Stefan Zweig and the world in flames

The Austrian-Jewish writer’s era between the two world wars ominously echoes our own.

Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig in 1900. Photo: public domain/Wikimedia
Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig in 1900. Photo: public domain/Wikimedia
Erik Arnold
Erik Arnold

This past February marked 80 years since the suicide in Brazil of the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. The fate of this outstanding literary figure, who in his cosmopolitan pursuits epitomized Nietzsche’s concept of the “good European,” is a reflection not only of troubled times past but also our tumultuous present. Indeed, the parallels between the interwar period and the contemporary era are quite striking, especially as they relate to the Jews.

Zweig was a product of the liberal period in late 19th-century Austrian society. This was a time when civil liberties for all citizens, including Jews, were guaranteed by law and the fanaticisms of the past seemed to be confined to the history books. In keeping with this zeitgeist, Zweig was educated in the literary culture of “Weimar humanism” as represented by Goethe and Schiller. However, his self-confident world would be shattered by World War I and the subsequent devastating inflation.

The peak of Zweig’s fame was during the interwar years, when irrationalist extremism reached a crescendo with the rise to power of Bolshevism in Russia, Fascism in Italy and, in 1933, National Socialism in Germany. Ease of movement between countries was brought to a screeching halt and nationalist antipathies came to the fore. Antisemitism reared its ugly head with a ferocity worthy of the darkest period of medieval oppression. Zweig, with his exceptionally sensitive cultural antennae, was well aware of the shadow gradually descending upon the world.

Many of these issues are given literary expression in the 1929 short story “Buchmendel.” It recounts the tragic destiny of Jacob Mendel, a Jewish immigrant who leaves his birthplace in Russian-ruled Poland for a new life in Vienna, initially intending to become a rabbi. Instead, he establishes himself at the Café Gluck, where he becomes a well-known book dealer whose astounding bibliographic knowledge earns him the respect of scholars and antiquarians alike.

But Mendel’s bibliophilic leanings prove to be his undoing. An exchange of postcards with booksellers in the belligerent nations of France and England at the height of World War I leads to his internment by the Austrian authorities as an enemy alien. He is eventually freed through the intervention of influential patrons, but returns to Vienna a broken man. He is subsequently expelled from the Café Gluck by its new owner and ends his days as a homeless beggar who dies of pneumonia.

The story can be read as an allegory of Jewish life in Western Europe, particularly in its German-speaking half. Like many “Ostjuden”—eastern European Jews—before him, Mendel leaves his home in the east, abandons his traditional lifestyle and assimilates into Western culture. And as it was for many of his Jewish contemporaries, this seeming success in the gentile world is an illusion ending in rejection by the host society and expulsion from the newly acquired “home.”

It is interesting to compare Mendel with the famous non-Jewish author Thomas Mann’s creation Chaim Breisacher, a character featured in the 1947 novel Doctor Faustus. Zweig’s “Buchmendel” is a brilliant man who has jettisoned the Jewish orthodoxy of his birth in order to dedicate himself completely to the secular values of European culture. By contrast, Mann’s Dr. Breisacher—a caricature of the biblical scholar and mystic Oskar Goldberg—is essentially a proto-Nazi whose encyclopedic knowledge has a strongly sinister caste to it. The difference between these characters is palpable and reflects the profound dichotomy between the two writers in regard to their respective evaluations of the Jew’s role in European society.

Unlike many of his German-speaking brethren, Zweig did not view Jewishness as a burden to be shed. Nor was he attracted to the early Zionist movement. (Ironically, during Theodor Herzl’s tenure as literary editor of the Neue Freie Presse, he published much of Zweig’s early work.) Zweig was simply indifferent to things Jewish. However, the increasingly antisemitic atmosphere of the late 1930s forced him to reevaluate his identity, resulting in the 1936 mystical tale “The Buried Candelabrum,” a paean to Jewish survival throughout the ages despite fierce persecution.

In those interwar years, much like today, the world seemed to be in flux. Old empires disappeared, the prevailing moral code melted away (in his book of memoirs The World of Yesterday, Zweig writes of a blurring of lines between the sexes, something hitherto unknown), economic chaos reigned supreme and political figures lost their former high standing in the eyes of the public. Today is not so different. The unraveling of the post-Cold War order has seen the decline of the current great powers, a collapse in the status of most political figures, widespread moral confusion and increasing economic instability.

The present age, much like Zweig’s, is also marked by a strong irrational current permeating every facet of society, politics as a mass phenomenon dominated by emotional response rather than rational calculation and race-hate masquerading as a form of justified social grievance. Likewise, seemingly well-integrated Jewish communities are losing their moorings in the developing chaos.

Stefan Zweig, a lover of freedom, champion of art, unabashed idealist and assimilated Jew, was an unfortunate casualty of the destruction of the prevailing world order. He tried to avoid the highly politicized, antisemitic atmosphere of the time by embracing a rarefied world of high culture dedicated to furthering humane ideals available to all individuals of goodwill. However, the crush of events destroyed this illusion and forced the celebrity author into a permanent life of wandering, which he terminated by his own hand.

With the present-day recrudescence of the ugly conflicts of the past, the life of Stefan Zweig should serve as a warning that the most exalted ideals, if not grounded in reality, are helpless before the crude discourse of an increasingly anarchic society. Bearing this warning in mind, it is important to ensure that his death was not in vain.

Erik Arnold is a freelance writer whose work on cultural and political issues has appeared in a variety of publications.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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