Monday, May 12, 2014

The case of authority

Death cell for soldiers sentenced to death in World War I; not on the East Front but in Poperinge, Belgium. Through the windows the soldiers could see the place where they would be shot dead.

In his novel Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa ( Aufbau Verlag, 2006; English: The Case of Sergeant Grischa), which is based on a true occurrence during the First World War, the German author Arnold Zweig describes the story of the Russian soldier Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, who had been taken into captivity by the German Army. Grischa escapes from the prison camp, since he longs to see his wife and his newborn child. When he meets the young woman Babka, a partisan, she advices him to take the identity of the Russian deserter Ilya Pavlovich Bjuscheff, so that he’ll not be sent back to the prison camp if caught. However, when caught Grischa, alias Bjuscheff, is sentenced to death as he is considered a spy. Then Grischa says that actually he is Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, which he can prove in a convincing way. Although the local authorities under general von Lychov want to have the sentence revised in view of this new evidence, the chief administrator on the Eastern Front Schieffenzahn wants to keep the sentence as it is for the sake of discipline. A dispute over areas of responsibility develops between von Lychow and his staff and Schieffenzahn and his office. A big part of the novel is about this question of competence. In the end Schieffenzahn wins and Grischa is shot dead, innocent.
Much can be said about this novel, which was one of the first German novels that described the First World War from the view point of the war veterans (Arnold Zweig has fought near Verdun and elsewhere). This book and other books by Zweig give a good impression of the cruelties and other aspects of this war. However, what I want to emphasize here is that the novel shows the danger of appealing to authority instead of being open to what is reasonable and to the interests of those subjected to this authority. Demarcations of competence and authority can have sense and often they do have sense, but a field of competence never exists as a purpose of itself. There is always a reason for it, at least originally. When one loses sight of this reason, authority loses its contents and it becomes fossilized. Then it’s only there for the bearer of the authority and as a weapon against his competitors in other fields of competence and authority, and a struggle of competence will certainly develop. When it comes that far – be it in business, politics, or where else lines of demarcation are drawn – there’ll be victims and at least a part of these victims will be innocent. Some will “only” suffer damage but in extreme cases some will have to pay with their lives, too. When it has come that far, authority has become blind.

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