Stefan Zweig, cultural cosmopolitan.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
April 20 2007 7:13 AM

Stefan Zweig

The incarnation of humanism.

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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. Click image to expand.
Stefan Zweig
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"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.

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