Clive's Lives

Stefan Zweig

The incarnation of humanism.

The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate has published an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z. This is the final installment.

With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?
Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von Gestern

Stefan Zweig

“Heart-warming hours” sounds less corny in German: herzliche Stunden. Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) had a house in Salzburg, and from the terrace he could see across the border into Germany, to the heights on which the exterminating angel perched, gathering its strength. If Hitler had looked in the other direction, he would have seen, on Zweig’s terrace, everything he was determined to annihilate, and not just because it was Jewish. There were plenty of gentiles who came to see Zweig. But they were all infected with Kulturbolschewismus, the deadly international disease that presumed to live in a world of its own: the disease that Hitler, in his role as hygienist, had a Pasteur-like mission to eradicate.

Zweig (1881-1942) is a fitting coda to this project, because his life, work, exile, and self-inflicted death combine to sum up so much of what has gone before, which is really the story of the will to achievement in the face of all the conditions for despair. Zweig’s own achievements are nowadays often patronized: a bad mistake, in my view. Largely because of his highly schooled but apparently effortless gift for a clear prose narrative, he attained, while he lived, immense popularity not just in the German-speaking countries but in the world entire, and he is still paying the penalty for it. Except in France, where his major works are never out of print, it is usually safer to call him second-rate. Safer, but not sound.

Most of his poems, plays, and stories have faded, but his accumulated historical and cultural studies, whether in essay or monograph form, remain a body of achievement almost too impressive to take in. Born into Vienna’s golden age, he took the idea of cultural cosmopolitanism to heart and looked for its seeds in the past in a series of individual studies that form a richly endowed humanist gallery, in which the first and still the most impressive portrait is his monograph Erasmus.

Zweig was a man of letters in the most usually accepted sense: i.e., he was not a man of anything else. His gallery of portraits of the mighty, stretching through his writings like the Uffizi collection through its long corridor, does not lead to a paradigm of action, except to the extent that to achieve understanding is an action in itself. Such names as Goethe, Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche, Rilke, Herzl, Freud, Schnitzler, Mahler, Bruno Walter, and Joseph Roth might have been expected to attract Zweig’s attention, but he also wrote a whole book on Balzac as well as valuable essays on Dante, Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Sainte-Beuve, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Renan, Rodin, Busoni, Toscanini, Rimbaud, James Joyce, and many more. Full-sized books on Marie-Antoinette, Mary Stuart, and Magellan were international best sellers.

His magnificent library in Salzburg, alas, was burned by the Nazis in 1938. They knew exactly what he represented, even if some literary critics still don’t. Stefan Zweig was the incarnation of humanism, so when he finally took his own life, it was a persuasive indication that the thing we value so highly can stay alive only in a liberal context.

Everyone who mattered in the European cultural world knew Zweig. It was one of his gifts. He believed in the sociability of the civilized. In the long run, it was a belief that might have helped to kill him. When he committed suicide in Brazil in 1942, he already knew that the Nazis weren’t going to win the war. But the Nazis had already won their war against the gathering on the terrace.

The question remains of whether Zweig had valued that gathering too much. Never a man for being alone in the cafe, he had staked everything on the artistic community and the mutual consideration that he supposed to prevail automatically within it. To the bitter end, Zweig believed that the natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities was one of affectionate respect: a professional solidarity.

He would have been horrified to find that Thomas Mann thought of him as a mediocrity. It would have been one horror too much; but, unlike the other horrors, it had not been invented by Hitler out of thin air. That Mann had uttered such an opinion was the simple truth. But we should not put too sinister a construction on a snide remark. Mann was never at ease with the idea that some other German writer might sell more books than he did in the world market. The natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities is one of tension, suspicion, rivalry, and, all too often, enmity. Only a catastrophe can bring about, among its survivors, any degree of the automatic mutual regard that Zweig dreamed of so fondly. A great deal of creativity arises from conflict between the creators, and it tends to be annulled when they are driven to make peace by supervening circumstances.

For understandable reasons, Zweig wished the world otherwise. He was always looking for concrete, tangible realizations of a coherence that can exist nowhere except in the spirit. His celebrated collection of autograph manuscripts, which was on display in the Salzburg house, brought the great artists of the past together: another gathering on the terrace.

Typically, upon arrival in his last new country, Zweig wrote a book about it: Brasilien, Land der Zukunft (Brazil: Land of the Future). Quoting freely from the Portuguese, the book is a stunning tribute to his powers of almost instantaneous assimilation. But it also testifies to his corrosive grief. He tries to persuade himself that a land without a past might be a new start for civilization. The real theme, however, has all to do with what he has lost. In Rio de Janeiro, the terrace was almost empty, and in Petrópolis, where he took his own life, there was no terrace at all. I have been there and seen it; and it can be a beautiful place, when the purple quarezmas bloom against the green forest; but it isn’t long before you starve for company.

Nevertheless, his suicide in January 1942 will always be a bit of a mystery. It seems not quite to fit the circumstances: America was in the war, and there was no reason to think that he would not have resumed his glittering international position when the war was over. But we could be dealing with a disposition of mind. Despite his success and his huge range of prominent friends, he had been on the verge of despair for most of his life. He had wanted a depoliticized world, and it was obvious that the war had had the opposite effect: It had shattered the foundations of society, but it had also reinforced politics to the point where nobody was exempt. By 1928, when Germany was enjoying an economic recovery that might have perpetuated the Weimar Republic if the Depression had not sealed democracy’s fate, Zweig had reasons to modify his pessimism. But it deepened because the political divisions in Europe were deepening too. From the start of his waking life, Zweig had staked everything on the concept of a coherent European humanist heritage. After the Nazis got in, there was nowhere for his pessimism to go except further into despair.

Franz Werfel said truly that Zweig was equipped to live in the countries of exile before there was an exile. He was multilingual, he was famous all over the world, his manners were perfect, and there was nowhere that his stream of royalties did not reach. But his personal success meant little to him outside the ambit of its original context. His final breakdown can be seen well under way in the diary that he kept early in World War II. On Page 410, we see that he was already carrying a phial of poison at the time of Dunkirk. On Page 464, “der Epoch der Sicherheit vorbei ist” (the epoch of security is over). The word vorbei keeps cropping up. “It is over. Europe finished, our world destroyed. Now we are truly homeless.”

By “we” Zweig didn’t mean just the Jews, a category in which he was reluctant to believe until he found out the hard way that Hitler did. Zweig meant everyone who had lived for the arts, for scholarship, and for humanism. He was wrong, of course. But that was the way Zweig felt, even as it became clear that the forces of destruction would not win the war. He thought that they had already won the war that mattered. We who grew up in the aftermath have a right to say that his resignation was premature, but we would be very foolish to slight its sincerity. Our united Europe of today will be doing very well if it can restore the qualities of which he was the living representative, and that led him to destroy himself because he thought they were irretrievably vorbei. The price of studying the heritage that produced him is to be steadily invaded by the suspicion that he might have been right. Reader beware.