
But the book meant something to the Nazis, which is why, Tatar said, "it was the first book thrown on the pyre" during book burnings.
That chapter in German history still haunts today's nation. Which makes it even more remarkable that about the same time as the Oscar nominations, news broke that the German government would agree to provide Ukraine with long-sought Leopard 2 tanks, freeing up other NATO nations to dispatch some of theirs, too. Combined with the U.S. signaling it would send 31 Abrams M1 tanks, at least 105 Western tanks have been committed to Kyiv in its existential fight against Russia.
The announcements from Berlin and Washington, formalized on Wednesday, came after an anguished debate in Germany, testing the patience of European allies and even the tight ties with the Biden administration. But in the end, the withering of Western unity envisioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin became just one more disastrous miscalculation.
"Putin expected Europe and the United States to weaken our resolve," Biden said in announcing the decision to deploy the state-of-the-art Abrams. "These tanks are further evidence of our enduring, unflagging commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of Ukrainian forces."
It was apparent that Washington didn't want to have to deploy its tanks to get Berlin to send theirs. But Germany's unique geopolitical and historical calculus made coordinated allied action necessary.
"History colors all of these decisions, on the part of the government as well as the part of the public," said Sophie Arts, a program officer in security and defense at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank.
Germany's 20th-century history, to be sure. But also its 21st-century experience.
The country was "very traumatized by the Trump years, [when] President Donald Trump announced that he might draw down troops in Europe, might pay less attention going forward," said Arts, who is originally from Germany. "And I think German politicians are very aware of that being a possibility in the future even under a different leader. And of course they know that the U.S. is very focused on China, so I think Germans are also just very focused on keeping the U.S. in lockstep with their decisions so they don't end up owning the crisis."
Germany relenting on Leopards, Arts said, is a "turning point" for the government — and for the governed, "who understand that conflict sometimes is necessary and not always evil [and] that not engaging in conflict can sometimes lead to worse consequences."
Some Germans are understandably scarred by and scared of further engagement.
"It's the first time since 1945 that German tanks are moving toward Russia," said Prof. Henning Schroeder, an affiliate faculty member of the University of Minnesota's Department of German, Nordic, Slavic and Dutch.
Schroeder, originally from Germany, said support for Ukraine is solid, "but at the same time there's just a visceral aversion against anything that has to do with war. And I think that's because Germany has never fought a good war like the U.S."
Aiding Ukraine reflects the righteousness of "good" wars. But beyond the nobility there's necessity.
"The reason why it's wise to give them tanks is something fundamental called combined-arms operation," said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Effective ground warfare depends on the integration and synchronization of different components of the military. That includes infantry. It includes artillery. Includes armor, includes aviation, and air defense, and others."
Russia's failure to execute this concept allowed brave Ukrainians to repel the initial invasion last February, Bowman said.
While the dynamic debate in Western capitals was about providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself it doesn't mean that the tanks, like much of the materiel provided by allies, can't be used in an offensive capacity, too.
"Words here are powerful," Bowman said. "And words can wittingly or unwittingly play into competing narratives." Accordingly, Bowman believes this context in key: "Vladimir Putin has conducted an unprovoked invasion, trying to redraw international boundaries by military force. We have a national-security interest and a democratic-principle interest in making sure that he is not successful, or we're going to get more of the same in the future from him and other autocrats."
Tanks, Bowman said, can be both defensive and offensive weapons. "The grand strategic context is Ukraine is defending itself against an invasion. So to retake territory taken by an invader you will have to go on the offensive."
Regarding Germany's wrenching debate, Bowman said that "my concerns related to Berlin are less that we would see a resurgence of 20th-century militarism, and more on the other side of the ledger, and that is them not doing enough to pull their fair share, to carry their fair share of the security burden."
That fair share doesn't mean German troops on Russia's version of the Western Front. Tragically, Ukrainians will be the ones fighting, and dying, there.
But so too will Russians. Including recruits as raw as the ones depicted in Remarque's novel and today's critically acclaimed film.
"You read about these Russian recruits," Tatar said, "how young they are, and how they're lured into war."
And in fact, an extraordinary expose in the New York Times, "Putin's War," begins by describing a Naval Infantry Brigade with no maps, medical kits, or working walkie-talkies, little food, very little ammunition, and even less experience. Forty of the 60 were killed in one day, with one wounded Russian saying through labored breaths, "This isn't war. It's the destruction of the Russian people by their own commanders."
It's "just one of those horrible paradoxes of war," Tatar said about supporting Ukraine while still feeling "compassion and empathy for those Russian recruits — even the ones who think they're going to be dying for a great cause.
"I think that's what 'All Quiet on the Western Front' does so supremely well, is to show you how the generals and the commanders, the schoolteachers — that sort of conspiracy, those who are in a position of authority, leadership — that they send these young men on a mission that they exalt as being so noble … and it turns out that it's for nothing."
As the angst over tanks showed, Germans remember and respect the themes of "All Quiet on the Western Front."
As evidenced by its senseless aggression against a neighboring nation and willingness to destroy its own young soldiers' lives, it's Russia's leaders who should be rereading Remarque's novel.