Stefan Zweig and the Long Night’s Dawn

June 22, 2014   •   By Morten Høi Jensen

The Impossible Exile

George Prochnik

WRITING from his American exile in the late 1940s, the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch composed a bitter indictment of the Viennese society in which he grew up, and whose exalted golden age he now viewed as little more than a dubious facade. Vienna, he wrote in his book-length essay Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, was the center of a kind of post-1848 European value vacuum. “It was really far less a city of art than a city of decoration par excellence […] A minimum of ethical values was to be masked by a maximum of aesthetic values.” Broch, who narrowly escaped the concentration camps thanks to a campaign led by James Joyce, had witnessed firsthand a decline of civilized society so steep that it forced him to question whether that society had ever really existed in the first place. Or if it did, why it had been so easily disfigured? What good were all the books and paintings and scientific advances, the sculptures and symphonies and psychiatric paradigms, when it could be toppled so easily by the same society that had nourished it? How could 200,000 residents of a city whose shining stars included names like Mahler, Freud, Schnitzler, and Zweig, converge on Heldenplatz to applaud their invasion by Nazi Germany?

Few writers pondered these questions more intimately, and with greater personal consequence than Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer currently enjoying a wave of popularity in England and America. In the opening pages of his celebrated memoir The World of Yesterday (1941), which describes his own experience of leaving the world he had loved, Zweig considered the rationalistic faith in progress that characterized his parents’ generation — the same generation Broch now held in such scorn. It was, Zweig wrote, “[an] idealistically blinded generation,” duped by the notion that great advances in science and technology necessarily spelled great moral advancement. He credited Freud with having anticipated what the First World War brutally affirmed: that culture and civilization “were merely a thin layer liable at any moment to be pierced by the destructive forces of the ‘underworld.’”

But where Hermann Broch ultimately saw “one of the most wretched” facades in human history, Zweig recognized “a wonderful and noble delusion.” Yes, he said, Viennese society rested on a delusion — at times a dangerous one. Yes, the optimism of the previous generation was unforgivably misguided. Yes, the slaughter of 1914–1918 reversed the tide of progress. Yes to all that. And yet: “[T]here is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely,” he confessed. “That which, in his childhood, a man has drawn into his blood out of the air of time cannot be taken from him.” 

Zweig did not write these words in wistful remembrance of a bygone time. On the contrary, as George Prochnik shows in his subtle new book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (Other Press), he wrote them in a state of almost complete despair. For no matter where they eventually found themselves — London, Bath, Manhattan, Ossining, Brazil — Stefan Zweig and Lotte Altmann, his young second wife, never managed to regain the ground that had disappeared beneath them when they first went into exile in 1934. Prochnik’s moving account of their final years reveals a slow but irreversible unraveling: it is a sensitive, painful document of the breaking down of individual human beings by the very forces that were meant to save them. “Zweig,” Prochnik writes, “offers a formula for toxic migration — what might be called Lot’s wife syndrome. Understanding to a fault the difference between his former home and his current environs, he could not stop looking back over his shoulder.” 

The Impossible Exile combines biography with criticism and traces Zweig’s years of exile — the years spent writing The World of Yesterday and trying in vain to find a new home for himself and Lotte. Prochnik, whose own father likewise escaped Hitler’s Vienna, displays great powers of compassion and empathy toward his wounded subject, and for the fate of exiles in general. It’s hard to imagine a better book about Zweig, or one more worthy of so complex and multi-faceted a personage. “Zweig’s life on the run draws me in,” Prochnik explains, “in part for the way it presents, as in a tableau vivant, archetypal stages of refugee experience shared by others fleeing a state turned murderous. His story is particularly revealing for what it says about the predicaments of exile that aren’t resolved when freedom is regained.” And as Prochnik reminds his readers on more than one occasion, this predicament is by now so common that it has become, for millions, an inherited condition of life. 


Zweig’s life started auspiciously. Long before he was flung into wartime limbo, he was one of the most widely read authors in Europe. He made his literary debut at 19 with a collection of poems, Silberne Saiten, and shortly after became a contributor to the Neue Freie Presse. In Europe between the World Wars, he became celebrated for his stories and novellas, as well as his biographies of Casanova, Marie Antoinette, and Maria Stuart, and saw more than a few of his books optioned by Hollywood studios. He also wrote plays and librettos, collected manuscripts and literary knickknacks, was vocally pan-European and quietly pansexual. He befriended Theodor Herzl, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud, and was a regular fixture of coffeehouses, restaurants, and hotels across the continent. In photos from this time, he is always elegant and immaculately dressed, neatly groomed, daintily poised, and with a jocular expression characteristic of him — the expression of an eccentric uncle who has just told a dirty joke. 

But Zweig’s cosmopolitanism and pacifism was viewed by many as naïve or, at worst, fraudulent. It was all well and good to advocate European unification and warn of the dangers of nationalism — but in the wake of World War I, with the entire continent in territorial shambles, such an ambition required more than high-minded platitudes. Zweig therefore attracted his fair share of scorn from those with more directly political proclivities. The acerbic Karl Kraus, unsurprisingly, couldn’t abide him (when Kraus was told that Zweig’s novellas had conquered every language on earth, he quipped: “Except one”), but even among friends and contemporaries it was not uncommon to speak condescendingly of Zweig. Set against the gargantuan modernist tomes being written at the time, Zweig’s novellas seemed pedestrian and quaint. Hofmannsthal and Joseph Roth both dispraised him, Thomas Mann plainly thought him a bad writer, and when a friend suggested to Robert Musil that he apply for a visa to Colombia in 1940, Musil protested on grounds of proximity: “Stefan Zweig’s in South America.” For Musil, apparently, anywhere in the same continent with Zweig was too close for comfort.

In an impassioned and damning essay written just a few years ago, the poet and translator Michael Hofmann said “there is something touchingly wrong about Zweig,” and this is no doubt true — Zweig’s politics, and his response to a world in crisis, do sometimes seem shallow and “wrong.” In 1935, while the Nuremberg laws were being enforced, Zweig told a reporter that “to be intellectual is to be too just, to understand the opponent and thus weaken the conviction of your own righteousness.” This faith in the power of intellectual enlightenment against the awesome military might of the Third Reich, particularly at a time when like-minded intellectuals in Spain, France, Norway, Poland, and Denmark were being liquidated for their participation in underground resistance movements, is tempting to dismiss as calamitously naive. But given the luxury of hindsight I am equally tempted to ask, as Prochnik does, whether Zweig’s appeal to understand rather than demonize might not be something worth admiring rather than simply scoffing at—especially if one takes into account the deranged nonsense other writers and philosophers were spouting at the time.

In any case, Zweig was not blind to the warning signs, and he began his exile as early as 1934, at which time his books were being burned alongside those of Thomas Mann. After a few years in London he wound up in New York City, which he had visited previously, and which during the war served as the transit area of Europe’s intellectual exiles — the place from which they eventually dispersed to California or Mexico or South America.

The majority of The Impossible Exile recounts Zweig’s time in America, a world in which he never really managed to fit, and where he often cut a tragicomic figure — tragic, because he had been forced to leave the continent whose cultural project he so deeply believed in, and comic because everything about America seemed to disagree with him — its mass culture, mass fashion, and mass cinema. George Prochnik reveals how New York City in particular grated on Zweig’s frayed nerves; the city was intrusive and overpopulated, its climate unbearable during summer months, and its ridiculous wealth a blind eye to the suffering of the world. America beyond New York was inexplicably uniform; everywhere the same drab streets with the same drab stores. “Is there anything sadder than a provincial American Main Street?” Zweig asked. “At ten o’clock the lights go down, a few cars are parked here and there, a few trucks rumble past, otherwise all life is at an end, as in the grave.” 

Of course it’s easy to dismiss as ridiculous this affluent scion of European high culture squirming among the mobs of New York City, pining for a decent coffeehouse, wondering why the city wasn’t closer to Whitman’s poeticized version of it. But for Zweig and millions of other people, life had made a rapid about-face into a tragedy on an unprecedentedly epic scale, and if arriving in America was not what they had imagined, it is in part because America did not exactly greet them with open arms. “[T]he difficulties of reaching America due to the war, the Depression, and bureaucracy-mired visa restrictions,” Prochnik notes, “combined to make the number of immigrants to the United States between 1931 and 1945 the lowest they had been in more than a hundred years.” Though existing immigration laws should have allowed for more than two million quota immigrants in that period, only 377,597 were admitted. Worse, “the estimated number of actual refugees admitted to the States during the core decade of Nazi rule lay somewhere between just two and three thousand people.”

Because he was seen as something of an exile veteran, and certainly as a “Good European,” Zweig became, in Prochnik’s phrase, “a one-man welfare office.” Using his connections and his reputation, he managed to secure visas and traveling funds for refugees all over Europe. But the greater the flood of refugees streaming into America, the greater the burden on Zweig’s time, patience, and mental well-being. In the end he couldn’t keep up with his own reputation for charity, and his hotel room at the Wyndham became a fragile sanctuary from the swelling demands of life beyond its walls. 

The massive influx of refugees from Vienna, Paris, Prague, and Berlin was like a perverted version of Zweig’s dream of a Europe beyond borders. “I belong nowhere,” he wrote, “and everywhere am a stranger, a guest at best.” When the war officially broke out, Zweig was living in England; overnight, his status changed from “alien” to “enemy alien,” and he was required to remain within five miles of the center of Bath. “Never in my life had I been so cruelly conscious of man’s helplessness against world events,” he wrote in his memoir. A few pages earlier, he offered up a lament that anyone who has passed through the arbitrary dread of immigration offices across the world are likely to share:

If I reckon up the many forms I have filled out during these years, declarations on every trip, tax declarations, foreign exchange certificates, border passes, entrance permits, departure permits, registrations on coming and on going; the many hours I have spent in anterooms of consulates and officials, the many inspectors, friendly and unfriendly, bored and overworked, before whom I have sat, the many examinations and interrogations at frontiers I have been through, then I feel keenly how much human dignity has been lost in this century which, in our youth, we credulously dreamed of as one of freedom, as of the federation of the world. The loss in creative work, in thought, as a result of those spirit-crushing procedures, is incalculable.

Yet on the following page he makes an important concession: “It may be that I had been too greatly pampered.” This insight, though it comes late in The World of Yesterday, is a central one. Zweig’s world, this world of yesterday, the lost world of his parents’ generation, was undoubtedly a pampered one, and though he admits to the nobility of that world’s delusion, Zweig wrote his memoir partly as an indictment of it. When he last saw Vienna in 1937 he was shocked to find that life was going on as if news of events in neighboring Germany had not yet reached the city. “Everybody I spoke to in Vienna showed an honest unconcern,” he observed. There were lavish parties and eager Christmas shopping all around. Vienna simply went about its old business — and Zweig was horrified. “This eternal gay unconcern of old Vienna which I had formerly so much loved and which, as a matter of fact, I am always redreaming, this gay unconcern which Vienna’s poet laureate Anzengruber once caught concisely in Es kann Dir nix g’schehn — for the first time it gave me pain.” 

The final chapters of Prochnik’s book make for difficult and unsettling reading because they record the dénouement of this pain: the complex and elusive interval between the Zweigs’ arrival in Brazil in September 1941 and their shocking double suicide six months later, in February 1942. 

Why he chose Brazil of all places is not entirely clear. The country’s beauty had struck him on his first visit there in 1936, as had the vague prospect of “an entirely new civilization.” Presumably, the chief attraction of Brazil was that it was not Europe and not America. Whereas the old continent was now in cultural ruins as far as Zweig was concerned, Brazil offered the prospect of a future. It was a country that was “still as much terra incognita in the cultural sense as it was to the first seafarers in the geographical sense,” he wrote. In other words, it was a world in which one might imagine an alternative cultural project to the one that was now little more than smoky embers on the ground in Europe. 

From a certain perspective Zweig seems to have come entirely undone in Brazil. He wrote an odd, exoticizing book about the country and in it paid tribute to then-dictator Getúlio Vargas, whose record of anti-Semitism and suppression of political opposition should have been alarming. When writers like Jorge Amado and Carlos Drummond de Andrade wondered publically whether Zweig had been paid to write it, a small controversy ensued. Prochnik is surely right in his characterization of Zweig’s apologist stance toward the Vargas regime as an “overheated gesture of gratitude,” though he also sees the episode as an act of self-preservation. Zweig, after all, was a stateless, Jewish writer in a world violently inhospitable to his kind.

It is also possible that Zweig simply no longer had the strength or courage to go on fighting for life, or what little of it there remained. “He could not overcome the sense that he no longer belonged anywhere,” Prochnik writes. “In everything he did now there were overtones of the end of everything. The lure of nothingness. There was everything and nothing, and nothing any longer to choose between them.”

But choose he did, and Lotte along with him. The photo opposite Prochnik’s “Epilogue” on page 350 shows the deceased couple in the position in which they were discovered almost a full day later: stretched out on their bed, Zweig’s mouth slightly ajar, Lotte’s hand on her husband’s. On the bedside table next to them a few remnants of life linger: an empty beer bottle, a matchbook, a handful of coins. There is something crumpled up there too — perhaps a handkerchief Zweig used to wipe away his last beads of sweat?

The most unsettling aspect of their suicide is the mystery of Lotte. The fact that Zweig “created a situation where his young wife, whom he did deeply love, felt no choice but to accompany him,” Prochnik writes, casts Zweig’s own grief in a selfish, dangerous light. Worse, forensic evidence show that Lotte died later than her husband, which raises the possibility of doubt, hesitancy, or second thoughts. Then there are the police photos that appear to suggest that Lotte must have moved onto her side, closer to Zweig, and placed her hands on top of his. Prochnik explores a number of possible scenarios that could explain this, but what actually went through Lotte’s mind in the interval between her husband’s death and her own is appalling to consider. 

Shock and shame at the death of Stefan Zweig rippled through the lives of European exiles everywhere. “Many men of feeling,” wrote the French writer André Maurois, “must have meditated, the day when they learned of this double suicide, on a responsibility which belongs to us all and on the shame of a civilization that can create a world in which Stefan Zweig cannot live.” Klaus Mann, then living in exile in New York City, recorded his disbelief in his diary: “The news of Stefan Zweig’s suicide in Brazil was so utterly unexpected that I at first I refused to believe it,” he wrote. “The humanist and zealous man of letters, the connoisseur and creator of subtle, lovable things — he could not bear the gruesome spectacle of a world bursting asunder.”

And yet, as The World of Yesterday testifies, Zweig had witnessed this gruesome spectacle unfold several times over. Stefan Zweig’s world was almost always a world in which Stefan Zweig could not live; from 1914 until his death almost 30 years later, the events of his life made a mockery of his dream of a peaceful, unified Europe. The First World War, the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, the rise of fascism, the Anschluss of Austria, the outbreak of the Second World War — these events all took place as Zweig’s literary star ascended, and the intellectual and artistic capitals of Europe welcomed him with open arms. Perhaps Zweig’s personal success helped buffer him from the larger sorrows around him. “It was a comparatively peaceful time for Europe,” Zweig wrote, “this decade from 1924 to 1933, until that one man confused our world.” And yet the grand old house in Salzburg where Zweig had lived with Friederike, his first wife, and which had been a sort of microcosm of European culture, with the likes of Romain Rolland, Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and James Joyce among its guests, was also the house from which Zweig had a view of Berchtesgaden, Adolf Hitler’s vacation residence. Who knows if they looked in one another’s direction in the summer of 1926, say, when Hitler was writing the second volume of Mein Kampf, and Zweig his latest batch of novellas and stories?

The point is that European culture blossomed as the seeds of its destruction were being sown. The great achievement of The World of Yesterday is that it encapsulates this tortured dialectic; it is a document of the discovery that barbarism, as the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has written, is “not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step.”

Zweig surely had no more faithful shadow than Adolf Hitler — that failed artist whose ideology was reared in the same city that inspired Zweig’s humanism. “I owe it to that period that I grew hard and am still capable of being hard,” Hitler wrote of his years of misery in Vienna, during which he was rejected twice by the Academy of Fine Arts and discovered the “two menaces”: Marxism and Jewry. It was the very literary milieu Zweig thrived in and later exalted that so incensed Hitler. “The fact that nine tenths of all literary filth, artistic trash, and theatrical idiocy,” he wrote of the city’s Jewish intellectual dominance, “can be set to the account of a people, constituting hardly one hundredth of all the country’s inhabitants, could simply not be talked away; it was the plain truth.”

It is a cruel irony that these two men, Zweig the humanist and Hitler the anti-humanist, who came from similar backgrounds and whose lives often overlapped, and yet who were each other’s polar opposites in almost every conceivable way, should end up taking leave of this world in an almost identical fashion. Ironic, but telling. “The artists and intellectuals in Vienna,” Prochnik remarks, “were grappling with many of the same problems and aspirations that fueled the violent passions of their archenemies.” For Hitler, the solution was the dominance of a single nationalist culture, whereas Zweig desired the transcendence of nations by culture. Thus Mein Kampf, as Prochnik says, “swells into a hysterical hymn against exile,” while The World of Yesterday opens with an expression of the newfound liberty of the exile and the emigrant: “The homeless man becomes free in a new sense; and only he who has lost all ties need have no arrière-pensèe.”   

The tragedy of Zweig is that his life bears testimony to the almost unbearable weight of this new freedom. In the end, he was not able to fulfill its potential. “I salute all my friends!” he wrote in his suicide note. “May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night!” One of those friends, Klaus Mann, wrote in his diary shortly after Zweig’s death that the question is no longer one of exile or return but “whether there will be a world for people like us to live in, to work for.” In the event of Allied victory, he claimed, the new world “will accept and need our services: the services of men such as I — versed in various idioms and traditions, experienced go-betweens, mediators, and interpreters, fore-runners and agents of the super-national civilization to be constructed. The drama of our deracination may turn out to be the most effective training for the vast and delicate task ahead.” 

As recent events in Europe demonstrate, history has been less kind to these words than Mann might have imagined. But for this very reason the drama of Zweig and Mann’s deracination, along with the ongoing drama of exiles everywhere, deserves our understanding and empathy. “Shall I ever live in Germany again?” Mann wondered. “I don’t think so,” he decided. “I have gone far — too far, indeed, to go back. I must go further, forward — or else I shall go astray."


Morten Høi Jensen is a writer from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has contributed to Bookforum, Salon, and The Millions, among others.