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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

Patrice Higonnet and James McAuley
September 04, 2014
Stefan Zweig during an interview with a Portuguese journalist, Estoril, February 1938.(Photo courtesy of Stefan Zweig Centre Salzburg)
Stefan Zweig during an interview with a Portuguese journalist, Estoril, February 1938.(Photo courtesy of Stefan Zweig Centre Salzburg)

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?


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.”

More to the point, in The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s 1938 coda to The Radetzky March, a distant cousin of the great Trotta reflects on what has befallen his family and their native Austria. “I lived in the merry, even uproarious society of young aristocrats, the class that, along with artists, I liked best in the old Empire,” the young man notes:

I shared their skeptical frivolity, their resourceful melancholy, their sinful negligence, their proud sense of doom—all of them signs of the end which we failed to see coming. Over the glasses of wine from which we drank to excess, an invisible Death was already crossing his bony hands.

By comparison, Zweig was still at the table, pouring another glass of wine. Of course, in the opening pages of his only major novel, Beware of Pity, originally published in 1939, the narrator, a fellow writer loosely autobiographical in nature, does acknowledge the catastrophe of Austria in 1938. In the words of this writer, never named:

We shouldn’t always, I firmly retorted, believe in our own wishful thinking. The civil and military organizations directing the apparatus of war had not been asleep, and while our heads were spinning with utopian notions they had made the maximum use of peacetime to get control of the population at large. … We all know from experience how the human tendency to self-delusion likes to declare dangers null and void even when we sense in our hearts that they are real.

One gets the sense here that Zweig, through his narrator, is rebuking not necessarily Viennese society but rather his earlier self, completely circumscribed in its “wishful thinking” and “self-delusion.” But this is penance hastened, resigned, and, in any case, too little too late.


Zweig was neither a great literary talent nor the most acute observer of his times. But perhaps most important, what distinguishes Zweig from the majority of his contemporaries is precisely the quality that he himself criticizes in the beginning of Beware of Pity, that he was a utopian in the midst of apocalypse. By 1935, Jewish books, including most of his own, had been burned, and Jews had been banned from the very types of professions upon which the public mystique Zweig had so carefully cultivated ultimately relied. Zweig, especially as a writer and commentator, would have understood that the world as he knew it, the “world of yesterday,” had vanished: How could he not? But, consciously and unconsciously, he refused to accept its demise.

In 1935, that same year, he still believed, or at least insisted in self-delusion, that the thrust of Nazi brutality could be combatted with the creation of a pan-European, multilingual literary journal that would showcase the value of international—and, specifically, Jewish—intellectual collaboration. In what was probably the most anti-cosmopolitan moment in the history of modern Europe, when, in the words of Tony Judt, a continent that in 1913 had been—and even in 1939 still was—“an intricate, intervowen tapestry of overlapping languages, religions, communities and nations” was being “smashed into the dust,” Zweig was still expounding his particular cosmopolitan vision. Nero fiddled while Rome burned: Stefan Zweig commissioned essays.

To some degree, this delusional but dignified defiance is what we love about Zweig. More than anything else, his “wishful thinking”—his magical thinking—is the essence of his appeal today. Of course, what Europe faces in 2014 is nothing at all like what it faced in 1914 or in 1940, or even 1848, but contemporary Europe is in the midst of an existential battle for its soul—perhaps the farcical second coming of such a battle, but a battle nevertheless.

Far-right and xenophobic parties have made significant strides in legislatures from France to Hungary to Greece, and German voters are questioning whether Europe is something they should continue to support financially. Britain has flirted with a referendum on its own membership in the European Union as soon as 2015. As evidenced by the conflict in Ukraine, Russia’s authoritarian right—through militarization, ethnicization, and anti-Semitism—has begun to bring back some elements of fascism to the continent that this very ideology once razed. Meanwhile, populist parties across Europe have blamed the European Union, to considerable applause, for every economic and social discontent imaginable. There have been rabid anti-Semitic demonstrations by both the right and the left in the streets of major European cities.

But in the clamour of this current chaos, there are only cynics to face the enemies of Europe, and so we turn to the Stefan Zweig of The World of Yesterday with rapt attention. “It was sweet to live here, in this atmosphere of spiritual conciliation,” he wrote of Europe as he imagined it, “and subconsciously every citizen became a supernational, cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.” This was never what Europe actually was—not during the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not in the 1940s, when Zweig wrote those words, and certainly not today. But it was an ideal of what Europe might have been and still might one day be. In short, we long for Zweig because we long for the romance of his illusions.

Toward the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the character Zero poignantly recalls his former mentor, the inimitable Monsieur Gustav, played by Ralph Fiennes and loosely based on Stefan Zweig himself. “To be frank,” Zero says, “I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.” So it was for Zweig in his lifetime and in his afterlife, when he sustains the dream—or, rather, the fantasy—of Europe for us all.


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Patrice Higonnet is Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History at Harvard University. James McAuley is a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford.

Patrice Higonnet is Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History at Harvard University. James McAuley is a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford.

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