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One of Liberalism's Greatest Defenders Doesn't Deserve His Obscurity

The pathos of Stefan Zweig and his overdue revival

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The careers of Stefan Zweig and Walter Benjamin offer a contrast so perfect as to become almost a parable. The two writers were contemporaries—Benjamin was born in 1892, Zweig in 1881—and both operated in the same German literary ecosystem, though Benjamin was from Berlin and Zweig from Vienna. Both reached their height of productivity and reputation during the Weimar Republic, and as Jews both were forbidden from publishing in Germany once Hitler took power. And both ended darkly as suicides: Benjamin took his life in 1940 while trying to flee from France to Spain, and Zweig died a year and a half later in Brazil, where he sought refuge after unhappy sojourns in England and America.

Yet the similarities end with their biographies. As writers, they could not have been more different, and their literary destinies were exact opposites. Zweig flourished during his lifetime, enjoying huge sales of his psychologically charged novels and his popular historical biographies. Born with a fortune—his father was a textile manufacturer in Bohemia—he earned another fortune through his books, carrying into literature the bourgeois discipline and regularity that he inherited from his businessman ancestors. Three Lives, the definitive biography of Zweig by Oliver Matuschek, describes his annual production of books during the 1920s: 

Over time Zweig had evolved a taut and effective work schedule for the production of his books. The winter months were spent in assembling the material, the spring was used for working up the early drafts, so that the final draft could be completed during the summer and the manuscript then sent off to the publisher as soon as possible. This allowed the typesetting and proofreading to be completed in good time by the autumn, in order to get the printed and bound copies into the bookshops to catch the Christmas trade.

Benjamin, by contrast, was not remotely as popular, nor would he have wanted to be. His audience was not the public at large but his fellow writers and intellectuals, who held him in the highest esteem; Brecht, Hofmannsthal, Adorno, and Scholem were among his friends and patrons. Zweig, whose books were bestsellers in several languages, was able to survive the loss of his German market and remain fairly prosperous; but for Benjamin the exile from Germany was devastating, and he spent the rest of his life in dire poverty. When the two men died, Zweig was one of the most famous writers in the world, Benjamin one of the most obscure.

Yet today there has been a reversal of their fortunes. It is Benjamin who has been canonized as one of the most important theorists of modernism, his works studied and debated and interpreted endlessly. He has become an emblem of the fate of the mind under fascism, not just a thinker but—in the hands of admirers such as Susan Sontag—also a kind of saint. Zweig, on the other hand, was until very recently a cipher on the American scene, a name from history rather than a living literary presence. It is a literary tortoise-and-hare fable, whose familiar if unwelcome lesson is that the most serious, most difficult, most “highbrow” writing is usually what wins in the end.

What are we to make, then, of the current burst of interest in Zweig’s work? Thanks almost entirely to two publishers—New York Review Classics in the United States and Pushkin Press in Great Britain—novels and novellas from Zweig’s lengthy catalogue are pouring back into print at a fast clip. Zweig is written about in The New York Times; his extraordinary memoir, The World of Yesterday, which has just been reissued in a new translation by Anthea Bell, is cited by Wes Anderson as an inspiration for his film The Grand Budapest Hotel. And now The Impossible Exile, George Prochnik’s fine study of Zweig’s last years, brings the melancholy tale of his emigration and death to a new generation of readers.

It is not clear, however, that this surge of interest has been accompanied by any increase in his critical standing. Zweig remains today, as he was during his lifetime, the tragic German Jewish émigré writer whom it is acceptable to disdain. A few years ago Michael Hofmann caused a minor sensation with an essay in the London Review of Books when he attacked the long-dead and almost forgotten writer with as much passion and invective as if he had been, say, Jonathan Franzen. “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake,” Hoffman acidly quipped. “He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.” 

In doing so, he was reviving an old tradition of intellectual sniping. Three Lives is packed with the nasty things that other writers had to say about Zweig, who was less gifted than they were but, infuriatingly, much more successful. To Hofmannsthal, he was a “sixth-rate talent.” Karl Kraus, told that Zweig had triumphed in all the languages of the world, replied, “Except one”—a jibe at his less-than-perfect German style. A satire published in 1920 described a creature called “ the Steffzweig”: “there are a few who still regard it as a living being. However the Steffzweig is an artificial creation, constructed for a writer’s conference in Vienna from feathers, skin, hair etc. taken from all manner of European animals.” Kurt Tucholsky summoned a whole world of pathetic mediocrity when he described a character this way: “Frau Steiner was from Frankfurt am Main, no longer in the first flush of youth, quite alone and dark-haired. She wore a different dress every evening, and sat quietly at her table reading refined books. In a word, she belonged to the readership of Stefan Zweig. Enough said? Enough said.”

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Stefan Zweig in front of his house in Salzburg.

The saddest thing about all this abuse is that no one was quicker to acknowledge the proper scale of his gifts, or to defer to writers of superior talent, than Zweig himself. In 1933, when the Nazis started holding bonfires of books, Zweig was one of the authors consigned to the flames. In The Impossible Exile, Prochnik quotes his reaction: it was, Zweig said, “an honor [rather] than a disgrace to be permitted to share this fate of the complete destruction of literary existence in Germany with such eminent contemporaries as Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel. . . and many others whose work I consider incomparably more important than my own.” Hofmannsthal’s references to Zweig drip with contempt, and on several occasions he actively tried to sabotage Zweig’s career, But in his memoir Zweig compares Hofmannsthal to Keats and Leopardi, and recalls with awe the first time he heard him speak: “I have never known conversation on such an intellectual level with anyone else.”

One of the most important facts about Zweig is that he was perhaps even more passionate a collector than he was a writer; and what he collected were the literary and musical manuscripts of Mozart and Beethoven and Goethe, the highest peaks of human genius. Zweig did not claim to dwell at that height himself, but he was gifted enough—and sufficiently imbued with the German-Jewish passion for Bildung, or personal cultivation—to worship at the shrine of art. In The World of Yesterday, he writes rather more enthusiastically about his acquisitions—a manuscript page of Faust, the handwritten score of Schubert’s “An die Musik”—than he does about his own books: “I was aware that in this collection I had created something that in itself was worthier to last than my own works.” He declared quite straightforwardly that nothing he produced before the end of World War I, when he was thirty-seven, is worth preserving.

Yet even this love of culture can become a charge in the indictment against Zweig. For one thing, it can make him look like what Proust contemptuously called a “célibataire d’art,” one whose relations with art become passionate to the point of abjection, precisely because they are not truly creative. Certainly there is something alarming about the passage in The World of Yesterday where Zweig proposes, in all earnestness, that the great books are too long and need cutting: 

I could not help wondering what exactly it was that made my books so unexpectedly popular . ..  I think it arose from a personal flaw in me—I am an impatient, temperamental reader. Anything long-winded, high-flown or gushing irritates me, so does everything that is vague and indistinct, in fact anything that unnecessarily holds the reader up . . . why not bring out a series of the great works of international literature, from Homer through Balzac and Dostoevsky to Mann’s The Magic Mountain, with the unnecessary parts cut?

Balzac and Dostoevsky to one side, it is certainly true that the strength of Zweig’s fiction is its compression and intensity. He specialized in short novellas, the best of which have titles that get straight to the emotional point: Burning Secret, Confusion. (It is no accident that many of these stories were made into successful movies, most famously Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman.) Zweig, who was a friend of Freud and wrote a biographical essay about him, is fascinated by primal scenes, moments when naive young people are initiated into the powerful and perverse forms that sexuality can take. In Burning Secret, a young boy accompanies his mother to a resort, where she enters into a flirtation with a predatory nobleman. Like a detective, the boy is determined to figure out exactly what is going on with these strange grown-ups—what is the force that draws them together, and why do they seem not to want him around? The story’s climax comes when the boy eavesdrops on his mother and the baron in the hallway at night, and misinterprets their erotic struggle as an attempted murder—a primal scene gone terribly awry.

Similarly, in Confusion, a handsome young college student falls under the intellectual spell of his professor, and decides that he will help the old man complete his long-unfinished magnum opus on the Elizabethan drama. But the student cannot understand why the professor blows hot and cold, alternately encouraging him and holding him at an ironic distance. Not until the student ends up in bed with the professor’s young wife does his confusion begin to clear up: the professor, he realizes, is gay, and he is fighting his own attraction for the young man. The book concludes with the teacher’s passionate confession to his protégé, in which Zweig combines an acute analysis of the erotics of teaching with a remarkably forward-thinking plea for sexual toleration.

Even Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity—written in the late 1930s, when he had fled Austria for England—is a novella at heart, focusing, again, on the romantic education of a naive young man. In this case, Lieutenant Hofmiller is a cavalry officer in a small Hungarian town on the eve of World War I. At home in the barracks but ill at ease in society, Hofmiller finds himself horrified to have committed a fairly innocent social blunder: at a party at the local nobleman’s mansion, he invites the daughter of the house to dance, not realizing that her legs are paralyzed. Overcome with shame and pity, he enters into a strange and ultimately destructive relationship with the girl, Edith, allowing her to believe that he wants to marry her when in fact the idea terrifies him. Here it is emotional immaturity, rather than sexual immaturity, that must be outgrown during the painful transition to adult understanding.

Not for nothing, clearly, was zweig a product of the Vienna of Freud, Schnitzler, and Schiele. And if The World of Yesterday turns out, as it now seems, to be Zweig’s most lasting and important book, it is in large part because of his rich evocation of Vienna’s turn-of-the-century culture. The city that Zweig describes, the one in which he grew up and eventually triumphed, was the Vienna of the educated Jewish haute bourgeoisie. It was only the money and the curiosity of this class, Zweig argues, that made the city’s golden age possible: “the part played by the Jewish bourgeoisie in Viennese culture, through the aid and patronage it offered, was immeasurable. They were the real public, they filled seats at the theater and in concert halls, they bought books and pictures, visited exhibitions, championed and encouraged new trends everywhere with minds that were more flexible, less weighed down by tradition.” His own movement from the mercantile middle class to the cultural elite, Zweig writes, was the ideal trajectory of all German Jewish families, instancing Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassirer—and he could have added Ludwig Wittgenstein or, indeed, Walter Benjamin.

This Jewish cultural assimilation was made possible, Zweig explains, by Vienna’s love of the arts and its tradition of toleration: “Poor and rich, Czechs and Germans, Christians and Jews peacefully lived together in spite of the occasional needling remark.” At such moments, however, the rose color of Zweig’s nostalgia is impossible to ignore. For the Vienna he idealizes was the same city where anti-Semitism flourished, where Karl Lueger became mayor on an explicitly anti-Semitic platform, and where the young Hitler laid the groundwork for his plan to exterminate the Jews. If you take Zweig at face value, it is inexplicable how Vienna became, in the interwar period, the site of a virtual civil war between Social Democrats and fascists—the city that wildly applauded the Anschluss in 1938 and happily sent its culture-loving Jews to concentration camps. As Prochnik recounts, Zweig wrote The World of Yesterday in a feverish few weeks in the summer of 1941 in, of all places, Ossining, New York, where his peregrinations had briefly taken him. If Vienna was really, as Zweig writes, the home of “live and let live”—“a principle that still seems to me more humane than any categorical imperative”—why did he end up writing about it in Ossining?

Hannah Arendt zeroed in on these questions when she stingingly reviewed The World of Yesterday in 1943. Zweig, Arendt believed, was the victim of the same illusion that had plagued German Jewry since the Enlightenment, and eventually led to its destruction: the belief that culture could replace politics, that individual artistic achievement would do the work of collective political consciousness. Despite what he thought, Arendt writes, Zweig never really belonged to Austrian society, because no Jew was allowed to belong to it. Instead he belonged to an international society of the famous, and he believed that membership in this cultural elite would protect him. But Zweig’s fate—his memoir was published after his suicide—made clear that he had wagered his life on an illusion. “Without the protective honor of fame, naked and disrobed,” Arendt concluded, “Stefan Zweig was confronted with the reality of the Jewish people.”

One of the strengths of Prochnik’s book, which focuses on the last few years of Zweig’s life, is that it pays due attention to his feelings about Jewishness—a subject that Matuschek’s fuller biography tends to scant. The Impossible Exile is a highly personal work, not a chronological biography so much as a meditation, through the lens of Zweig, on the whole experience of the German Jewish emigration. “Bruno Walter attributed the secret of a happy exile to remembering the distinction between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ ” Prochnik writes, but Zweig “offers a formula for toxic migration—what might be called Lot’s wife syndrome . . . he could not stop looking over his shoulder.”

The distinction is important to Prochnik because his own ancestors were among those impossible exiles. His father was a boy when he fled Vienna with his parents in 1938, eventually landing in the United States. The Prochnik family’s emigration was a success story, or at least that is the way he grew up hearing about it: “And though times were hard at first, living in a grim New York building, eventually they made their way to Boston, where your grandfather was able to resume his medical practice and get both his sons into Boston Latin School and Harvard. The End.” Only as an adult did Prochnik come to realize how much was left out of this comforting version, “how much was irrecoverably lost over the course of the family’s harrowing flight.” By writing about Zweig, he is clearly trying to grasp the reality of the world his own family left behind, their world of yesterday.

Vienna at the turn of the century was the birthplace of many intellectual movements, none of which turned out to be more consequential than Zionism. Zweig, as he writes in The World of Yesterday, started his career as a protégé of none other than Theodor Herzl. But the Herzl who mattered to Zweig was the literary editor of the Neue Freie Presse, not the founder of Jewish nationalism. When Herzl published Zweig’s first essay on the front page of Vienna’s leading daily when he was still a teenager, he felt that he had reached the summits of literature. In his memoir, however, Zweig is oddly evasive about the reasons why Herzl’s
Zionism made little impression on him. He observes only that he was turned off by the way Herzl, whom he saw as a king-like personality, was disrespected by his own followers: “the quarrelsome, opinionated spirit of constant opposition, the lack of honest, heartfelt acceptance in the Zionist circle, estranged me from a movement that I would willingly have approached with curiosity, if only for Herzl’s sake.”

The truth is that Zionism of any kind was never in the cards for Zweig, because of his deep conviction that being Jewish meant being in the vanguard of cosmopolitanism. “I see it as the mission of the Jews in the political sphere to uproot nationalism in every country, in order to bring about an attachment that is purely spiritual and intellectual,” he wrote in 1919. “This is also why I reject Jewish nationalism. . . . Our spirit is cosmopolitan—that’s how we have become what we are, and if we have to suffer for it, then so be it: it is our destiny.” Zweig’s hatred of all kinds of nationalism solidified during World War I—the latter years of which he spent in contented exile in Switzerland—and he came to see the arts as the only existing manifestation of the international brotherhood for which he yearned. When Zweig writes in his memoir about his friendships with everyone from Romain Rolland to Rainer Maria Rilke to Emil Verhaeren, he is not boasting so much as demonstrating the living possibility of a fellowship that transcends borders, a modern republic of letters. What Arendt derided as a mere society of the famous was, in Zweig’s view, a society of the idealistic and talented, a humanistic elite that preserved the highest values of liberalism.

The fact that Zweig lived to see this version of liberalism utterly defeated in Europe was, depending on how sympathetically you look at it, either his tragedy or his comeuppance. For how could any liberalism hope to survive divorced from democracy? A liberalism of the elite was doomed to be a social luxury; yet Zweig’s historical experience as an Austrian Jew left him convinced that the masses had no love for toleration, free speech, and pacifism. On the contrary, the energy of the times seemed wholly opposed to these things, as Zweig recognized when he described the outbreak of popular enthusiasm in the first days of World War I: “The great wave broke over humanity so suddenly, with such violence, that as it foamed over the surface it brought up from the depths the dark, unconscious, primeval urges and instincts of the human animal—what Freud perceptively described as a rejection of civilization, a longing to break out of the bourgeois world of laws and their precepts for once and indulge the ancient bloodlust of humanity.”

The profound pessimism of this view of humanity, and its implications for the liberalism that Zweig cherished, were not lost on him. Zweig’s nonfiction is today much less read than his fiction; none of it has yet been republished, though many of these books were translated into English in the 1920s and 1930s, at the height of his fame. The most significant for understanding Zweig’s political dilemma is Erasmus of Rotterdam, which he wrote in 1933, in the months after Hitler came to power, and just before he himself fled Austria. (It was the first of Zweig’s books not to be published by his lifelong publisher, Insel Verlag, which had purged its list of Jewish authors.)

Zweig’s Erasmus does not fulfill many of the duties of a biography. His historical works were always more about conjuring an atmosphere of intellectual drama than about telling a comprehensive story. As an essay on the fate of liberalism in an age of fanaticism, however, Erasmus is a powerful witness to its moment. The contrast between Erasmus, the moderate reformer and peacemaker, and Martin Luther, the belligerent and uncompromising man of faith, is transparently Zweig’s way of contrasting his own cherished ideals with those of triumphant fascism. As he says in his memoir, the book “presented my own views in veiled form through the person of Erasmus.”

Given this close identification, then, it is all the more remarkable that Zweig does not make a hero of Erasmus. Every word of praise for his subject’s irenic, cosmopolitan humanism is balanced by a word of censure for his timidity and his abstemiousness. Fifteenth-century humanists, like twentieth-century liberals, were out of touch with the people and unable to grapple with real-world problems: “though their realm was extensive,” with outposts among the intelligentsia of every nation, “its roots did not go deep, it only influenced the most superficial layers, having but feeble relations with reality.” Erasmus himself is sharply blamed for declining to attend the Diet of Worms, where he might have done something to bridge the gulf between Luther and the Catholic Church. “The absent are always wrong,” Zweig concludes, and the rebuke is directed also at himself. He had made Arendt’s indictment before she did.

The cowardice of Erasmus, if such it was, finally seems to Zweig like an inseparable component of a civilized character. It is for the barbaric Luthers to make war, while the civilized Erasmuses carve out niches of peace. No wonder he concludes that “the humanistic ideal, that ideal grounded upon breadth of vision and clarity of mind, is destined to remain a spiritual and aristocratic dream which few mortals are capable of dreaming.” Sounding surprisingly like Benjamin, Zweig places his trust in defeated ideas as the only possible source of redemption: “An idea which does not take on material shape is not necessarily a conquered idea or a false idea; it may represent a need which, though its gratification be postponed, is and remains a need. Nay, more: an ideal which, because it has failed to secure embodiment in action, is neither worn out nor compromised in any way, continues to work as a ferment in subsequent generations, urging them to the achievement of a higher morality.”

It is only when seen in the light of his political ideas that Zweig’s suicide becomes more than a personal tragedy. When Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in 1940, it was because, having been sent back across the border to conquered France, he believed that he was about to fall into the hands of the Gestapo. In 1942, however, Zweig had been out of the direct path of Nazism for eight years. Wisely or luckily, he had chosen not Paris but London as his refuge, which meant that he was not swept up in the fall of France like Arendt, Benjamin, and so many other Jewish refugees. Still, that disaster terrified him sufficiently to make him book passage to America in June 1940. Here, too, he could have found shelter, like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht and many other writers he knew. But as Prochnik shows, by this point Zweig was so off-kilter, so traumatized by exile and terrified by war, that he made the irrational decision to move to Brazil, where he had earlier been given a hero’s welcome when he visited on a tour.

Finally even Brazil did not feel safe. Zweig was convinced that even if Hitler lost the war—and after Pearl Harbor, this did not seem unlikely—the world would never again be “the world of yesterday.” What Zweig needed for his peace of mind, for his sanity, was the ability to forget the world crisis, to withdraw like Erasmus into a private sphere of intellect and decency. But as he mournfully writes in his memoir, the twentieth century had made this impossible: “The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening everywhere in the world at the hour and the second when it happened.” Zweig came to believe that there was nowhere left to escape to, no place where the values he cherished could survive. His curse was that he died believing this; our good fortune is that he was wrong.