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Stefan Zweig’s Illusion of a Good Europe That Never Was Bewitches Us Still

The Austrian writer presented an ideal of what Europe might have been and might one day be

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Stefan Zweig during an interview with a Portuguese journalist, Estoril, February 1938. (Photo courtesy of Stefan Zweig Centre Salzburg)
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What is it about Stefan Zweig that has so captured the contemporary imagination? In the last year alone, the elusive Austrian writer was the named inspiration for Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel and the subject of no fewer than three studies newly available in English: Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days, a fictionalized account of his suicide in Brazil; Oliver Matuschek’s Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig; and George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile, a highly personalized but very sensitive and accurate account of Zweig’s uprooting that has prompted sentimental essays in nearly every major American newspaper and magazine. Yet in the cultural milieu of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the same environment that produced Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Robert Musil and Joseph Roth, Zweig was neither genius nor alchemist. We remember him first as a tragic victim of his own dark times, second as a Viennese bon vivant who knew everyone worth knowing—Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Romain Rolland, the list goes on—and only third as a writer, whose work has been called the “Pepsi of Austrian writing.”

After all, there is also more than a little to dislike about Zweig himself. Born in 1881 as the scion of a prosperous Moravian textile family, Zweig possessed wealth that, at least for a time, shielded him from the brutal political realities of his era, which he often refused to confront. As he wrote to Rolland in 1932: “I don’t fear the Hitlerians, even if they reach power—in two months they will devour each other.” When “the Hitlerians” did not devour each other, Zweig, whose books, because he was a prominent Jewish intellectual, had been burned in 1935, still refused to speak out against Nazi brutality. “I would never speak out against Germany,” he said on a visit to New York that same year. “I would never speak against any country.” In a striking lack of solidarity, he even continued to collaborate with Richard Strauss, then the head of the Reichsmusikkammer, on the libretto for The Silent Woman well into 1935, after the Nuremberg Laws had banished the majority of his fellow Jewish artists from their crafts.

And yet, 100 years after the onset of World War I, which shattered what Zweig called—in The World of Yesterday, the memoir he completed just before his suicide in Brazil—“the golden age of security,” his posthumous allure has now reached such unparalleled heights that it is nearly impossible to address the bitter collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—or even Europe in general—without at least one allusion to Zweig’s biography or bibliography. Zweig—rather than, say, the monumental Robert Musil or the prophetic Joseph Roth—has become the lens through which we understand tragic and world-shaping events. Why?

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Prochnik, in the opening pages of The Impossible Exile, answers that question thusly: “There are lives we turn to because their genius—creative or malign—provokes an itch to snatch the secret. And then there are characters who seize our interest because they serve as potent lenses, refracting momentous times. … Stefan Zweig falls into the category of those who incarnate the enchantments and corruptions of their environment.” That is undeniably true, but, going further, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that we turn to Zweig not because he understood his own “momentous times” as such but rather because he did not.

In other words, if Joseph Roth or Robert Musil were more eloquent—and prescient—elegists for the decay of Mitteleuropa, Zweig was completely circumscribed within the boundaries of the Viennese sensibility. Reading his work is thus less of a literary exercise and more of an historical one: His writings, to borrow from the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, are “impregnated with history” to be read “against the grain … that is, against the intentions of the person or persons producing them (even if those intentions must of course be taken into account).” Zweig may have thought of himself as a novelist, but really he is a window into fin-de-siècle Vienna, a world that, in the words of cultural historian Carl Schorske, was an “unusual combination of provincialism and cosmopolitanism, of traditionalism and modernism.” In the late 19th century, the city’s freshly minted cityscape was the ideal stage for the parades of culture that would follow: Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud. As Karl Kraus, one of the city’s greatest essayists, would later note: “In Vienna, the streets are paved with culture! In other cities they manage to pave them with asphalt.”

This “culture,” for Zweig, was intricately entwined with the fates of Vienna’s Jewish aristocracy. As he notes, with a certain nostalgia, in the beginning to The World of Yesterday, “whoever wished to put through something in Vienna, or came to Vienna as a guest from abroad and sought appreciation as well as an audience, was dependent on the Jewish bourgeoisie.” Of course, he was exaggerating, but not by much: In Zweig’s eyes, Vienna’s vibrant Jewish community, assembled from the various national contexts encompassed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and assimilated into the highest echelons of society, was the inspiration for his unique cosmopolitan vision, a universal value one accessed through the embrace of a particular community. Viennese Jews, in his mind, served a “mission to the world” via “their desire for assimilation.” By dedicating “the highest artistic performance of their millennial spiritual activity” to that mission, they fostered a “spiritual supernationality” that synthesized all of Western culture.

This was ultimately why Zweig, who, as a young man, had been Herzl’s protégé at the Neue Freie Presse, had no use for his mentor’s Zionism. Vienna, in its sublimation of Jewish diasporic diversity and its transcendence of national difference, was, for him, the true solution to the so-called “Jewish Question.” “Nowhere was it easier to be a European,” Zweig wrote, “and I know that to a great extent I must thank this city […] that at an early age I learned to love the idea of comradeship as the highest of my heart.”

Yet Vienna, of course, was never the utopia of Stefan Zweig’s imagination, before, during, or after he wrote those words. It was the city where the young Adolf Hitler, a reject from the Academy of Fine Arts, became familiar with the anti-Semitism he would later inflict on the entire continent of Europe and the city that, in Zweig’s youth, had been governed—much to the dismay of Emperor Franz-Joseph—by a virulently anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger.

In a review of The World of Yesterday, Hannah Arendt, herself a Jewish refugee, albeit from Germany, eviscerated Zweig’s nostalgia, arguing that the Viennese Jews he so celebrated, along with many of their German counterparts, were remarkable in their failure to demonstrate any “concern for the political realities of their times.” What Zweig considered Vienna’s aesthetic vitality, she argued, dealt in superficiality rather than transcendence. Arendt—and, it must be said, Hitler—understood the reality of fickle Vienna much better than Zweig. In 1938, the Nazi Anschluss of Austria was greeted not with despair but with applause.

As keener observers of their times, both Joseph Roth and Robert Musil foresaw some kind of disaster, albeit inchoate, looming on the horizon. Their respective studies of Austria’s decadent twilight were marked with a sense of inexorable doom. In the first volume of The Man Without Qualities, published in 1930, three years before the Nazi electoral victories in the Reichstag and eight before the Anschluss, Musil’s narrator notes: “People who were not born then will find it difficult to believe, but the fact is that even then time was moving faster than a cavalry camel. But in those days, no one knew what it was moving toward.”

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Stefan Zweig’s Illusion of a Good Europe That Never Was Bewitches Us Still

The Austrian writer presented an ideal of what Europe might have been and might one day be