No encyclopedia contains a more extensive account of society under the swastika than does this sweeping fictional report of Hamburg, 1937—1938. That the story has been told many times before by correspondents, novelists, and analysts, that the chronology of Germany’s infamy is as familiar to us as yesterday’s headlines, that there exists a surfeit of literature describing and interpreting Nazism, do not seriously detract from the value of Zweig’s ambitious summing up.
He brings to the immense world of fact and detail and analysis the wisdom of the philosopher, the detached calm of the historian, the artistic interpretation of the storyteller. What he is concerned with is the tragedy of the individual, the impotence of man against the juggernaut state, the political confusion, the intellectual isolation, the paralyzing apathy of the citizen, be he sage or fool, who finds himself a pawn in the gigantic chess game of power politics.
What makes his novel especially significant is the sympathy and understanding with which Arnold Zweig, a refugee now living in Palestine, regards the country that exiled him, and the people who massacred his people. For whether it be the grasping NSDA official Herr Footh, the fanatic propagandist Klass Vierkant, the scheming Anneliese, the confused intellectual Heinrich Koldewey, the sensitive Doctor Kaete Neumaier, the stupid SS man Albert Teetjens, or even the Führer himself, Zweig writes about them without any trace of rancor or hatred or vindictiveness, but rather with a deep philosophical sense of the personal tragedies in the lives of each.
It is no small achievement to infect the reader with an understanding of a murderous, black-shirted storm trooper, but Zweig — and to this extent his novel is a work of art — has done it.
The “hero” of The Axe of Wandsbek is Albert Teetjens, master butcher, SS man, mystical German, murderer of four Communists. Not an ordinary kind of hero. The four Communists have been accused and convicted (as in the case of the Reichstag fire) of inciting a riot. The Nazi Reichsstatthalter can find no executioner to dispose of them in the approved Göring manner, beheading. Teetjens, his butcher shop showing less and less profit, undertakes to do the job for a payment of a few thousand marks because he believes he will be doing the Party a noble service. He uses his grandfather’s axe, the axe of Wandsbek, thus starting a chain of events which involve a score of characters whose fates are thereafter directly or indirectly controlled by the axe.
Be forewarned. This is a grim, slow-moving, ponderous novel. It aims at creating a complete canvas of Nazi society, a canvas of bloody colors and lost souls. It is not an easy book to read because of the complexity of Zweig’s style; he has many words about many things: philosophy, psychology, history, economies, music, literature. The story — and its movement is decelerated by a translation that takes the original text much too literally, making stultified English out of formal German — is a heavy framework for the author’s personal excursions, the excursions of a man whose age, wisdom, and experience entitle him to pages and pages of philosophizing.
GERALD D. ROSCOE