On Not Facing the Death of a Civilization
On 23 February 1942 Stefan Zweig, the Austrian playwright, journalist, novelist, and cultural patron, committed suicide with his wife Lotte in the bedroom of a rented house in Petrópolis, Brazil.
Having fled the Nazi-dominated continent in 1934, Zweig—at the time a global celebrity for his popular literary novels—decided to end his life before bearing witness to what he believed would the death of a European civilization he cherished and loved.
Pushkin Press have recently published, for the first time in English, Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink, a collection of essays written by Zweig between 1914 and 1941.
The essays cover Zweig’s thoughts on history, culture, and his vision for Europe. Included are the poignant “The Vienna of Yesterday,” a lament to the European city before the First World War, and the impassioned “In This Dark Hour,” one of Zweig’s final public addresses, where he envisions a Europe free of nationalism and pledged instead to pluralism, culture, and brotherhood.
JP O’Malley caught up with Will Stone, translator of this current book of essays, and discussed with him Zweig’s idea of a pan-European culture, his distrust of nationalism, and his complicated relationship with fellow writer Joseph Roth.
What was it about the old world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that writers like Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig admired so much?
Well, Roth was far more attached to the traditions and legacy of that empire than Zweig ever was. The loss of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Empire after the First World War was more shattering for Roth, who hung onto this idea that the empire was his bedrock, in terms of the multiculturalism and the diversity of languages and so forth.
Zweig, in his memoir, The World of Yesterday speaks about the golden age of that empire too. But even as a young man he was happy to disengage from the closed world of the Viennese intelligentsia. He also wanted to get out and explore other parts of Europe. So he went to Germany and then Belgium. And that was when he really flourished as a writer.
But the traditions of empire were important to Zweig too. You can see it in the essay on Vienna in this current book, which is about returning to Vienna after World War I. So these ideas definitely do feed into both of their work. But they are from very different backgrounds, and are very different writers as well.
How do they differ as writers?
Stylistically, they are very different. Zweig is much more old fashioned. Roth comes across as more modern. Zweig is more polite as a writer too. But this idea that Zweig was just writing for a popular audience is not true. Zweig’s work has just as much depth and poignancy as Roth’s did.
Is there a sense that Zweig was looking backwards in his life to what he saw as a golden era of European civilization?
Well the thing about Zweig is that he has one foot in the nineteenth century and one foot in the twentieth century. And he sort of straddled between those two worlds. And even though he looks backwards in The World of Yesterday, I don’t think he is a reactionary. In fact, most of the time he’s actually looking forwards. This current book of essays, for example, are full of relevance for the future.
The theme of them is very much about what Europe should become. And not what Europe was. So Zweig is writing and thinking about the future of Europe. He’s just not sure whether he is going to be part of it or not.
You say Zweig “abhorred politics,” seeing it as the “antichrist to spiritual freedom.” This phobia had its origins, you argue, in the Nietzschean drive for aestheticism, which saw the political class and materialism as the mainstays of nationalism and European spiritual decay. Can you discuss this idea briefly?
Zweig wrote a very famous essay on Nietzsche, which I translated a few years ago into English. And what really comes through in this is Nietzsche’s “good European” ideal. Zweig naturally found an intellectual and spiritual ally in Nietzsche. He also saw in him a man who sacrificed his own self for his thought. Zweig was always attracted to people who made great statements. Or who dedicated their lives to European culture. And Zweig also saw in Nietzsche a rejection of nationalism, which was something he admired too.
Zweig wanted to change deep-seated attitudes to race and fatherland that were prevalent in Europe at the time he was writing. He wanted to encourage a new fluidity of thought that would see the interweaving of language and cultures. How did he propose to do this?
He put forward this idea of having a European university that would be hosted in a different European capital or city each year. Zweig saw his generation as having failed and he hoped that a new generation could take things forward. So he wanted to break down the boundaries between European nations. Nationalism was pretty rife across Europe during this moment in history. Obviously it is creeping back now. But it was far more deeply entrenched then, when there were only a few democracies left in Europe.
One of Zweig’s main premises, you argue, is this idea that humanity is capable of achieving unimaginable heights when it works together. Was there a contradiction in this thought, though, considering Zweig’s class privilege and disinterest in politics?
He certainly leaves himself open for criticism in that sense. But he read people like Montaigne and others, these humanists who stood aside from any political anchorage one way or the other.
Zweig really did distrust politics. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. He just felt it was his responsibility to stay apart from it. Whether that is right or wrong is an open-ended argument. Zweig is more a of a figurehead of ideas rather than somebody talking about the actual nuts and bolts of everyday political systems and so on. But he was aware that he was a privileged soul. And he wasn’t naïve enough to think that it was a golden age for everybody.
Zweig—as these essays display—believed that the potential for spiritual development was buried deep within all of us, that it had been secreted in the blood of our ancestors and passes down through the ages, and can through enlightenment and education be restored. Is there a flirtation with far-right ideas going on here?
Well, no. Because when he is talking about the spiritual blood it is nothing to do with the blood and soil of nationalism. So Zweig has this idea of an unbroken chain of the spirit, which is part of passing down over a millennia the seeds of an artistic heritage.
Zweig, you write here, saw his own generation in the late 1930s and early 1940s as being blind to events: people who on the eve of the Second World War still believe that it could never happen. Can these words be applied to the political situation in the United States and Europe today with the rise of far-right nationalism?
Absolutely. I don’t see anything as having changed, primarily because the majority of people are unaware of history. If most people don’t study historic events properly, they are not going to be able to make proper judgments because they won’t see any links. That is the problem that every generation faces. It would have been the same in Zweig’s time. Every generation makes the same error. Or, as the Austrian writer Karl Kraus once said: “every age gets the diseases it deserves.”
Was Zweig prone to depression before his suicide in 1942?
Yes. Always. Even though he had this outward persona of being jovial and so on, he was always prey to what he called his “black bile.” If you look at his short stories, a lot of them end in suicide.
It isn’t surprising that he ended his life that way. He didn’t do it on a whim either. It was planned. He felt there was this major loss of Europe. And that Europe had somehow destroyed itself. At that stage Zweig was asking: even if the war was won by the Allies, what kind of world would remain anyway? And he also asked himself whether he wanted to be part of it. So that feeling of being cut off from his friends and from the culture that had sustained him his whole life was a huge deal for him. It was like he was living as a shadow at the end.
JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.
Posted: February 26, 2017 in Interviews.
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