The Impos­si­ble Exile: Ste­fan Zweig at the End of the World

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

The name Ste­fan Zweig may not be famil­iar to many peo­ple, but in the 1930s he was the most wide­ly trans­lat­ed liv­ing author in the world. Zweig, an assim­i­lat­ed Jew who took pride in his athe­ism, was forced, along with many Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als, to leave Vien­na after Hitler’s annex­a­tion of Aus­tria in 1938, which was fol­lowed by the bru­tal treat­ment of its Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. As a famous author in exile, Zweig was lion­ized as he jour­neyed to Lon­don, New York City, Ossin­ing in upstate New York, and final­ly to Brazil, where in 1942 inhe and his sec­ond wife com­mit­ted sui­cide the city of Petropolis . 

George Prochnik’s bril­liant biog­ra­phy details the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of his sub­ject, thus con­vey­ing the strug­gle that exiles like Zweig faced as refugees in coun­tries whose lan­guage, cus­toms, and tra­di­tions were for­eign to them. But there is much more to this biog­ra­phy: Prochnik tells us a great deal about Zweig’s response to Hitler’s per­se­cu­tion of the Jews and, although a friend of Theodore Her­zl, his rejec­tion of Zionism. 

Zweig lament­ed his exile from Vien­na and bit­ter­ly con­tend­ed that the most trag­ic aspect of the Nazi oppres­sion of the Jews was their fail­ure to under­stand why they were tar­get­ed for per­se­cu­tion. At least, he not­ed, their ances­tors in medieval times knew why they suf­fered: for their faith and laws.” But , Zweig argued, twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Jews were no longer a com­mu­ni­ty, that they had dis­card­ed the law and their sense of peo­ple­hood, and only exile held them togeth­er, like dirt in the street.” Med­i­tat­ing on his forced depar­ture from his beloved Vien­na, Zweig asked, Why I? Why you? How do you and I who do not know each oth­er, who speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages, whose think­ing takes dif­fer­ent forms and who have noth­ing in com­mon hap­pen to be here togeth­er?” As Prochnik notes, Zweig approached the injus­tice of anti-Semi­tism by decry­ing the total absence of com­mon ground among Jews them­selves. Zweig, forced to iden­ti­fy with peo­ple who bore no rela­tion to him, had come to see this con­di­tion as the defin­ing expe­ri­ence of exile.

Although Zweig stud­ied Zion­ism almost lit­er­al­ly at Herzl’s feet, he ulti­mate­ly came to the oppo­site con­clu­sion of that which his friend wished to dis­sem­i­nate. Prochnik cites a let­ter which Zweig wrote to Mar­tin Buber in 1917, in which he assert­ed that he had nev­er want­ed Jews to become a nation again and thus low­er itself to tak­ing part with oth­ers in the rival­ry of nations. I love the dias­po­ra and affirm it as the mean­ing of Jew­ish ide­al­ism, as Jewry’s cos­mopoli­tan human mis­sion.” With the advent of Nazi Ger­many and its bar­bar­ic response to civ­i­lized human­i­ty, Zweig feared that the objec­tive of Zion­ism would result in the dan­ger­ous real­i­ty of a Jew­ish state like all the oth­ers with can­nons, flags, and medals.” In response to the spread of fas­cism and the Nazi objec­tive to rid Europe of its Jews, Zweig held fast and argued that the Jews’ sacred mis­sion” was not to cre­ate still anoth­er state but to serve as the gad­fly which plagues the mangy beast of nation­al­ism,” and to work for the dis­so­lu­tion of nation­al­ist ten­den­cies.… These Jews with­out a coun­try are the best assis­tants of the good Euro­peans of the future.”

Relat­ed Content

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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