Analysis of Arnold Zweig’s The Axe of Wandsbek

The German author Arnold Zweig (1887–1968) started work in 1938 on one of his major novels, The Axe of Wandsbek, a psychological analysis of individual behavior in everyday life under the Third Reich. It depicts the evil in the structures of German society and tries to explain its receptivity to malevolent impulses and wrongdoing, as well as the psychological mechanisms that prohibited the people from protesting against crimes committed by the supporters of the Nazi regime. The novel continued Zweig’s considerations about the relationship between justice and morality to which the writer had dedicated his earlier prose work.

The creative impulse for the novel was an article found by Zweig in a German exile newspaper in 1937. The news event from Hamburg, telling the story of the suicide of a Hamburg butcher and his wife, served as the culmination point of the narration. The novel begins in August 1937, when Albert Tetjeen, a butcher from Wandsbek, a city district of Hamburg, encounters business problems. He loses customers in favor of modern department stores and asks his comrade from World War I, Hans Peter Footh, for help. Footh finds a solution that he thinks would satisfy several needs: For generous financial remuneration, Tetjeen is to execute by decapitation political prisoners held in the Hamburg city jail. The four prisoners are communists who have been sentenced to death after being falsely accused of the shooting death of an officer of the Nazi Stormtroopers. Footh obtains this position for Tetjeen in order to help not only his friend but also the father of his girlfriend, Anette Koldeway. The young woman’s father is the director of Hamburg’s central prison, and in the novel the director is having trouble finding a replacement for the prison’s executioner, who is out sick. Last but not least, finding an executioner is a gesture of Footh’s support of the Nazi government, for Hitler has refused to visit Hamburg while the communists remain alive. In return, Footh, a dynamic shipping dealer, hopes for lucrative business opportunities.

Arnold Zweig

Tetjeen agrees to the deal with Footh and executes the prisoners with his butcher’s axe. Although he is disguised to keep his anonymity, a prison doctor present during the procedure, Käte Neumeier, recognizes him and spreads the word among the butcher’s customers. The worker population of Wandsbek, sympathizing with the falsely indicted victims and disgusted by the use of Tetjeen’s professional skills to kill innocent people, boycotts his store. Tetjeen’s wife, Stine, discovers the truth about her husband’s source of income and the real reason for the boycott. The story ends in September 1938, when remorse, financial ruin, and the community’s moral condemnation lead Stine to suicide. After finding her body, Tetjeen also takes his own life.

Like Zweig’s first success, The Case of Sergeant Grischa, the novel The Axe of Wandsbek is a story about individuals, both guilty and innocent, who are involved in legal murder. This time, though, Zweig left the reality of World War I and used the conditions of the Nazi dictatorship as the background for the narrative events. The thematic similarities between the two novels form a dialectic relationship that allowed Zweig to create an effective image of a corrupted social system—the continuation of the same machinery powered by political and economic interests that swallowed the young man Grischa in The Case of Sergeant Grischa 20 years before. The difference is that the legal murder in The Axe of Wandsbek cannot be explained by the special circumstances of war, state of emergency, or possible external thread. The majority of the society passively observes the imprisonment and execution of the communists. Placing the victims against the indifference or active support of “good burghers” permits Zweig to question the origins and omnipresence of evil in German society. The explanation offered by Zweig resembles his thoughts from Insulted and Exiled: National Socialism, as much as the war, was a manifestation of the unconscious effects that contradict reason and civilization. However, he also goes beyond this interpretational framework to show the striking contradiction in the worldview of cultured and independently thinking people, such as Dr. Koldewey or Käte Neumeier, who could convince themselves by some means to support a regime based on brutality and crime.

The brutal and criminal actions of the regime find refl ection in other figures of the story. The question of how Albert Tetjeen, a sensitive and decent man and war veteran, could become the instrument of power and not have second thoughts about the moral responsibility for his actions constitutes the main tension of the work. This lack of refl ection becomes his undoing. An interesting figure is also Albert’s counterpoint, his wife, Stina, who finds herself caught in a tragic confl ict between her love for her husband and the voice of her conscience. Stina is one of the most complex female characters in Zweig’s literary oeuvre.

On the political level, the story’s message leaves room for optimism: The fate of the murderer Tetjeen, who is broken by the workers’ boycott and cruel business competition, demonstrates that the fall of the Nazi regime was contained at its conception and growth. Zweig attributed to fascism the characteristics of a last state of capitalism and foresaw the next development phase in communism, looking to the Soviet Union as an example. His transition to communist ideology, supported by extended readings of Karl Marx’s works, was becoming evident.

The time of the publication of The Axe of Wandsbek (finished in 1943) coincided with the writer’s return to Germany from exile. In 1948, after the end of the war, Zweig settled down in ruined Berlin. He became involved in the democratization of the country’s political and cultural institutions, happy to free himself from the isolation of the immigrant and eager to see his dream of a just society become reality. In 1949, when the German Democratic Republic was created from the eastern part of Germany that remained under Russian control, Zweig decided to support the socialist system that meant, for him, the promise of a peaceful future.

Isenberg, Noah W. Between Redemption and Doom: The Strains of German-Jewish Modernism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Rost, Maritta. Bibliographie Arnold Zweig. Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1987.
Salamon, George. Arnold Zweig. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1975.
Steffin, Margarete. Briefe an Berühmete Männer: Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Zweig. Hamburg: Verlagsanst, 1999.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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