Friedrich grows up under tough circumstances with an alcoholic, abusive father. Even after his father dies and he is adopted by his uncle Simon, Friedrich grows up to become a very hard man who is followed around everywhere by Johannes, Simon’s illegitimate son. When a group of wood thieves turn more violent, Friedrich is involved. And when a Jewish man, Aaron, is murderd, Friedrich is also implicated.
Die Judenbuche is an interesting novella that I think could have even profited from being expanded into a novel. In any case the slim volume does carry quite a punch already.
Die Judenbuche might be one of the first murder mysteries ever written (starting off with the bold choice of giving hints but no clear solution to the mystery). Some things would definitely work differently in a more modern crime story (there is, for example, a revealing scar is only mentioned at the moment of the reveal – at least, if I didn’t miss it before) and it actually works better as a study of social conditions than a crime story, but I can imagine that it would inspire a genre to come. Droste-Hülshoff based it on a real case (and an actual tree, unrelated to that case), making the healthy dose of social criticism in the book even more striking.
Droste-Hülshoff paints a clear picture of the prevalent antisemitism of the time (making clear – in case that was in doubt – that Nazis really didn’t come up with that particular toxicity, just used it to their advantage), in all of its insidious cruelty and the inherent violence of it. Even though I would have liked one person in the novella to argue against it, just to show that antisemitism should not remain unquestioned. But then again, it would have been very unlikely for somebody to have argued against it. At least Aaron’s death is avenged in the end. In a way.
But the antisemitism isn’t the only systemic issue that Droste-Hülshoff tackles. With Friedrich’s own neglect and harsh upbringing that nobody is really concerned with, there’s at least as much criticism of social conditions as in the unflinching portrayal of the antisemitism.
It’s an emotional story that Droste-Hülshoff tells in a very dry style. It should work against the story, but it somehow works to amplify it, even though it does create a certain disconnect.
Summarizing: Very strong.