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No Exit

Raised in the last golden days of the Hapsburgs, the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig found his world shattered by war.

Jennifer Weisberg
April 08, 2005

Nestled in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Penha is a B’nai B’rith lodge named after the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig. After fleeing Austria, Zweig settled in Brazil in 1941, and he and his wife Lotte Altmann died there, by their own hands a year later, in despair over what Zweig viewed as the wholesale destruction of European culture at the hands of the Nazis. Recognizing in him a kindred spirit in the struggle for a more humanistic world, the founders of the lodge—mainly descendents of mostly poor immigrants from Russia and Poland, far removed from the cultivated European men of letters that Zweig epitomized—sought to honor his memory.

At the time of his greatest renown, in the 1920s and ’30s, Zweig was most acclaimed for his biographies—short, penetrating, and highly idiosyncratic studies of Casanova, Marie Antoinette, and Romain Rolland, among others. A writer of prodigious and catholic output, he also produced plays, novellas, and even a libretto for a Richard Strauss opera. He was the most translated European author in the world, his works available in more than 40 languages. Yet today, in the English-speaking world, he is virtually forgotten, save for Max Ophüls’s 1948 film adaptation of his novella Letter from an Unknown Woman. The film, and the story from which it is drawn, is a tale of infatuation, devotion, and obsession, and reveals a startling sensitivity to the immense boundaries placed around women’s lives in late Hapsburg Vienna.

These are some of the elementary themes that run through all of Zweig’s work. His short stories and novellas feature characters undone by a single glance at the racetrack, by the random sighting of particularly expressive hands across the green baize of a roulette table. Their lives are turned upside-down by an act of pity masquerading as intimacy, incorrectly interpreted as love. His view of human nature is bleak; people are betrayed by the pettiest of vanities, torn from their psychological moorings at the most slender of provocations. It is the randomness of life’s events that interests Zweig, the manner in which presumed solidity can disintegrate in an instant. A wrong decision or assumption made, and the world, previously thought whole and secure, is rent asunder.

Zweig prized solidity and security above all. Born in 1881 to an upper-middle class Viennese family, he was well acquainted with the world of “security and creative reason” afforded by the waning days of the Hapsburg Empire. In his 1942 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, he described this “Golden Age of Security” in a radiant haze of nostalgia—it seemed endless, borne along by a “faith in a rapid and continuous rise of humanity.” Reared by cosmopolitan, polyglot parents, he was brought up to think of himself less as an Austrian or as a Jew, and more as a European citizen. He first made his mark as a poet, publishing in 1897, to great success, at the age of 16. Indeed, the adolescence he describes in The World of Yesterday seems to have been lived in a state of fevered bookishness, inspired by Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. From small literary journals, he graduated to the feuilleton pages of the Neue Freie Presse, Vienna’s paper of record, where under the aegis of Theodor Herzl—”the first man of world importance whom I had encountered in my life”—Zweig began to make a name for himself. Though decidedly not a Zionist, he credited his early friendship with Herzl with making him “a Jew in heart and soul, as well as through birth.”

Described by Klauss Mann as “urbane, sensible, bon viveur…warmly interested in the work and worries of others,” he cultivated friendships with Rolland, Sigmund Freud, and Joseph Roth, whom Zweig met in 1931 and whose work he thought greater than his own. In 1920, after a long courtship, he married Friderike Maria von Winternitz. Their relationship was a fruitful one for his work—Zweig was a notorious womanizer—and Friderike in many ways served as a practical link between Zweig’s high-minded ideals and the exigencies of daily life. They never had children of their own, and in 1938, the couple divorced.

The deep faith in the solidity of the world in which he had been reared was “shattered like a hollow vessel of clay” by the outbreak of World War I. A lifelong pacifist, Zweig was disgusted by the outpouring of nationalist fervor in Austria, Germany, and France, viewing it as a tragedy for European culture. Though he described his parents in The World of Yesterday as being Jewish “only through accident of birth,” his Jewish identity allowed him to feel “liberated…in this period of national insanity,” as he wrote to Martin Buber in January 1917, and then again in May: “I love the Diaspora and affirm it as the meaning of Jewish idealism, as Jewry’s cosmopolitan human mission.”

This “supranational feeling,” coupled with Zweig’s distaste for the bureaucracy of national borders, passports, and overzealous patriotism, finds perfect expression in his 1929 novella Buchmendel. An unnamed narrator enters a café and realizes he’s been there before, years ago. Then, he remembers in a flash: “It was Mendel’s place, Jacob Mendel. I was in the Café Gluck…. Was it possible that I had not thought about him for ages, a man so peculiar as well-nigh to belong to the land of fable, the eighth wonder of the world…. How could I have forgotten Buchmendel?”

A “sordid and rather unclean…Galician second-hand book dealer,” Zweig’s Jacob Mendel plies his trade from a small table in the Café Gluck. Possessed of an Olympian memory for the minutiae of the antiquarian book trade, though with little knowledge of anything else in the world, his 30 years at the café come to an end during World War I when military censors find several postcards he has written to correspondents in Paris and London. Assuming espionage, they arrest him and discover that he is still a Russian citizen, and has failed to report to the authorities as an enemy alien. Mendel is sent to an internment camp, along with his broken glasses. The Commanding Officer soon realizes that he is more than “a dirty little Russian Jew…crouched in the corner like a mole, grey, eyeless, and dumb.” He is released, though in the eyes of Frau Sporschil, the café’s toilet attendant, who recounts for the narrator the sad story of Mendel’s imprisonment and death several years later, “Mendel was no longer Buchmendel, just as the world was no longer the world.”

This emphasis on the foolishness of borders, the useless rigidity of bureaucracy, and the primacy of individual liberty is echoed in Zweig’s only novel, Beware of Pity (in German Ungeduld des Herzens, or “The Impatient Heart”), published in 1939, while he was living as a refugee in England. The informal rules and conventions governing individual lives were, for Zweig, often more powerful and destructive than the laws of the state. And indeed, it is his interest in the difference between the perception and reality of those conventions, and the narrow line that divides them, that lifts the novel out of the realm of mere sentiment. Elegantly written, Beware of Pity is in many ways a micro-portrait of life in the late Hapsburg Empire, capturing the overweening attention paid to ritual, detail, and order, and the occasions it afforded for self-transformation.

Anton Hofmiller, a young officer posted in a remote Hungarian town in the waning months before the start of World War I, is invited to dinner at the home of someone he takes to be a cultured local nobleman. Dazzled by his host’s elegant home and poised manners, Hofmiller blunders when he asks the nobleman’s daughter, Edith, to dance; unbeknownst to him, she is a cripple. His horror at his faux pas leads him to return, time and again, to atone for his initial mishap. She falls in love with him, while he remains oblivious to her feelings.

Yet it’s the story of the girl’s father that provides the moral spine of the tale. A conversation with Edith’s physician reveals that the man Hofmiller so admires was in fact born “a keen-eyed, narrow-chested little Jewish lad” named Lämmel Kanitz. Canny, thrifty, and somewhat of an autodidact, Kanitz learned to make money, pulling off his biggest coup in an unscrupulous real estate deal. Though he’d taken advantage of a naïve woman, he later felt a good deal of guilt at the way he had swindled her out of her fortune. In the end, “he was, rather, in spite of himself, taken unawares by an emotion that was genuine, and, strangely enough, remained genuine. Out of this absurd courtship was born an unusually happy marriage”—and a new life; baptized, Kanitz purchased the privilege of changing his name to Herr Lajos von Kekesfalva.

Hofmiller’s relationship with Kekesfalva’s daughter Edith also ends in a proposal of marriage, though an ill-fated one. The contrast between Kekesfalva and Hofmiller is pointed; though both share a sense of guilt at having mistreated naïve women, the consequences of Hofmiller’s emotional dishonesty, however well-meaning, will follow him for the rest of his life, for “no guilt is forgotten as long as the conscience still knows of it.”

And Zweig shared a good deal of that guilt. After an unfortunate and prophetic encounter with the Austrian police in 1934, Zweig fled his Salzburg home and settled in London, soon realizing, much to his dismay, that his exile was to be a permanent one. “Nothing would be gained by returning hate for hate,” Zweig said at a 1934 reception for the Vilna Yiddish Theatre at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. “The Jewish way must be to go on creating positive values to enrich both Jewish life and the world.” His reluctance to speak out more forcefully against the Nazis disturbed many, most notably Hannah Arendt. In a scathing review of The World of Yesterday, published in the Menorah Journal about 18 months after Zweig’s death, she called him a “bourgeois Jewish man of letters, who had never concerned himself with the affairs of his own people.” Arendt’s axe-grinding against a non-Zionist notwithstanding, her depiction of Zweig as “aloof from civic struggle and politics” was disingenuous at best. His life’s work had been devoted to the quest for European unity. As his biographer Donald Prater wrote, “asking himself what nationality he would choose in the Europe of the future, he inclined towards the Jewish…for there would be a ‘sense of internationality, of fatherland in the spirit.’”

Ultimately that faith in the future failed him. His growing realization of the fate of Europe’s Jews was a source of great despair, and his horror and feelings of guilt at his own escape were profound. Though he became a British citizen in 1940, he and his second wife Lotte Altmann moved to Brazil the following year, thinking they would be able to leave the events unfolding in Europe far behind. That was not to be. When he died in February 1942, a New York Herald Tribune editorial described him as “overwhelmed by the past, and by the realization that all he had held most dear had been wantonly destroyed.” The Golden Age of Security was long gone and it seemed unlikely that a new age of European unity, separate from that secured by Nazi domination, would ever appear.