Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1964
First published: Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa, 1927 (English translation, 1928)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social realism
Time of work: 1917
Grischa, a Russian soldier
Babka, his mistress
General von Lychow, a divisional general
Schieffenzahn, an administrative general
Winfried, a German lieutenant
In the year 1917, the Russians were nearly beaten, and the Germans contented themselves with consolidating their hold on Russian territory from Riga south through Poland. With the end of the bitter fighting, a camaraderie grew up between the German soldiers and their Russian prisoners. Even so, Sergeant Grischa Iljitsch Paprotkin was determined to escape. His work was not difficult, and his cheerful strength had made him foreman of the labor gang and a general favorite with his German captors. Grischa, however, thinking of his wife and son far to the east, made his plans as he loaded lumber into freight cars on the railroad siding. He made a tunnel in the car, a wooden tunnel about the size of a coffin. That night, he succeeded in concealing himself in his hideout. Before daybreak, the train pulled out of the station. Grischa did not know it, but his train went far to the south. After four days, the train came to a stop. With his stolen pliers, Grischa opened the door and walked cautiously away from the railroad tracks. Guided only by his small compass, he set his path toward the east.
The thick underbrush made traveling difficult. Somewhere along the route Grischa picked up an old umbrella. By binding several ribs together with a string and using a long thong, he had a serviceable bow. Another rib made an arrow. With patient waiting, he could shoot rabbits in the snow, and he seldom went hungry. One day he came to the blasted area of a battlefield, where he built a fire in a ruined dugout and heated snow to make water for a bath. Taking off his upper clothes, Grischa stretched out and began to wash himself.
Two people, attracted by his fire, surprised him in his retreat. One was a Russian soldier, a deserter, and the other was Babka, a small, dirty woman whose gray hair justified her name, "Grandmother." Both were armed. After they became acquainted, Grischa knew he was in luck, for they were the leaders of a band of refugees camped comfortably nearby in a wooden house made from old German dugouts. Grischa stayed with the refugees the rest of the winter. He cut wood energetically and traded in the villages of friendly peasants. He slept with Babka, who was young and vital under her misshapen clothes. Three years of war had turned her hair gray. Under the shrewd leadership of Babka by day, and warmed in her bed at night, Grischa became strong again.
The band of refugees scattered in the spring. Grischa and two companions were the first to leave. Grischa felt reasonably safe. Babka had given him the identification tag of a dead Russian soldier, and he called himself by a new name. He was no longer Grischa Paprotkin, an escaped prisoner, but Sergeant Pavlovitsch Bjuscheff, a deserter from the Russian army who was trying to get back to the Russian lines.
In Mervinsk, the Germans had established military headquarters. With little fighting to be done, the rivalry between field troops and the military police grew more bitter. The troops under old General von Lychow were technically in charge of the town, but the military police under General Schieffenzahn had been stationed in Mervinsk so long that Schieffenzahn had consolidated his hold on the whole district. Von Lychow was a Prussian, a stern man but just and compassionate; Schieffenzahn was an upstart more concerned with power.
Outside the city stood several rows of small wooden villas. Many of them now housed German officers. Grischa, gaunt and dirty, came upon these villas one day and hid in an empty one. A few days later, alert military police discovered him there. The man called Bjuscheff was not really afraid at his trial. Even when they said he must be a spy because he had spent so many months behind the German lines, he was easy in his mind. They would merely hold him prisoner a little while in the town of Mervinsk. Surely the war would end soon. The court, however, declared that a Russian deserter who, according to his own story, had wandered about in German territory for nearly two years was by definition a spy. Sergeant Bjuscheff was condemned to die. Scarcely understanding what he was told, Grischa was led back to his cell. When the truth dawned on him, he called out so violently that an officer came to quiet the disturbance. Grischa told the officer his whole story. He was not Bjuscheff the deserter, but Grischa the escaped prisoner.
Ponsanski, a famous Jewish lawyer and aide to General von Lychow, questioned the prisoner. Impressed by the story of changed identity but interested only from a legal point of view, Ponsanski collected all the evidence he could and went to von Lychow. With the general's permission, two guards who had known Grischa in his former prison camp went all the way to Mervinsk and identified him. With legal logic, Ponsanski claimed that the court-martial decision should be set aside. All the evidence, depositions, and signatures were put in a neat packet and forwarded to Schieffenzahn with a request that the Komandatur indicate which military court now had jurisdiction over the case of Sergeant Grischa.
In some way, Babka learned where Grischa was imprisoned. Walking barefoot, she went to Mervinsk in the disguise of a peddler woman. She was now carrying Grischa's child. Her plan was simple: She would bring berries and fruit to the post to sell to the Germans. She would get in to see Grischa. Then, after she had become a familiar visitor, she would poison the guards' schnapps. With the Germans dead, Grischa could walk out a free man once more. Grischa, however, would not agree to her plan. He knew that all of his papers had been sent away for final judgment. Anyway, the war would soon be over.
When Grischa's papers went to the Komandatur, they came before Wilhelmi, his aide. Knowing the temper of Schieffenzahn, Wilhelmi recommended that Grischa be executed. When that advice became known in Mervinsk, von Lychow was indignant. A new request was forwarded to Schieffenzahn. Schieffenzahn grew weary of the affair. Hearing that von Lychow was coming to see him, he sent a telegram ordering Grischa's execution within twenty-four hours. Von Lychow protested. Because the old Prussian had influence at court, Schieffenzahn telegraphed a reprieve.
That telegram was never delivered in Mervinsk because of a snowstorm. Grischa knew at last that he would be shot. When Babka brought in the poisoned schnapps, he poured the drink down the drain. He was shot according to Schieffenzahn's orders, and he died like a soldier after digging his own grave. His child with Babka was born just after his death. In Berlin, von Lychow smarted. He drew up the full particulars of the case and presented his report to the emperor. The kaiser promised to demote Schieffenzahn, but his mind was distracted by a present of a jeweled casket. Because of the kaiser's joy in a new toy, Schieffenzahn got off with a light reprimand. The case of Sergeant Grischa was closed.
The plot of The Case of Sergeant Grischa, an absorbing account of the last months of World War I, appeared first as a play in 1921. Its great and deserved popularity led Arnold Zweig to recast his characters in the larger framework of a novel. A brilliant novel, it is one of the best in any language to emerge from World War I. Zweig has a strong narrative sense, an excellent grasp of physical detail, and a fine ability to portray characters. Additionally, the novel relates the particular setting of the German Eastern Front in World War I to the historical and social forces, in the army and outside it, that bring Sergeant Grischa to his fate.
The story itself begins in a primitive setting, where Grischa is impelled to escape imprisonment by the most basic human feelings: the need for wife, child, and home. The story moves forward into progressively more richly textured social and political settings, where human emotions became more disguised and elaborate through their contact with the institutions of society and of war. Throughout this movement, the story itself remains prominent. Sergeant Grischa's career remains of interest because he is so appealing as a character and because he encounters such a broadly representative spectrum of forces and circumstances in his life.
The physical details of the labor camp, forests, towns, offices, trenches, battlefields, and prisons are especially rich and provocative. Zweig is compelling in his presentations of places, using both panoramas and in-depth descriptions. This intense realism is heightened by Zweig's superb characterizations. Grischa himself, despite his lowly status (or perhaps because of it) and despite his naïveté, is clearly of heroic proportions. He has courage, endurance, deep feelings, and, above all, great human potential. It is his potential that impresses those around him and that makes his final and seemingly inevitable fate all the more significant. As he grows more heroic, especially in contrast to the corruption around him, he still never ceases to be a victim. This heroic doubleness, perhaps the central feature of European, American, and British literature of the interwar period, marks The Case of Sergeant Grischa as an undeniably modern novel.
Unlike much literary work of this period, however, The Case of Sergeant Grischa remains firmly embedded in actual history and society. There is no sliding into the abstract; everything is rooted in social and political actuality. Real institutions and their functionaries never disappear or become merely parable; instead, they retain their particular historical features. Yet, precisely because the officials, bureaucrats, officers, and guards are so authentic and because Sergeant Grischa is himself so authentic, The Case of Sergeant Grischa retains its life and relevance.
- Feuchtwanger, Lion. "The Case of Sergeant Grischa: Germany's First Great War Novel." Chicago Tribune, December 1, 1928, sec. 2, p. 21. An insightful review by a noted German novelist. Concentrates on Grischa as a symbolic character of the age, the little man whose experience stands for that of all soldiers caught in the jaws of war.
- Fishman, Solomon. "The War Novels of Arnold Zweig." Sewanee Review 49, no. 4 (October/ December, 1941): 433-451. A basic thematic and contextualizing overview of The Case of Sergeant Grischa and Zweig's other war novels published before 1941. Provides the best place for the general reader to begin further study. Situates Zweig's ideas in their interwar historical context and argues positively for his firm moral stance.
- Pfeiler, Wilhelm K. "Arnold Zweig." In War and the German Mind: The Testimony of Men of Fiction Who Fought at the Front. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941. A good introduction to The Case of Sergeant Grischa and other war novels in the context of German attitudes toward war in general. Though dated, the points made here are still valid. Good index.
- Salamon, George. Arnold Zweig. New York: Twayne, 1975. The only comprehensive treatment of Zweig's works in English, the bulk of the book explores The Case of Sergeant Grischa and Zweig's other war novels. An excellent overview for the general reader, it also contains biographical information on Zweig and a brief bibliography.
- White, Ray Lewis. Arnold Zweig in the USA. New York: Peter Lang, 1986. Not a critical treatment, but a collection of contemporary reviews of Zweig's works in English in the United States. The thirteen reprinted reviews of The Case of Sergeant Grischa, though excerpted, give a good sense of the novel's reception at the time of its publication.