Goethe’s haunting 1782 poem “Der Erlkönig” (“The Erl-King,” pronounced AIRL-koon-ik) uses deceptively melodious word choice and meter to emphasize its horror content: A supernatural king stalks a child in plain sight, but invisible to its oblivious father, who doesn’t believe his son until it’s too late.
Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht? –
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.
“My father, my father, and can you not hear
The promise the elf-king breathes in my ear?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child, lie low:
In withered leaves the night-winds blow.”
(Edwin Zeydel translation, 1955)
Der Erlkönig is a cautionary tale with different morals depending on who you identify with. For the father, Goethe’s ballad (set to music by, among others, Franz Schubert) is an unsubtle reminder that evil lurks everywhere, and just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
For the son, Goethe conveniently reinforces what all German children rightly suspect: that their parents are totally okay with them either meeting a grisly death, or living in constant fear of one.
Of course, for the Erlkönig himself, the takeaway is pretty chipper: If you can’t get your way the first time, just be really fucking persistent.
Now far be it from me to suggest that Goethe’s spirit underlies the motivations of every German in the world—but also far be it from me to deny that I saw vestiges of the Erlkönig in the quest of one particularly aggrieved 42-year-old dude who seems to have more time on his hands than even your average Teutonic recipient of fifteen thousand paid vacation days per year. Meine Damen und Herren, I present to you the 25,000-Euro lawsuit of one Marko Steidel, who insists that he wuz robbed of his rightful royal title: not Erlkönig, but Apfelkönig (OPP-ful-koon-ik), or Apple King. Each year, you see, the German-Polish border town of Guben (pop. 20,000) holds an election for Apple Royalty.
Steidel was, coincidentally, the first male candidate for the position that is usually called Apfelkönigen. He is also, coincidentally, the first candidate ever to contest his loss.
Steidel did indeed lose last year’s election, but he’s “not letting that stand,” explains this tinder-dry write-up in Der Spiegel, a publication whose staff need all the LOLs they can get as they once again take care of stuff we should be doing right now.
“Indeed,” continues the Spiegel, Seidel “claims voter fraud, and has filed a lawsuit. At the start of the trial [of the century] in Cottbus, however, he had to admit that his accusations are based solely upon conjecture.” The German word for “voter fraud” is Wahlbetrug (VAL-buh-TROOG), literally “choice betrayal,” and it looks like at least one German shares an all-consuming vote-fraud obsession with his country’s shittiest export.
Because get this: Steidel insists that because Apple Queen (OR KING, SEXISTS #WhatAboutMen) voters did not present photo identification at the polls, there is no way to certify a fair election. The Guben Tourism and Marketing Association, which runs the whole thing, counters that it’s a fucking Apple Queen election, and as such they don’t require voter ID, and Steidel is being ri-goddamned-diculous, a sentiment echoed by the Guben mayor and most of its residents.
But if Der Erlkönig has taught us anything, it’s that we should NEVER give up. When the kid puts up a fight (no thanks to his dumb dad), the Erl-King blithely assures him: So brauch’ ich Gewalt (zo BROWK ik guh-VAULT): I’ll just use force. (The word for force, Gewalt, also means both violence and authority, and comes from the verb walten, which means both to assume authority and depose it. Walter Benjamin, motherfuckers.) And Steidel has clearly done his homework, because to him this isn’t about being Apple King: This, he tells the Spiegel, is about something larger than apples and their alleged royalty: It’s about Justice Herself (or, rather, justice himself, since it’s about justice for men).
This entire farce (Posse, or PAWS-uh) is the Germanest thing I have ever read for two reasons: One, every region in the German-speaking world has a beloved autumnal tradition that is equal parts ridiculous and delicious. For Guben it’s clearly apples and everything that comes with them (or rules over them); for the wine-producing regions of Germany and Austria, autumn is synonymous with Sturm or Federweisser, or young wine, a cloudy fermented grape juice that is as refreshing as its hangover fierce. Combine this with some guy’s all-encompassing need to be right and, well.
This actually brings to mind another masterpiece of German literature, not by Goethe but by one Heinrich von Kleist, wherein a wronged horse trader is so incensed about the mistreatment of two of his horses by a neglectful government bureaucrat that he sets half the damn country on fire. Just before they cut his head off at the end (spoiler alert), our protagonist learns that his suit against the bureaucrat who wronged him was successful—this alone is enough to send him to execution happy as all get-out. Sure, he’s spent the better part of his adult life in a ridiculous, destructive quest for justice; and, sure, he’s dead, but at least he knows he was right!!!! Yes, I realize this marks about the fiftieth appearance of Michael Kohlhaas on these metaphorical pages, but come on. Germans, if you don’t want to be compared to the guy, stop doing shit like this.
In early September (just as apple-cake season begins heating up), the court in Cottbus will decide once and for all if currently elected Guben Apfelkönigen Antonia Lieske assumed the office fairly. By then, the elections for the 2017-2018 Apple Queen (or King!!) will already be over. She (or he!) will, like Goethe’s Erlkönig, have a crown and train (presumably)—but don’t worry, she (or he) will only spend the rest of her life trying to take you down (possibly, even, come after your children) if you wrong her. (Or him. Let’s be honest, I mean him.)