On 23 February 1942, Stefan Zweig sat down at his desk in Petrópolis, Brazil to write a goodbye letter, bearing the simple title “declaração.”
In light of the self-destruction of his “spiritual homeland, Europe,” Zweig wrote, his powers had been “expended after years of wandering homeless.” He wished that his friends may “live to see the dawn after this long night.” All too impatient, he would “go before them.”
Then Zweig and Lotte Altmann, his wife and former secretary, took an overdose of Veronal.
When news of his suicide spread around the world, Thomas Mann, Germany’s (not entirely uncontroversial) poet-in-exile par excellence, lamented “the painful gap that his death [would] leave in the rows of European literary immigrants.”
Others, however, expressed disbelief, incredulity, even incomprehension. Why Zweig, who, exiled from his Austrian homeland, nonetheless enjoyed relative physical and material security, unlike many of his colleagues?
Stefan Zweig was born to a Jewish family in Vienna in the late 19th century, a glistening metropolis and capital of the Vielvölkerstaat that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Briefly carried away by nationalist fervour during the First World War, its “streams of blood” and “torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands” (Erich Maria Remarque) turned Zweig into a committed pacifist for the rest of his life.
Internationalist and cosmopolitan, enamoured with the idea of a united Europe, he saw himself, first and foremost, as a “citizen of the world.”
Zweig’s idealism came to an end with the rise to power of the National Socialists, “the most terrible defeat of reason and the most savage triumph of brutality in the chronicles of time.” When his Salzburg residence, the Paschinger Schlössl atop the Kapuzinerberg, was searched by Chancellor Dollfuß’ Austrofascist police in February 1934, he left Austria for Britain, settling in London, and later in Bath.
Stefan Zweig was one of the most popular authors of his time, not just in Germany, but around the world; the Nazis first burned his books, then banned them.
His literary works reduced to ashes, facing the end of “the world of yesterday,” Zweig sought temporary refuge in Oostende, a Belgian resort town on the North Sea. In the summer of 1936, he was joined by his friend and literary colleague Joseph Roth, himself a Jewish émigré from Galicia. A liberal at heart, nostalgic for the relative tolerance of the Habsburg monarchy, Roth had left Germany for Paris immediately after Hitler’s rise to power.
In Oostende, they would try to halt the course of time.
I visited Oostende for the first time in August. Tall grey buildings frame the waterfront and a long promenade leads from the pier to the kursaal. The sea was shimmering turquoise, and white clouds crowned the sky.
Despite Roth’s and Zweig’s commonalities, theirs was an unequal friendship: descendant of a wealthy family, Zweig lived the life of the bourgeoisie; Roth, an alcoholic and almost always penniless, relied on his friend for support. Though Zweig was known to a greater audience, Roth considered himself the better writer, at times lamenting Zweig’s sensationalist tone. In Oostende, surrounded by Irmgard Keun and Ernst Toller, they wrote, they laughed, and they hoped. A last respite before the inevitable.
The last “summer before the dark” (Volker Weidermann).
Joseph Roth died, aged 44, in May 1939. Following the outbreak of the war, Zweig and Altmann left Britain, first for New York, then Petrópolis. Though warmly received by the Brazilian government, Zweig never fully settled in his new residence. “Hunted through the rapids of life,” Zweig later wrote in his memoir The World of Yesterday, “always driven to the end and obliged to begin again,” comfort had “become an old legend and security, a childish dream.”
He who had fallen in love with the idea of Europe encountered firsthand the forces of destruction it unleashed. He who had grown up steeped in German culture, written his life’s work in German, witnessed the triumph of barbarism, his language that of the murderers. Pain not to be overcome. Every hour of his years “linked to the fate of the world,” nothing was given to him freely; he paid the price in full.
Zweig, in his desperation, placed his belief in the ideals of culture and progress. Yet, Europe of the 20th century, the eternal battleground drenched in the blood of its people, carried the seeds of its own destruction; it does so to this day. Any negation of culture presupposes its understanding, and documents of civilization are documents of barbarism (Walter Benjamin).
Eventually, a peaceful and prosperous Europe arose from the ashes of destruction. But present conditions are neither the inevitable outcome of historical progress, nor will they necessarily persist. The future, unlike the past, is contingent, the descent into barbarism one generation away.
We owe it to Stefan Zweig and the countless victims of European history to ensure that their hopes were not spent in vain.
I returned to Oostende at the end of October. The sky was grey, but light was filtering through the clouds. I imagined Stefan Zweig standing on the promenade overlooking the sea. Waiting for the light. The light of the hour before the sunsets.
The last light before the dawn.