Analysis of Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa

German author Arnold Zweig (1887–1968) wrote his most famous novel, The Case of Sergeant Grischa, as an account of World War I. Upon its publication in Germany in 1927, the novel’s readers acclaimed the story as the most moving account of the First World War to date. Critics credited the author with awaking anew the interest of the readers for war literature, which prepared the ground for the success of other war novels, such as the universal best seller All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues, 1929) by Erich Maria Remarque, to which Zweig’s novel has been often favorably compared.

Zweig had worked on the novel since 1917, intending to express his changing attitude against the war and to reflect the time he had worked in the headquarters of the German army on the eastern front. He had already used the authentic episode around which the novel is built and which took place on the eastern front in 1917 in his 1921 drama The Play of Sergeant Grischa (Das Spiel vom Sergeanten Grischa). However, the lack of interest from theater producers and the artistic weaknesses of the play prevented it from being performed until 1930, when the same material had already been transformed into a novel and was quite successful on the book market.

The plot of The Case of Sergeant Grischa starts with the escape of a Russian soldier, Grischa Paprotkin, from a German prison camp in the spring of 1917. On the way to freedom and his family back in Russia, he encounters a peasant girl and berry picker named Babka, who falls in love with Grischa and advises him to assume the identity of another Russian soldier, Bjuschew. Grischa does not know that the Germans believe that Bjuschew is a spy. After the German troops capture the soldier, he charged as a spy and goes on trial for his life. At this point, Grischa reveals his real identity, and his honesty and affability convince the military judge advocate Posnanski, in cooperation with the young officer Paul Winfried and his friend Werner Bertin, to defend Grischa’s case. The center of the novel becomes the struggle for Grischa’s life, waged between two groups of German soldiers representing two different attitudes against the code of military honor. Although witnesses from the prison camp are able to confirm Grischa’s version of his true identity, the quartermaster of the German army in the East, General Schieffenzahn, insists that Grischa must be put to death for the sake of the army’s morale and to prevent the spread of Bolshevist ideas. When the intervention of old General von Lychow fails, the last chance of legal rescue for the innocent victim is lost. Grischa’s execution is carried out by firing squad in autumn 1917.

In The Case of Sergeant Grischa, Zweig exposes the faulty interdependencies of justice and politics that originated in the sociopolitical conditions of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, grew during World War I, and dominated public life in the Weimar Republic. Grischa’s case demonstrates how the administration of justice is abused as it becomes a political weapon used to suppress political opponents. The legal murder of the innocent Russian soldier was for Zweig a symptom of the disease that tormented the postwar German state, in which court trials against the antagonists of the industrial and conservative establishment exhibited only the illusion of justice all too often.

Through the figure of Grischa, a common soldier who loses control over his own fate and is condemned to watch the fight for his life without means of intervention, Zweig also shows the effects of war on the individual. The military, political, and economic machinery of the state and the army entraps and destructs the helpless human being, treating an individual life as insignificant. The nonpolitical, deeply human motives of the innocent Grischa, who just wants to reunite with his wife and a daughter he has never seen, has no consequence in the trial. The trial has the character of a political power struggle.

General Schieffenzahn’s political agenda and victory over Grischa (a disguised version of the actual historical figure of Erich Ludendorff, the German army chief of staff from 1916 on) contrasts sharply with the moral standards of the group concentrated around the more benevolent General von Lychow. For the author this was—as if under a magnifying glass—an exemplification of the gradual shift of power toward the state and the army. The defeat of soldiers educated in German idealism in the confrontation with the aggressive imperialist and annexationist ambitions of Schieffenzahn and his supporters is symbolic: Zweig strived to show the triumph of bourgeois mentality over the old aristocratic values that proclaim wars are to be fought for noble causes rather than for materialist interests. For Zweig, World War I announced the end of a world in which the categories of right and wrong were superior to the legal appearances of human and institutional actions.

The popularity of the novel after publication underscored the timeliness of Grischa’s story. The author precisely caught the reasons behind the political developments in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, without sacrificing the wide scope of the novel and the complexity of the figures. Characterized by a lengthy, naturalistic style, numerous plots, and historical and psychological details, the narrative follows the causal connections between events and moves from one situation to another without losing the consistency and tension built by the main plot. The omniscient and often ironic narrator provides a good balance between affection and distance, allowing for intellectual play with the reader. The writer’s deft use of language and careful depiction of multidimensional figures were factors that made The Case of Sergeant Grischa such a successful and still appealing novel.

After writing Grischa’s story, Zweig felt a need to write a prequel or pre-story as well as to continue the war adventures of selected characters from the novel. Through these treatments he could better explain their motivations, the psychological changes they underwent, and the historical background of the events. Zweig’s initial intention to limit his World War I works to a trilogy and later to a tetralogy proved insufficient, and the cycle, which he entitled The Great War of the White Man, grew to encompass six finished novels, published between 1928 and 1957. From the point of view of the narrated time, the cycle opens in 1913 in the last published novel The Time Is Ripe (Die Zeit is reif, 1957). The next two parts, Young Woman of 1914 (Junge Frau von 1914, 1931) and Education before Verdun (Erziehung vor Verdun, 1935) precede the events told in The Case of Sergeanten Grischa. Ceasefire (Die Feuerpause, 1954) tells the events on the eastern front after the time of Grischa’s death, in the winter months of 1917–18.

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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