Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Stefan Zweig Followed His Europe Into Suicide

Tragic tale reflects continent's descent into 20th-century chaos.

On Feb. 22, 1942, in a rented house in Petrópolis, Brazil, the Austrian playwright, journalist, novelist, and cultural patron Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, took an overdose of barbiturates each after entering into a suicide pact. A haunting picture, taken by police shortly after their bodies turned cold, poignantly captured their tragic tale: Zweig is lying in bed, with a pale complexion, flat on his back, his tie impeccably fastened, his eyes closed, embracing his lover’s hand in the cold clasp of death.

Zweig’s suicide note, succinct and to the point, began: “Those [powers] that I possess have been exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering.” The writer then wished all his friends well, expressing a hope that they might witness “the dawn after the long night.” This seemed to be a reference to the tolerant and peaceful world that Zweig envisioned should Europe’s cancerous meme of Nazism be defeated. Had Zweig hedged his bets, and hung on to life just a bit longer, he might have seen that the tides of fortune soon would tilt against Nazism and toward the Allies. Hitler’s grand plan to conquer Russia had failed, and his army was in retreat. German Gen. Erwin Rommel’s North African advances had been stopped. America was in the war. 

But it was not to be. Besides, the writer was a lifelong sufferer of depression, and so it’s unlikely that the war’s outcome would have deflected him from his decision to end his life. Either way, by that point Zweig already was possessed by an apocalyptic vision of the Europe that had cultivated and shaped him—both as an artist and as a man—throughout his life. The Continent, he feared, was headed for the scrap heap, and there was no turning back. Europe had committed suicide, and therefore he and his wife must do the same.

“I, all too impatient, go on before,” Zweig poignantly confessed at the conclusion of his suicide note—his final words to his readers and followers across the world.

And those readers and followers reached into the millions. Zweig’s first book, Silver Strings, a collection of poems, appeared in 1901. Then he ventured quickly into other forms—journalism, biographical studies, and the form he is most fondly remembered for, the novella or long short story. During the 1920s and ’30s Zweig was one of the most popular and bestselling authors of his era.

This was his golden period. With novellas such as Letter From an Unknown Woman and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, he often broke sales records. And Zweig’s work appealed to both a mass popular audience and to high-minded literary readers. His travels around Europe, before and after World War I, introduced Zweig to a wide range of characters, many of whom he reproduced in fictional form.  

As George Prochnik recalls in The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, the day after the double suicide the coffins of Zweig and his wife, draped in flowers, were carried through Petrópolis. All the local shops in the little Brazilian community were shut down. The national government even gave the couple a state funeral, and a Jewish rabbi was granted special dispensation to deliver a funeral benediction in the town’s Catholic cemetery, where the Zweigs were buried.

But Zweig’s death did not end his impact upon his time or future generations. He would live on in his work, including a memoir—considered by many to be one of the finest of the 20th century—that he sent to his publisher just days before his death. The World of Yesterday, published posthumously in 1943, documents the history of Europe from 19th-century splendor, decadence, and complacency to the destruction of the First World War, and then to the brutality and depravity of the Nazis.

Shortly after Zweig’s death, a New York Times editorial said he had died as a man without a country. There was some truth in that. His country, after all, had been Austria under the Hapsburg crown, and it was dead. Along with his good friend Joseph Roth, another Austrian Jew who witnessed the disintegration of the old Austrian Empire, Zweig wrote extensively, and often nostalgically, about those days of yore, when Vienna teemed with artists, composers, philosophers, and writers, and the world seemed settled into a state of enlightened stability. As he wrote in The World of Yesterday, the vast Hapsburg Empire seemed to be a rock of permanence, where “nothing would change in the well-regulated order.” He added, “No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.”

All that changed with the emergence of Hitler and subsequent events. As Roth wrote to Zweig in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise, “We are drifting towards great catastrophes … it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have established a reign of barbarity.”

This was indeed a disturbing era in Europe, when the value placed upon modern radical thought was deemed by many emerging leaders as far greater than the value of human life. And so Zweig, like millions of other Europeans, no longer felt he belonged anywhere. Eight years before his death, he left his beloved Salzburg as the menacing threat of persecution accelerated. A group of Nazi thugs arrived at his home and accused him of illegally storing weapons. Knowing that such false accusations presaged far more ominous dangers, he uprooted himself from his native land and soon found himself a nomadic searcher—an affluent Austrian citizen who couldn’t go home, a global celebrity, prolific author, a wandering, stateless Jew.

First he went to England, where he lingered briefly in London before going to Bath. In London he gave a eulogy at the funeral of Sigmund Freud, who had resided there in the final six months of his life. But this peripatetic lifestyle did not suit Zweig, who desperately wanted to find a place he might be able to call home, perhaps someplace where he could feel a belonging as he had during his earlier years in Austria. But he never found such a place.

Zweig ended up in New York City but never felt entirely comfortable there. He wanted to start an international Jewish periodical that would enlist “the best minds of Europe, without regard to nationality,” but nobody in the city seemed interested. Feeling disillusioned and fearing his voice could not be heard, he left New York in a melancholy mood in August 1941 and embarked with his wife on a 12-day boat journey to Rio de Janeiro, thence to Petrópolis.  

In Brazil, where Zweig’s books sold briskly, he enjoyed tremendous popularity. And so he hoped to start afresh, putting behind him the old world of Europe, beset by war, barbarism, hunger, and genocide. It didn’t work. Zweig may have been unsure about many aspects of his life in those final days and weeks, but he was clear on one thing: at heart he was a European.

After all, he had spent most of his adult life surrounded by those Austrian writers, artists, philosophers, intellectuals—kindred spirits, all—who felt the same way. They spent their days in cafés and salons in Vienna and other exquisite places, arguing about ideas, exchanging gossip, and immersing themselves in a culture that was always progressive, modern, committed to the fluidity and undefinable heights that so beguiled the avant-garde of the day. As Zweig himself once declared: “Art always reaches its peak where it becomes the life interest of a people.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna experienced a cultural explosion of rare intensity in European history. Its intelligentsia and literati boasted a host of names that still leave a serious imprint on the collective consciousness of Western Civilization, including Freud, philosopher Otto Weininger, and artist Gustav Klimt.

One can easily envision Zweig in the last months of his life, in a small, isolated town in Brazil, thousands of miles from his homeland, plagued by nostalgia, pining for those glorious days in the old world. Not only was he gone from Vienna, but the Vienna of his memory was gone from the world.

In many ways, the collapse of Austria-Hungary—and of Vienna as Europe’s cultural epicenter—can be seen as an omen for the brutality that emerged with the rise of totalitarianism during the global depression of the 1930s. Following that collapse, Vienna died culturally, spiritually, and economically. Zweig referred to it after 1914 as “an accursed city in horrible decay, rotting instead of dying.”

Roth, who had left Vienna for Berlin and then fled for Paris when Hitler became German chancellor in 1933, viewed the world through the same lens. “Do not deceive yourself,” he wrote to Zweig from Paris. “Hell reigns.” Roth, who died of alcoholism just before World War II, displayed a talent for predicting events. In a 1933 essay entitled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind,” he anticipated what he called “an apotheosis of the barbarians”—the burning of books by the Third Reich, and the expulsion of Jewish writers from Germany.

True enough, the Nazis had a particular penchant for book burning. They especially took pleasure in burning the books of writers such as Zweig—often Jewish, bourgeois in manner and education, tolerant, polite, cosmopolitan in their political views, internationalist and worldly, with a particular distaste for small-minded nationalism.

In fact, Zweig typified the European Jewish artists and writers of his era. He claimed no allegiance to national boundaries or nation-states. He viewed the world—and Europe especially —through a prism of ideas and words, artistic relationships, like-minded social networks, sensual beauty, and water-color paintings.

It is this theme that dominates much of the writing in Messages From a Lost World: Europe on the Brink, a collection of essays written by Zweig between 1914 and 1941 and published this past January. Covering Zweig’s thoughts on history, culture, Europe, and much more, the essays include the poignant “The Vienna of Yesterday” (1940), a nostalgic reminiscence on the European city before the First World War, and the impassioned “In This Dark Hour” (1941), in which Zweig envisions a Europe free of nationalism. His aim was nothing less than to change the prevalent European attitudes about race and nationalism, though he never made specific reference to particular political individuals or organizations of his era.  

Zweig encouraged instead a new fluidity of thought that would see the interweaving of language and culture across the continent and encourage humanity to work together through culture and not war. However unrealistic or even naïve such thoughts might be, they have found large audiences in many parts of Europe, particularly in France. And of course they presaged the long postwar struggle to create the European Union of today. But they have not enjoyed the same following in the English-speaking world, perhaps because there wasn’t a first-rate English translation until the British poet and translator Will Stone turned Zweig’s German prose into sterling English in Messages From a Lost World. The timing of this translation seems propitious, with the rise these days of populist and nationalist politics in America and Europe, reflected in the UK’s Brexit vote and the presidential election of Donald Trump.

On March 25 Europe marked the 60th  anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the creation of the European Economic Community and eventually to the European Union. For all its imperfections, of which it certainly has many, it has encouraged such things as open borders, the fluidity of languages, the intermingling of peoples from across nations, and cultural cooperation—in short, the ideas that animated Zweig at a time of supranationalism in Europe. Indeed, some of Zweig’s words from the recent essay collection could almost seem like social commentary for our own time.  

In a 1914 essay entitled “The Sleepless World,” which in parts seems to employ the language of dreams and the subconscious mind, Zweig writes that “Never since it came into being has the whole world been so communally seized by nervous energy. The pandemonium of these times will give rise to a new order, and our primary concern must be to assist in vigorously shaping it for the better.” That essay argues that Europe should not encourage the pride of individual nations but should instead adhere to a pacifist culture, even a spiritual one.

Crucially the essay rejects the nationalist ideas of blood and soil, so popular in Zweig’s tortured years—and increasingly resonant, it seems, with many Europeans and Americans at a time when cultural conflict, mass immigration, and Islamist radicalism are generating anxiety in the West. At the same time, while Zweig put culture and art before all else and saw the politics of his own era constantly intertwined with violence, he remained uninterested in the political process itself. This political detachment seemed grounded partly in his interest in Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly the German philosopher’s drive for aestheticism and his perception that the political class and materialism were mainstays of nationalism and European spiritual decay. Zweig also took inspiration from classic European humanists such as Montaigne, who believed that writers should avoid any firm political anchorage so they could remain more open to interpret the complexities of society and the human condition.

In a 1940 essay entitled “The Vienna of Yesterday,” Zweig wrote, “Art, like culture, cannot prosper without freedom, and the culture of Vienna cannot flourish if it is severed from the vital source of European civilization. The mighty struggle that today shakes our world will definitively decide the fate of this culture and I hardly need tell you on which side my most fervent wishes stand.”

Given that press freedom is under threat in many countries today, as indeed it has been under threat or forcibly curtailed through much of history, Zweig’s perception that the flourishing of culture requires freedom seems apt. Totalitarian regimes, and even some authoritarian ones, are enemies of cultural vibrancy.

Zweig could be criticized, though, for not translating his lofty ideals into practice or taking any sense of moral responsibility for his role as both a public intellectual and European man of letters. For example, while other writers of his era, such as Thomas Mann, visibly made their voices heard in the public domain in relation to the toxic forces of totalitarianism, Zweig, believing that prose and politics should not mix directly, stayed relatively silent.

As a typical mild-mannered bourgeois gentleman of his age, Zweig had an aloofness that bordered on elitism, a blindness to the dark historical forces of the day. Like others among the elites of that time, he was convinced that, in the end, liberalism and the principle of the greater good would rise above the toxic politics of the time, that society ultimately would pay heed to the nobler ideals. Instead, Europe was reduced to a pile of rubble as human beings succumbed to a savagery not seen in Europe for a long time.

It’s worth noting that, despite Zweig’s grand vision of a united Europe and his ennui at the events that ravaged Europe and upended his own life, he never in his writings directly and publicly condemned the Nazi party. Yes, he did warn about the dark forces of nationalism, but he didn’t grasp fully or condemn outright the full ramifications of Nazism. Still, it’s easy to criticize with the hindsight of history. And we probably shouldn’t judge too harshly. Even great thinkers have their flaws. As the English philosopher John Gray puts it in the preface to the recently published book of Zweig essays, “Zweig embodied some of the central contradictions of the twentieth century European mind.”  

J.P. O’ Malley is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. He has written for a number of newspapers and publications around the globe, including the Irish Times, the Sunday Independent, the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard, the Chicago Tribune, and numerous others.



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