Last reviewed: June 2018
German novelist, short-story writer, and playwright
November 10, 1887
Gross-Glogau, Prussia (now Głogów, Poland)
November 26, 1968
East Berlin, East Germany (now Berlin, Germany)
Arnold Zweig was born into a Jewish middle-class family in 1887. His father, Adolf Zweig, was a saddler and grocer; his mother was Bianca von Spandow. He was educated at the technical school in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia, and then at several German universities, including Breslau, Munich, Berlin, Göttingen, Rostock, and Tübingen, where he studied philosophy and languages and developed an interest in psychology, history, and the arts.
Arnold Zweig had planned to be a teacher, but during his education he began to devote considerable time to writing; his earliest short stories date from 1909. His first novel, a series of episodes unified by a central character, Claudia, appeared in 1912. Traces of his careful, ironic style are apparent in that early work, an experimental book in which he portrayed the sufferings and growth of a sensitive, upper-class woman as she strives, while married to a shy professor, to free herself from her inhibitions and release her natural forces. Zweig’s interest in the psychology of the individual continued to govern most of his work.
During World War I he was a private in a labor battalion in France and Serbia, and from 1917 to the armistice he worked in the press section of the German army at the eastern front. He had already attracted some attention with his short stories and plays. Abigail und Nabal was presented in 1913, and Ritualmord in Ungarn, written in 1914; it was revised and produced four years later as Die Sendung Semaels by Max Reinhardt in Berlin. After a successful tour in Germany and Austria, the play received the Kleist Prize in 1915.
After the war Zweig lived in Bavaria. His war novel The Case of Sergeant Grischa, which appeared after Adolf Hitler’s putsch of 1923, compelled him to leave his home in Starnberg. The novel is a powerful story about a Russian sergeant who falls victim to the power of the Prussian war machine. As a study of war and the individual, the book ranks as Zweig’s best and has won a place as one of the outstanding war novels in modern literature. It demonstrates Zweig’s progress from a concern with the problems of young intellectuals to an absorption in the inner lives of persons confronting situations in which their entire systems of values are upset.
The books of the Grischa cycle, which also includes Young Woman of 1914, Education Before Verdun, and The Crowning of a King, are characterized by pacifism, antinationalism, and opposition to German imperial philosophy. After the Nazis forced Zweig to leave Berlin in 1933 he traveled across Europe and settled in Palestine, where he became closely identified with the Zionist movement. At that time a serious eye disease forced him to dictate his books, including Education Before Verdun, the manuscript of which was destroyed when he left Berlin. Many of Zweig’s essays and some of his novels and plays show his concern for the Zionist cause; De Vriendt Goes Home, set in Palestine and centering on the Jewish problem, expresses growing aversion to Zionist nationalism.
Increasing conversion to Marxism brought him to East Berlin in 1948, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he won prizes and other honors from the Communist government and served as president of the East German Academy of Letters. His communism and rejection of Israeli nationalism coincided with a marked loss of appreciation of him and his work on the part of American scholars and the public.