The Crowning of a King is the concluding novel in a sixwork magnum opus, The Great War of the White Man, by German author Arnold Zweig (1887–1968). Zweig called the series of novels about World War I “a literary document of the transition from imperialism to the socialist era.” The author’s heroes are confronted with the turbulent German postwar reality.
The subject of this part of the cycle is the power struggles and intrigues of a group of German high officers in occupied Lithuania in the last months of World War I (1914–18). The story starts in February 1918, when Captain Paul Winfried (a character who appears in Zweig’s earlier novel The Case of Sergeant Grischa, where he was engaged in the efforts to save the life of the Russian prisoner named Grischa) travels to Kovno to take a position in the political section of the Ober Ost, the headquarters on the eastern front. Winfried’s uncle, General von Lychow, sends the talented officer to serve under the chief of staff, General Clauss. Winfried, the central figure of The Crowning of a King, finds himself in a difficult situation: He has to find his own place in the conservative and elitist clique of the Officer Corps, and he must confront predatory political forces.
During the story, Winfried witnesses secret annexation plans that would ensure German economic and political control over the Baltic States. The plans foresee the connection of a kingdom of Lithuania (yet to be created) with Germany through the accession of a German candidate to the Lithuanian throne. The confl ict in the decision-maker circles revolves around the question of which German dynasty should provide the new king. Winfried’s involvement on the wrong side of the argument—his support for the liberal candidate who expresses the wishes of the Lithuanian people—turns out to have severe consequences for him. General Clauss allows the officers who oppose Winfried to teach him a lesson. As the result of a raid, when the military police catch Winfried without his proper documents, he is sent to a prison camp as a spy. He is soon released, but the scenes from the camp, where Jews and proletarians endure inhumane conditions, make him doubt the nobility of the German military command’s intentions. After he learns that his colleagues and his superior from the headquarters are behind his imprisonment, he expresses his disdain for the military elite and breaks all relations with General Clauss, his former role model.
As with another novel in the author’s series of six books, Education before Verdun, which shows Werner Bertin’s enlightenment toward social consciousness, the story of Winfried in The Crowing of a King is also the story of the main character’s change from innocence to experience. Zweig illustrates the transformation of the high-middle-class young man, who did not have much contact with society’s masses and underdogs before his time in the Maljaty labor camp, into a disillusioned soldier sympathizing with the world’s underprivileged. Winfried eventually sees through the German official lies and comes to understand that the main goal of the war is to secure the power and economic interests of the upper classes of the Wilhelm reich. Zweig stresses here once more his own ideological and moral position in the valuation of World War I.
Placing the action in the headquarters where the army command designed plans for the region’s political future and where the interests of many powerful groups collided allowed Zweig to guide his readers through the morass of politics under Kaiser Wilhelm and to show them the hidden mechanisms of German decision making. The author’s personal experiences working in the information office on the eastern front provided invaluable background for the story. Switches in the narrative perspective, including third- to first-person narration and frequent use of internal monologue, made it possible to gain insights into the different characters’ reasoning and psychological motivations. These stylistic devices are typically found in Zweig’s conventional narrative approach.
The German readers’ reaction to The Crowning of a King was not overwhelmingly fervent. Criticism focused on the point that the author loaded the narration with extraneous details that overshadowed Winfried’s personal journey and sacrificed the individual story to that of historical considerations. The description of political forces and issues thus produced a sense of a historical novel. It broadened the understanding of the complex political and economical relationships that influenced the German “Drang nach Osten,” the striving toward the east in the final year of the war. The novel aptly revealed how the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3, 1918, created an opportunity to control practically the whole region. However, the wide range of problems depicted weakened the impact of the central plot.
Zweig finished The Crowning of a King in 1933 in the city of Haifa, in what was then Palestine and later became northern Israel. He considered the first printed copy of the novel to be a late present for his 50th birthday. The circumstances that led him to Palestine in December 1933 were a logical consequence of the writer’s association with the relatively small but active and influential Zionist movement. His interest in Zionism was aroused prior to World War I. The idea of turning away from the anti-Semitic German society and the hope of establishing the ideal Israeli state in Palestine, in which the Jewish people could fully recover their ethnic and religious identity, was a utopian concept popularized by Zweig and other writers. After the war, the writer considered moving to Palestine, and many of his works were devoted to Jewish themes. These included The Eastern Jewish Countenance (Das ostjüdische Antlitz, 1920) and New Canaan (Das neue Kanaan, 1925). For a short time he was also editor of the Zionist newspaper Jüdische Rundschau. Zweig imagined Palestine as a new “left-wing Switzerland,” where many ethnic groups could live together peacefully in a class-free society.
Zweig’s visit to Palestine in 1932 became fictionalized in De Vriendt Goes Home (De Vriendt kehrt Heim, 1932), in which he expresses his relative disappointment with the actuality of life in that region of the world. Yet he returned there sooner than expected: Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power the next year and the violent anti-Semitic actions by the Nazi party, including the burning of Zweig’s books in May 1933, forced the writer to seek refuge in Palestine, the country he had long idealized.
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; 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.
White, Ray Lewis. Arnold Zweig in the USA. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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