JBD

 

Aug 2006 Journal

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From our parents' bookshelves

This is the first of a series of occasional articles devoted to works of literature that formed part of the culture of German-speaking Jewry and can still be read and enjoyed today.

Arnold Zweig's novel Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa (1927) is probably the best novel in German to come out of the First World War - though the best selling is Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war classic Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), known worldwide in Lewis Milestone's film version. Penguin Books published a translation, The Case of Sergeant Grisha, in 1986.

Zweig's novel revolves round a judicial murder, an execution carried out with due legal procedure but with complete disregard for true justice. Grischa, an escaped Russian prisoner-of-war, is shot as a spy, though he is clearly an innocent man simply trying to get home to his family. But it is 1917, and the German High Command on the Eastern Front, fearful that Russian deserters might infect the German army with revolutionary Bolshevism, has ordered that Russian soldiers captured behind the German lines be executed as spies.

Zweig, a Jew born in Glogau (Silesia) in 1887, served in the press department of German Army Headquarters on the Eastern Front, after a spell in a labour unit on the Western Front had turned him into a convinced pacifist - see his novel Erziehung vor Verdun (Education before Verdun) - and subsequently into a Communist. Whereas Remarque writes from the perspective of the frontline soldier, a worm's-eye view that sees little beyond the multitudinous forms of suffering and death in the trenches, Zweig uses the case of Grischa to illuminate the underlying workings of military and political strategy.

Those who seek to save Grischa place justice and morality ('Recht') above the interests of German power ('Macht'): General von Lychow, representing the old Prussian virtues founded on a bedrock of traditional values; his nephew and adjutant Lieutenant Winfried; his legal adviser Dr Posnanski, a memorable portrait of a Jewish lawyer whose wit and razor-sharp intelligence conceal a passionate commitment to humanity; and Posnanski's clerk Bertin (Zweig himself).

Against them stands the most powerful man on the Eastern Front, Albert Schieffenzahn, an unforgettable portrait of General Ludendorff, Field Marshal von Hindenburg's right-hand man, a technocratic genius whose undeviating obsession with German power, territorial annexations and outright military victory (the 'Endsieg') led Germany to crushing defeat in 1918. The case of Grischa becomes a touchstone by which Germany's conduct of the war is judged - and found morally wanting. Schieffenzahn may succeed in imposing his will on von Lychow, but he relies on superior power to do so. Though he defeats Russia, his position will, it is plain, collapse once it in turn encounters superior forces in the West.

Zweig's panoramic view of the war in the East takes in Germans, Russians, multinational Austro-Hungarians as well as Jews living in the Pale of Settlement in German-occupied Russia. Zweig was one of those assimilated Jews whose life was changed by encountering the traditional Judaism of the East; he rediscovered his Jewish roots, later going to Palestine to escape Hitler. Through the centuries-old wisdom of these Jews, Zweig compares the German Empire with the great empires of the past that crumbled into dust, like Sodom and Gomorrah, once the righteous among them were outnumbered by the power-mongers.

The military-industrial-aristocratic complex that dominated German policy-making in the First World War, bent on massive annexations abroad and rejection of democratic reforms at home, met its nemesis in 1918, when its defeated troops refused to continue fighting for a regime from which they were wholly alienated; revolution swept the Kaiser from his throne. Zweig's compulsively readable narrative, combining distanced irony with passionate condemnation of injustice, succeeds brilliantly in interweaving the case of Grischa with the forces that decided the fate of the warring nations. He returned to East Germany in 1948 and died there in 1968, laden with honours by the Communist authorities but with his creativity sadly diminished.
Anthony Grenville

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