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Stefan Zweig or Liberalism as Fate

“And meet the time as it seeks us.” With this quote from Shakespeare, Stefan Zweig begins his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, a precise reproduction of the tragic sentiment that envelops the course of his life.

An intellectual who never hid his liberal affiliation or his cosmopolitan, pro-European, bourgeoisie spirit, Zweig went to pieces with the collapse of the civilization he called his own. The sudden rise of totalitarian savagery was the cause. These lines, written just before he committed suicide, are a good example: “All my life I believed in the power words have on the world, but it is the brute force that triumphs… All my life I wished for great progress to be made in the social arena, and here the fanatical masses destroy my existence…  I extolled the power of democracy, and now it reveals its tragic weakness to us… I dreamed of living without ties, like a citizen of the world, free of all nationalities, and now I miss my native Austria terribly… I praised the merits of progress, because I believed in them wholeheartedly, and instead savagery arrived… I was marveled by the wonders of science, but they were only used to manufacture weapons with which to annihilate the people… I imagined experiencing a second Renaissance of humanity, and I have to see how it falls to pieces… All my life was nothing but a mistake, a bad dream from which I have awoken too late.”

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Taken from the work that Jean Jacques Lafaye devoted to Zweig entitled European Nostalgia, this paragraph sketches out the personal path followed by a man who suffered through the end of an era and the beginning of another that was the polar opposite of its predecessor. His words carry tangible proof of the drama shared by millions of Europeans who grew up in the shadow of nineteenth-century security. This security, however, vanished into thin air with the “storms of steel” that Jünger saw break out during the five years of the First World War. A collective drama that took with it the confidence and projects of a whole era, leaving its survivors at the mercy of desperation, which led to the totalitarianism that took over in the period between the wars.

In this sense, Stefan Zweig is a fascinating figure, politically. Unlike others that grew up and were educated in the same environment, he wasn’t seduced by the totalitarian siren song that broke out in the 1920s and 1930s. His liberalism is exemplary, even in its contradictions. His defense of this liberalism intensified over the years, taking the form of a sort of commitment that he came to identify with his own personal fate. So much so that when he perceived that the victory of Nazi Germany was inevitable, his opposition to events flagged completely as he felt liberal civilization was doomed to disappear. In fact, the peace he experienced on the periphery of the Second World War fronts wasn’t enough for someone who, as Paul Celan would say of himself, was living, wounded by reality.

This is why he took his own life in February 1942: because not even in the Brazilian city of Petropolis where he took refuge could he find the cherished inner peace that had disappeared long ago, when his beloved Austria ceased to exist; when, according to Franz Werfel, those born in the old Austria lost their home and became rootless beings full of nostalgia and grief; when nothing and no one could console the orphans of an extinguished world; when melancholy became the perpetual companion of those who lived in this fallen empire of which only ruins of an irretrievable yesterday survived.

The construction of the Arcadian myth: The world of yesterday

Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. It was the year 1881. The son of an important textile mogul, his family enjoyed one of the Empire’s great fortunes. In addition to the well-off position of his paternal family, his mother’s brought the distinction of elegance: the Brettauers were from a long line of Jewish bankers with financial interests linked to the Vatican. Zweig grew up in a cosmopolitan household, where speaking a number of languages was not only looked upon favorably but was necessary, due to the diverse origins of his relatives. This need was fed by the fact that they lived in the capital of a multiethnic empire that was the crossroads of all paths through Central Europe. A Babel in which the joy of living projected an aura of effervescent diversity in which language was more than just a mere means for communication, it was an open door to that introspection and aesthetic projection that words arouse when they are seen as art.

Zweig’s Vienna embodies the “world of security” described in his autobiography to perfection, a world identified with the era ranging from Napoleon’s defeat to the First World War. The purest expression of this world’s achievements and contradictions would be the Hapsburg monarchy. In this context, Vienna was the apotheosis of this media hyper-security despite the fact that Walter Benjamin had said that Paris was the capital of the 19th century. Perhaps this was because the former more clearly embodied the latent threat of the ghosts that emerged from the revolution of 1848: communism and nationalism. Wasn’t that the reason why the Krausian atmosphere of a “happy apocalypse” took on such an expressive form in Vienna? In reality, wasn’t the Hapsburg capital a sort of historical powder keg: that “center of the emptiness of European values”, according to Hermann Broch, that exploded so easily when disaster hit in 1914?

Vienna was home to the squaring of the Austrian circle. Musil’s Kakania “was liberal, but its system of government was clerical. The system of government was clerical, but the general attitude to life was liberal. Before the law all citizens were equal, but not everyone, of course, was a citizen.

There was a parliament, which made such vigorous use of its liberty that it was usually kept shut; but there was also an emergency powers act by means of which it was possible to manage without Parliament, and every time when everyone was just beginning to rejoice in absolutism, the Crown decreed that there must now again be a return to parliamentary government.” This squaring of the circle described by Musil made Vienna its spigot: the escape valve for all the contradictions and paradoxes that surrounded daily life in an Empire so uniquely exceptional that it adopted a compound name in order to identify itself as such: Austria-Hungary.

Perhaps for that same reason, art was the fruit of so much tension and the cause of the splendor created in “turn-of-the-century” Austria, because, as José María Valverde notes, “In that crowded end-of-century Vienna, those we now remember as great men were watching each other, listening to and reading each other, applauding and attacking each other in cafés, in the press, in the university, in exhibits, in the theatre, in politics, as well as constantly discussing the news that arrived from Paris and Berlin… And all this with elegant despondency, partly personal but partly due to an awareness that the country -the Empire- didn’t have any real chance at greatness in a modern sense, despite the boastful architecture of the new Viennese Ring.”

Zweig’s condition is key to analyzing his liberalism. Above all because the Austria-Hungary of the 1880s in which he was born experienced a sort of golden age of liberalism. As Valverde continues to analyze in Viena, fin de imperio [Vienna, End of Empire], “Having arrived to power not through its own efforts but due to a temporary absence of other forces, [Austrian liberalism was a] liberalism in terms of liberté with regard to money and commerce, but without much interest in egalité, and with fraternité relegated only to innocuous issues.

Thus an upper-class bourgeoisie dominated, which had come to govern without a fight and was concerned above all with making the most of the establishment, with neither renewal nor evolution.” In this sense, one aspect of Austrian liberalism was the legal emancipation of the Jewish people and their subsequent political and cultural rise, which was particularly significant in Vienna. In fact, descendants of the two hundred families that were authorized to live within the Vienna walls before the Decree of October 1860 became a select and powerful minority that took on a markedly secular nature and that, ennobled in part by the emperor, led Freud to say that inside the briefcase of every hard-working Jewish child, one could glimpse the portfolio of a future minister.

Zweig belonged to one of those influential families. And although he didn’t relinquish the faith of his ancestors, he was one of the Jews that affirmed his Hebrew identity by submerging himself in the cultural magma that emanated from the German language. Especially when through this language, as A. Janik and S. Toulmir explain in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, the reformist project of Austrian liberalism moved ahead, unveiling the expressive power and cultural energy of the German Volk, since, “What poets were there to compare to Goethe or Hölderlin? What composers were of the rank of Mozart, Gluck and Beethoven, not to mention Wagner?” Hannah Arendt criticized this very attitude exemplified by Zweig, believing that most Viennese Jews of that class had renounced Hebrew culture. Locked away in their “ivory tower”, the “golden slats on the shutters of their confinement were too narrow, depriving them of any view or perception” of the world beyond, so that the Jews living within their walls, like Zweig, became inactive and self-excluding creatures that separated and marginalized themselves in an elite ghetto that avoided any affirmation of its own identity through Judaism.

Nevertheless, this attitude of aesthetic and cultural preference, so exclusive in the eyes of Arendt, was what made the Jewish elite the intellectual backbone around which the Austrian spiritual space was built, and in particular the metaphysical space of its capital. It was the families of the upper-class Jewish bourgeoisie that made Vienna a sumptuous museum, as Broch points out in Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his time, “Vienna confused culture with ‘museumness’ and became a museum to itself…The ‘museumness’ was reserved for Vienna as a sign of ruin, an Austrian sign of ruin. For in despondency decay leads to vegetating, but in wealth it leads to the museum.”

Museum of a nearly millenary monarchy or not, in Zweig’s eyes Vienna exemplified the conservative Arcadia that the First World War had destroyed. And the liberalism that governed the tolerant and, at the same time, orthodoxically heterodox end-of-century Austria, wasn’t the radical, combative liberalism that ended the rule of the French Bourbons nor that which was faced with English electoral reforms beginning in the 1930s. No, Austrian liberalism in its most fatigued perception is linked to the French doctrinarian model, although it was not as successful. Carl Schorske explained this in Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. He says “Austrian liberalism, like that of most European nations, had its heroic age in the struggle against aristocracy and baroque absolutism. This ended in the stunning defeat of 1848. The chastened liberals came to power and established a constitutional regime in the 1860s almost by default. Not their own internal strength, but the defeats of the old order at the hands of foreign enemies brought the liberals to the helm of state. From the first, they had to share their power with the aristocracy and the imperial bureaucracy. Even during their two decades of rule, the liberals’ social base remained weak, confined to the middle-class Germans and German Jews of the urban centers.”

This identification of Austrian liberalism with the Jewish community is prototypical of Zweig and, along with it, the belief that the essence of Austria was identified with moderation and the balance sought by a constitutional regime that, as Kelsen later saw, made the empire of law and juridical formalism the foundation of stability and cohesion, which were essential to the survival of a multinational State that could not hide the profound centrifugal tendencies at its heart. In one way or another, with its ups and downs, the Austrian liberals’ project came to be identified with the empire, as they had transformed it into a constitutional monarchy in which they shared the government with the aristocrats; they had established a vigorous administration based on the meritocracy that structured the Hapsburg State; and they had substituted superstitious catholic feudalism for a modern scientific rationalism that was firmly rooted in the prestigious Austrian university.

Nevertheless, faced with the “rule of the liberal bourgeoisie and the culture of law”, Austria soon set to work devising a reaction that over time made it easier to destroy the monarchy. As Schorske points out in Thinking with History, the ups and downs of Austrian university life clearly show this. And thus, “Whereas in 1848 the university had been the center of the revolt against aristocratic authority in the name of a culture of law, after 1880 it became the center of the revolt against bourgeois authority in the name of a culture of communitarian feeling… once more detached from the rationalist tradition.” This way, new generations came to occupy a new moral front that criticized the modern rational State and the scientific spirit that dominated liberal Austria, opening up powerful fault lines in the emotional foundation that supported the “world of security” that later Zweig so desired.

But that liberal era, in the words of Friedjung, was destroyed once and for all by the degradation that stemmed from the rise of a society of the masses and the symbolic revolutionary forces linked to it: socialism and nationalism. The anti-Hapsburg alliance was determinant in this sense. Zweig experienced this when, in commenting on the creation of Alder’s Social Democratic party, he points out that from the moment the proletariat obtained universal suffrage, “it became apparent how thin though highly valuable a layer of liberalism had been. With it conciliation disappeared from public political life, interests hit hard against interests and the struggle began.”

The imperial whole that had been a type of organic cosmos formally blanketed in liberalism became an umbilical cord that linked the different ethnic groups, classes and religions that lived inside its borders. Therefore, the attack on liberalism was, in the long-term, an attack on the stability of the monarchy and, in the end, its demise.

Nevertheless, the fact that Austrian liberals were unable to deal with the problems unleashed by the industrialization and urbanization of central European culture, led to the detachment of those who, once committed to the liberal project, later led its downfall. According to A. Janik and S. Toulmin, this is what happened with Victor Adler, founder of the Social Democratic Party; Karl Lueger, Christian Socialist demagogue; Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism; and Georg Ritter von Schönerer, nationalist fanatic of Austrian pan-Germanism. All of these figures started out as liberals, until the rational politics defended by Austrian liberalism began to wane in the 1880s.

Zweig’s yearning for the late monarchy is revealing. He contrasted all that the consummation of mass society represented in the time between the two world wars with the memory of an Austria in which “People got along together more peaceably… [So that] man was not separated from man by absurd theories of blood, race and origin,” perhaps because “not yet had every herd and mass feeling become so disgustingly powerful in public life as today. Freedom in one’s private affairs, which is no longer considered comprehensible, was taken for granted. One did not look down upon tolerance as one does today as weakness and softness, but rather praised it as an ethical force.” Freedom of action and tolerance were, therefore, the virtues upon which political respectability were founded, in Zweig’s eyes. Above all because he himself embodied the casually aforementioned traits, which were related to the essence of that threatened monarchy which aspired to formalize a liberal program that elite Jews seeking a way to express their excellence as a mobilizing minority identified with, choosing spiritual elevation through mastery of  the arts and of intellectual pursuits to do so.

Zweig forged his creative identity in this context of the rise of the society of the masses and the dismantling of sociopolitical structures, accepting the professional path set for him by his family, which destined him to bring cultural glory to his father’s surname, while his older brother took over the family business. His early work with Neue Freie Presse is already emblematic of this path. Funded by the Rothschilds, director Mortiz Benedikt, who was also Jewish, had turned this newspaper into an organ of the liberal bourgeoisie, which, according to Zweig, “because of its political prestige, assumed in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy a role not unlike that of the Times in England or the Temps in France… It was progressive and liberal in its views, prudent and cautious in its politics; and it represented the high cultural aspirations of the old Austria in an exemplary fashion.” It was precisely in this journal that Zweig began his intellectual career. And he did so writing articles for a paper that personified the mythical Arcadia recalled years later.

Zweig’s first trips abroad took him, first, to Berlin and, later, to Paris and Brussels. The friendship he forged with the poet Verhaeren led him to see this man as a type of European Walt Whitman. A creative figure committed to Democracy, Progress and Science: the proselytizer of an admirable Europe that, through its conquests, spread faith in the values of the Enlightenment and of which Paris was the indisputable vanguard, given that “The street belonged to everybody. No one was embarrassed in the presence of anybody… In Paris who cared about the bogymen that much later on were to be made of race, class and birth? One walked, one talked, one slept with whomever one pleased, and cared not a hoot about others. Oh, one needed to know Berlin first in order to love Paris properly, and to experience the voluntary servility of Germany with its angular and painfully sharp-edged class-consciousness. There the officer’s wife did not associate with the wife of the teacher, nor the latter with the merchant’s, nor she in turn with the wife of the workman. But in Paris the inheritance of the Revolution was still in the blood. The proletarian worker felt himself as free and important a citizen as his employer. In the café the waiter cordially shook the hand of the gold-braided general… Paris knew only a mixture of contrasts, no above and no below.”

Apart from the descriptive idealization of these lines, the truth is that they warn of a yearning desire for the atmosphere of freedom experienced in Europe before the disaster of 1914. A Europe of contrasts, yes, but a place in which freedom reigned over reality, allowing all those who lived there to do as they pleased. Hence Zweig’s retrospective optimism in portraying nineteenth-century Europe. Identifying with this period, his “passion to be free”, as well as the hatred he felt for “all authority, for all ‘talking down,'” were forged in those years dominated by the appetite for progress and freedom.

It was in the heart of this Europe that Zweig met Romain Rolland, becoming aware of his own cosmopolitan Europeanness through his contact with this man. After traveling to England, India and the United States -where he wasn’t asked about his nationality, religion or origins, and could enter without a passport-, he discovered in Rolland and, specifically, in his work Jean-Christophe, a defense of the unity of Europe through its culture: a Europe solidly united by the power of its creators, since Rolland’s project was to unite the Germanic and French spirits under the Italian sun, something Zweig soon saw take shape in the model exemplified by monarch Franz Joseph.

From that moment on, Zweig made the spiritual unity of Europe a metaphysical goal he would aim to serve through his writing. But unlike some of his contemporaries, his Europe wasn’t a rigid, sterile concept submerged in an inescapable decrepitude due to the actions of bourgeois liberalism and scientific positivism. Here his position diverges from the disenchantment that led to Expressionism, the Dada movement, and the other vanguards of the time, and for which the obvious grayness that for Schitzler was the result of the nineteenth-century “world of security”, was a daily subjection to the bourgeois conventionalisms that acted like a corset to creative freedom, just as Kafka portrayed in Before the Law, recreating the unnamed fear that surrounded official, bureaucratic Prague governed by the world of the paternal epic of security.

An example of this disdainful attitude expressed by the disobedient children of positivist, bourgeois nineteenth-century civilization is the rebelliousness of young Jünger, who, not long before the First World War broke out, ran away from his parents’ home in Wilhelm’s Germany to join the Foreign Legion and live an adventure, as he explains in African Diversions: ” My repugnance for anything useful grew every day. Reading and dreaming were the antidotes. But the regions in which action would have been possible seemed inaccessibly far-flung. I imagined them to contain a virile society, whose symbol was the campfire, the element of flame. In order to be accepted, or to even meet a single man one could respect, I would have gladly surrendered all the conquerable honors both within and beyond the four senses. I had a reasonable suspicion that the natural children of life could be found by turning one’s back on the legitimate order.”

In the context of this ever more widespread challenge to the nineteenth-century order, Zweig’s position is paradigmatic as he internalizes liberalism as a type of fate, becoming similar to Mann’s Settembrini in The Magic Mountain, who takes on the values of liberal, progressive modernity as if they were the core of his own life. Doesn’t Zweig reflect in Three Masters on how fate unconsciously guided the life of men much more radically than one would suspect at first glance? In fact, in Dostoyevsky, he began to see this problem clearly. He made this problem his own over the years as he expressed in his own existence Dilthey’s reflection that life is defined as a strange combination of chance, fate, and personality because if chance put Zweig at the heart of the Viennese liberal Jewish bourgeoisie, his daily experiences and assertions became his fate alongside a cosmopolitanism that he later defended wholeheartedly when he saw it threatened.

Therefore, Rolland’s appearance in his life made him set out passionately to serve the European ideal that this man represented. Something that was first manifested in 1941 when “the powers of hatred were more vehement and aggressive, because of their baser nature, than those of reconciliation,” especially in Austria-Hungary, which was “in the center of the zone of unrest.”

Among the rubble of a fragmented yesterday: the beginning of rootlessness

The First World War represented the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Zweig confirms this in saying: “Then, on June 29, 1914, in Sarajevo, the shot was fired that in a single second shattered the world of security and creative reason in which we had been educated, grown up and been at home.”

That shot destroyed the security and reason of the liberal bourgeois universe, revealing that those characteristics were more apparent than real in light of the speed with which it all came crumbling down. Why? Perhaps the unconscious currents flowing below the surface had undermined the foundation of the imposing building of the nineteenth-century liberal construction. In this sense, the testimony of Ernst Jünger is once again enlightening, describing in Storms of Steel the beginning of the war: “Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience. We thought of it as manly, as action, a merry dueling party on flowered blood-bedewed meadows.”

Zweig shared these feelings. In the beginning, the war seemed legitimate, perhaps because it was still full of the hopes of a century that was suddenly, unexpectedly snuffed out in the trenches of war. Zweig’s initial attitude also reflects the indignation that the news of the assassination of the heir to the Empire aroused among the liberal sectors in Austria, particularly given the open, reformist stance of the political designs defended by the assassinated archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, soon that indignation was transformed into a wave of nationalism that violently united the Empire under the fervor of war, unleashing “the depths, the subconscious, primitive instincts of the human animal -that which Freud so meaningfully calls ‘the revulsion from culture’, the desire to break out of the conventional bourgeois world of codes and statutes, and to permit the primitive instincts of the blood to rage at will.”

As occurred with Rilke and Hofmannsthal, Zweig was mobilized and moved away from the front lines. Even so, he soon became aware of the disaster the war would be, not only for Austria but for all of European civilization. In reality, the war was not fought, as later happened in the Second World War, for ideas like freedom or the preservation of moral good. The war of 1914 was a confrontation planned as a “rapid excursion into the romantic, a wild manly adventure” in which “peoples, emperors and kings, who had matured in the traditions of humanity, still cherished a subconscious shame about the war.” The ruthless, mechanical nature of the war turned it into a bloodbath. For Karl Kraus in The Last Years of Mankind it was a colossal volcanic forge in which Death went hunting, while for Jünger the battlefields were an exercise in numbers and the christening of a new era dominated by nihilism.

These were the circumstances that led Zweig to once again take up pre-war militant Europeanism, reestablishing contacts on the other side of the trenches. First, by publishing in the Viennese press his “Letter to my foreign friends”. Then, in his letters to Rolland, who, from neutral Switzerland, collaborated with the Red Cross. From his renewed friendship with Rolland came Jeremiah: a tragedy written in 1916, at the height of the war. His intention was the same, explains Benjamín Jarnés: to contrast the millions of Europeans that took to war with the individualistic creativity of the artist who belongs to that spiritual community that is Europe and knows nothing of the absurd borders drawn inside it.

Zweig, who felt he belonged to the intellectual community charged with saving the spirit of Europe, conceived of this drama as if he was a new prophet, like Jeremiah of the Old Testament, accusing Europeans of being the sole culprits of the war that had destroyed New Jerusalem: “Ye all wanted war, all, all! Your hearts are fickle, and ye sway in the wind like reeds. The very ones who now shout for peace, I have heard howling for war.”

The impact of Jeremiah was significant. Written to criticize the “charlatans of war”, the praise it received in Austria was led by the new emperor Charles. Hoping to distance the Hapsburg monarchy from the catastrophe that German militarism was leading it towards, he held peace negotiations with the Allies. Thus, when Zweig requested permission to leave Austria and attend the premiere of Jeremiah in Geneva, he was granted leave without any type of problem, as he heard directly from a high-ranking imperial officer, “Thank God it wasn’t one of those idiots with their war cries. Go on, then, do anything you can out there to put a stop to this.”

Nevertheless, disappointment soon took hold of Zweig as he witnessed the fanaticism in the pacifist circles that surrounded Rolland in Switzerland. The intolerant, ruthless brutality they exhibited was at odds with the elegant bourgeois estrangement of Zweig, whose liberal intuition sensed how the anti-war parties and clans surrounding Rolland fed on the type of person that would soon take over political life in the period between the wars: that type of professional revolutionary that clung to dogmatism because they couldn’t stand on their own two feet.

This way, without knowing it, the Europe that fought for peace was brewing new wars, for, as Zweig noted upon crossing the border of the new Austria that barely survived the defeat of the war, “The world of yesterday was lost forever; the Empire that nourished me at its breast, hopelessly brought down; my youth, also gone… You, nostalgia, were the muse of my first poems, the temptress in all my dreams, now be the power of my future!”

Persistence in fate: liberalism as nostalgia

The sense of hope that came with the end of the war was short-lived. The turbulence unleashed persisted despite the fact that Europeans had stopped killing each other. Two years after the war had ended, Zweig expressed his disappointment in Nietzsche, an essay he dedicated to Rolland. In this work, he complains that after the armistice humankind, despite having stopped killing each other, was still furiously shaken with hatred since “the sweet words of the triumph of freedom and the law” were forgotten by a Versailles Conference that had newly prepared “the seed of fresh hatred and renewed acts of violence”.

In Zweig’s eyes, Europe between the wars was preparing this new harvest quickly thanks to communist and fascist totalitarian regimes. Intoxicated by the collective and by disdain for liberalism and its institutional conquests, Europe fell into preparing a new round of despicable, barbaric acts led by that sort of Antichrist that Joseph Roth described as the face of totalitarianism between the wars.

It is interesting, here, to compare Zweig’s attitude with that of his friend Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Particularly because that of the latter, although he came from a background similar to Zweig’s, culminated in a reactionary discourse in which nostalgia for years gone by was imbued with political rhetoric that Armin Mohler defined as “conservative revolution”.

Taken up by significant names such as Ernst von Salomon, Gottfried Benn, Thomas Mann, Stefan George, Ernst Jünger, Oswald Spengler, Max Scheler and Carl Schmitt, the so-called “conservative revolution” took on a new legitimacy, after the First World War, as a political project made up of several very different movements. Their followers were linked by their rejection of the bourgeois past, which didn’t deserve to be defended, and their view that the outdated aristocratic values needed to be updated by creating new ones that were worth preserving in the future. As Hans Freyer pointed out in 1931 in his Revolution von Rechts, it was a right-wing revolution that aimed to eradicate any trace of the 19th century and liberate the history of the 20th century, establishing a political panorama that could overcome the divisions between the traditional right and left.

The concept was coined by Hofmannsthal himself in a speech he gave in Munich in 1927, entitled “Literature as the Spiritual Space of the Nation”. In this speech, he called for the creation of a national German movement that, under this name, would adapt the values from the Hapsburg’s baroque inheritance to the present day, as these provided the only possible foundation on which to restore a universal, humanist culture after the disaster of the Great War. As Janik and Toulmin correctly explain, what Hofmannsthal really aimed at was to culturally humanize that which is  irrational in man, “to transform hatred and greed into love and cooperation, using the Gesamtkunstwerk to produce a socializing catharsis and so solve the problems of modern society.”

The problem of the “conservative revolution” was the fact that it shared a similar wavelength to that of the nationalist substratum that gave rise to Nazism. This is the thesis that J. P. Faye puts forward in The Totalitarian Languages. However, there were notable differences, especially given that the conservative revolutionaries rejected any mass discourse of totalitarianism and racism, advocating for human models to be imitated such as those provided by intellectual figures like Goethe and Hölderlin. Regardless, the connections with the discourse defended by Nazism brought about the rise of the latter by establishing a symbolic and rhetorical link between the elite and the masses, just as happened, for example, with the ideal of restoring a millenary Third Reich linked to the values of the medieval Stauffen empire; an idea articulated by Moeller van den Bruck of the “Young Conservatives”.

Trained in the heart of Hofmannsthal’s cultural references and an admirer of the critics of bourgeois modernity that inspired many of the Viennese vanguards, Zweig, however, wasn’t seduced by the revolutionary logic that aimed to violently establish a current-day Arcadia. Despite the despair that the post-war panorama provoked in him, he continued to defend the liberalism that had inspired him in the order prior to the Great War and which, according to the conservative revolutionaries, had perished under the sterile, mechanical, boring life of the bourgeoisie.

In this sense, his novels of the 1920s confirm this. His admiration for Nietzsche and irrationalism led him to strive for the perpetuation of the liberal, bourgeois effort of the nineteenth century, or for transcending the internal tensions that assail all human beings through art. This is what happens, for example, with the main female character in Burning Secret, in which a married woman hesitates between adventure and the responsibilities of motherhood. Zweig resolves this conflict by having bourgeois virtue triumph through the woman’s common sense in not wanting to let her son down. He repeats this theory, in some way, in Amok, when a doctor puts his love for a married woman, on whom he refuses to perform an abortion, above his professional ethics. The denouement of his decision leads to her death and his suicide.

In one way or another, Zweig’s novels of the 1920s allow him to establish a sort of aesthetical compromise between the irrational drive that undermined the bourgeois order and that order itself, as the values of liberalism triumph through his strategy of showing the abyss to which surrender to irrationalism leads. In the midst of the agitation of the period between the wars, Zweig took passionate refuge in a pro-European cosmopolitanism and a liberal temperament that were vitally identified with the imposing figure of Rathenau. For Zweig, this man’s value lay in the fact that he had not renounced his liberalism nor his Jewish roots when trying to make the post-Versailles Germany viable by adopting a political program that, through intelligence, sensibility and diplomacy, would pull the country out of chaos and set it right by cultivating the profound Europeanness that beat in every German heart.

This was why Rathenau’s assassination affected him so profoundly; because the hope that bourgeois liberal modernity would once again reign in Europe was weakened by the progressive moral cheapening of freedom and democracy imposed by the parties of the masses and the frenetic disenchantment of an era, characterized, according to Zweig, by “the collapse of all values,” so that “a kind of madness gained hold particularly in the bourgeois circles which until then had been unshakeable in their probity”, as a result of which “the muddy tide with all its filth and slime flowed back soon.”

In spite of this dejection and nostalgia, Zweig wanted to live up to the expectations of his time. His passionate defense of liberal democracy throughout his life must be understood in the light of a committed resistance. His novels written between 1924 and 1933 mainly portray characters that are crushed by some sort of powerful passion that emanates from their subconscious and that, in the form of some irrational vice, ends up taking control of them and leading them to death or suicide. In addition to the aforementioned Amok, the same story repeats itself in Letter from an Unknown Woman, Beware of Pity and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman. All of these reflect the destruction of the conscious, rational ego. Incapable of knowing themselves, his characters end up dominated by the irrational nature unleashed inside the human soul. For Carlos Soldevilla, in the aforementioned texts, “we crash into the abyss, or if you prefer, the hell of passion, but in body and soul, and the soul, while it is falling, continues to think about its downfall and judging itself with little indulgence.”

A search for metapolitical exemplification? A denouncement of that which was favored by the European bourgeoisie watching the rise of a totalitarianism that didn’t hide its real face with resigned half-heartedness? Probably. The malaise of culture that Freud described and the attack on reason commented by Lukacs shed light on the complex attitude the liberal bourgeoisie adopted regarding the rise of totalitarianism between the wars. Zweig shows hints of this in his novels. His choice of characters isn’t coincidental. It is difficult to ignore that there is something deliberate in the fact that many of them play the role of a responsible man, guided by reason and principles, who is suddenly degraded to the unexpected role of victim, overwhelmed by the brutal, irrational dark side that lives on inside him like a crouching, unconscious possibility that lays in wait for the right moment to get its specific revenge.

This dissolution of the modern bourgeois individual discussed in many of Zweig’s novels includes genuine romantic overtones. With this he vividly expresses a more elaborate reflection contained in Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche: The Struggle with the Daemon. In this work, Zweig probes the exponents of the terrible beauty contained in escaping from individual reality through that dispossession that leads to the cult of madness and death; an idea Thomas Mann also dealt with in Doctor Faustus, drawing an interesting connection between Germany’s fate and that of his main character, a composer devoted to the instinctual forces symbolically represented by illness, creative fire and blood, and who ends up serving them aesthetically while at the same time devoting himself to the political cause of Nazism.

In reality, in The Struggle with the Daemon Zweig faces his own demons: those laying in wait just under the surface of the world he came from, that refined and aesthete Vienna that loved freedom and the old liberal Hapsburg order that inevitably crumbled after the war of 1914, leading its members to flee forwards, pushing them into the many forms adopted by nostalgia for the loss of the empire. Hence Magris’ words in Il mito del imperio absburgico nella letteratura austriaca moderna,[The Hapsburg Myth in Modern Austrian Literature]  “the history of the myth of the Hapsburg Empire is the history of a civilization that, in the name of its love for order, discovers the world’s disorder.” A violent, fragmentary disorder that leads Hofmannsthal, Roth, von Doderer and Rezzori to breakdowns and, even, reactionary horror, but that for Zweig is the reaffirmation and persistence of a liberal yesteryear of which he believes himself to be the unbreakable heir.

In the face of the seductive allure of deconstructive irrationality seen in Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche, Zweig opts aesthetically and ethically for the opposite: that represented by Goethe. And if the existence of the former “was like that of shooting stars, which flash on indeterminable paths” Goethe “circled in a fixed orbit…[that] was firmly established upon solid earth, into which his roots spread ever wider and deeper. He had wife and children and grandchildren; women garlanded his life; intercourse with a small group of tried and trusted friends suffused his leisure with content. He lived in a large, well-appointed house, which he filled by degrees with rarities and art-treasures; he was comforted by the warmth of an assured reputation, unchallenged for the half-century and more during which he survived as an acknowledged master. He had offices and dignities conferred upon him; was a privy councilor and was styled ‘His Excellency’; and, on gala occasions, orders innumerable glittered on his broad chest. While those others developed their capacities for wild flights in the mental empyrean, but on the earth grew more unstable as the years passed, running hither and thither like hunted beasts, Goethe, increasingly subject to the force of terrestrial gravity, became continually more steadfast. Where he stood was the center of his ego, and at the same time the intellectual focus of the nation. From this fixed point his tranquil activities embraced the world.”

Against the centrifugal irrationality of Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche, Zweig contrasts the centripetal, constructive nature of a solemn advisor, bourgeois Goethe. His creative talent is put to the intellectual service of the liberal order and legality of the beginning of the 19th century. Something that, in his own way, Zweig yearns for and tries to do himself one century later when he takes on the task of defending Europe threatened by the fear of freedom that, according to Fromm, led to the rise of totalitarianism. Established as the Goethe of the 20th century, Zweig fought those regimes. His visit to soviet Russia showed him the tyrannical undercurrent hiding behind the false halo of justice and progress found in widely distributed communist propaganda, while the rise of Nazism and the triumph of Mussolini moved him to defend liberalism, particularly when “not one of them can remember how much freedom and joy the soulless, voracious bogy of the ‘State’ has sucked from the very marrow of their soul.” Why? Zweig himself provides the answer, “[Because] all peoples feel only that a strange shadow hangs broad and heavy over their lives. But we, who once knew a world of individual freedom, know and can give testimony that Europe once, without a care, enjoyed its kaleidoscopic play of color. And we shudder when we think how overcast, overshadowed, enslaved and enchained our world has become because of its suicidal fury.”

Europe as utopia: confirmation of Zweig’s fate

If we see in Utopia, following Ricoeur’s definition, an exploration of what is possible versus the acceptation of the given, then the presence of a utopic component in Zweig’s work mustn’t be overlooked. This is linked to a spiritual idea of Europe identified with a stage for freedom capable of stilling the turbulent waters of a continent shaken by the threat of a new suicidal confrontation. Zweig recognizes in Europe the existence of general law. A common order capable of overcoming the differences provoked by enmity engendered by the growing superiority of some peoples over others. European history is backed by the insurmountable moral force of a shared inheritance based on the cult of freedom. Zweig says, “We, the men of old Europe, the heirs of the old cultures, must be united, otherwise we won’t be able to continue to hold the position of intellectual supremacy that no one has been able to challenge in the past two thousand years and we won’t be able to finish the cultural enterprise that began in the days of antiquity. If this is our goal, we must set aside once and for all the small differences and ridiculous envy that so stand in our way and move forward on this splendid path towards our bright future.”

It’s curious that, in the early 1930s, Zweig continued to believe that this bright future was possible despite the storm clouds that were gathering above his head and heralded coming storms. Undoing the clumsy path taken in Versailles and turning his back on the political deception that had taken root were his top priorities.

In the biography he dedicated to Fouché we find some clues, as in Zweig’s eyes this man embodied the spirit of European politics inaugurated in Versailles. His cynicism, his thirst for power and his immorality are all part of the human profile Zweig extends to most of the European political class between the wars. The moment in history in which he finished the book shouldn’t be overlooked. In 1929, Nazism had consolidated as a party of the masses after displaying a significant ability to act, which, in just a short period of time, allowed Hitler to take over Weimar Germany due, as Ian Kershaw pointed out, to the moral pettiness and insufficient vision of the German elite that was blinded by their own particular interests.

To Zweig, Fouché is the prototypical politician between the wars: a devious, unprincipled man, nothing like the principled politician capable of employing strong doses of realism to serve his ethical project. With this biography, Zweig aimed to warn his contemporaries and help strengthen the idea of a Europe that no one like Fouché’s would favor due to their scheming, as, “He is a ‘born traitor’, a ‘pitiful intriguer’, a ‘man with a slimy reptilian nature’, a ‘professional turncoat,’ a ‘creature with the base spirit of a police man’ a ‘contemptible immoralist'”, his character representing all those inferior, adept men that, from the shadowy background, devise small-minded strategies to serve the highest bidder. In fact, Zweig continues, such men were responsible for “the historical decisions on war and peace,” made in Europe in 1914 and in 1918. Decisions that “were not based on reason or responsibility but on the hidden power of anonymous men of most questionable character and precarious intelligence” and that “every day we once again see the insecure and often insolent game of politics.” In fact, he bitterly complains that, in this game, “men of discerning political criteria, of unbreakable convictions, never win but are taken down by those professional players called diplomats, those light-handed artists with their empty words and nerves of steel.”

However, when he turned fifty in 1931, Zweig began to experience a somber feeling of defeat. This coincided with another of his biographies, this time devoted to Marie Antoinette, the Austrian archduchess who became the queen of France and was sent to the gallows by a bloodthirsty revolution in the midst of the catastrophe that led to freedom in 1789. To Zweig, it was once again the demagogues that provoked this historical drama with their fanaticism. A violent and brutal drama caused by people who had forgotten freedom. And thus, pushed aside to play the role of a simple, astonished spectator, the “Goddess of Liberty, with her dreaming stone eyes, remains motionless, petrified, looking out as before into the distance, towards her invisible goal. Of the happenings that morning in the square she has seen and heard nothing.  She knows not, nor wishes to know, the deeds that are done in her name.” The connection Zweig draws between the revolutionary Terror and the totalitarian Horror of the 20th century is clear. With an air at times reminiscent of the alienation of notable moralists like Montaigne or Chamfort, Zweig began to withdraw into a progressive detachment from reality.

Limited to revealing human savagery, Zweig sought the isolation of his work and, in connection with this work, the denunciation that comes along with this attachment to intellectual creation in the midst of violence. And thus, conscious of his powerlessness, he sought refuge in the arms of his writing, which became his life raft while Europe was sinking into the chaos caused by those who insisted on breathing life into the demagogic brutality of totalitarianism.

Paradise lost: the consequences of rootlessness

It was in the figure of Erasmus of Rotterdam, among others, where Zweig sought refuge in order to survive the threat posed by the Nazi swastikas waving just over the hills from Salzburg. His choice of this renaissance thinker is a response that he tries to offer to a Europe shaken by the inhumanity radiating from a Germany that had chosen Hitler as its chancellor. To Zweig, the dream of a free, tolerant Europe was falling apart like a sugar cube in the magma of German nationalism, excited by a fanatical politician following in the footsteps of Luther when he confronted Erasmus, trying to destroy the synthesis that the latter faced in integrating the contradictory nature of the human spirit.

Erasmus was born with a conciliatory character, a communicative nature that was opposed to all subversion, all upheaval, and any murky disputes among the masses. A defender of reason, he served this cause and, with a serene zeal, confronted war without hesitation, considering it “the basest, most unbridled way to resolve internal differences”, above all because “he believed it to be incompatible with a moral-thinking humanity.”

A contemporary spokesman for that humanity who aimed to update erasmic moral thinking, Zweig saw the figure of Erasmus as an example to follow. Hence he stopped work on Mary, Queen of Scots and devoted himself to this renaissance thinker and more so, after some people accused him of connivance with Nazism after allowing his novel Burning Secret to be adapted as a libretto for Richard Strauss’ The Silent Woman. Linked to the Hitler regime, Strauss rejected pressures to exclude Zweig and insisted on his presence on the project, which premiered in Dresden in 1934. Publication of Erasmus of Rotterdam coincided with his collaboration with Strauss. As he explained to the latter in a letter in announcing the conclusion of his work on the aforementioned theologian, it is “a quiet hymn to the antifanatical man who treasured more than anything on earth artistic accomplishment and inner peace  –the symbols of my own attitude to life.”

Zweig’s work on Erasmus, which, as Benjamín Jarnés points out, became a self-portrait, was a response to those who couldn’t forgive his friendship with Strauss. The life of Erasmus unfolds before readers in Europe between the wars as that of an intellectual who was a paradigm of civility in distancing himself from barbarity preached by God-crazed Luther and that, in flogging a corrupted Christianity, wished to establish his own kingdom under a resounding, visceral faith. Hence his choice of Erasmus wasn’t coincidental, as it represents the psychology of a sane man holding on to a sensible, dignified attitude in the midst of the fratricidal disputes provoked by religious fanaticism.

Written while he was still in Austria, the essay on Erasmus marked a definitive turning point in Zweig’s life. On one hand, because the text is imbued with the idea that humanism is at risk of failing in the face of fanaticism. On the other, because while he was writing it he decided to leave his country after being subjected to a police search under the suspicion he was hiding weapons in his home. This fact demonstrated what he already believed to be true, that his presence was inconvenient in a country that would soon be annexed by an emboldened, powerful Germany. And thus, the day after the search, he packed his bags and sold all of his possessions, including the contents of his library. This showed his disdain for the continent that had renounced the humanism that was its spiritual foundation, since a Europe that had forgotten that it “cherished the freedom of the individual as the most sacred of all things” didn’t deserve to be his home.

The ashes of Europe as a home for the stateless

Exiled to England and submerged in a sensation of absolute rootlessness, Zweig put ground between his memories and his new life. With his work banned in Germany, his property in Austria sold off, Zweig cut the connecting roots that are essential so that tormented souls don’t slip into the abyss of an irretrievable yesterday.

The England that welcomed him allowed him to find the embers of that lost Europe. Its liberal structure once again fanned his desire to persevere, continuing his creative work although faced with the demons that shook the continent and made the ashes of the books that were being burned in the streets those of the spirit of a Europe that agonized amidst the misery of its idea. “The sense of again being in a civil, courteous, unexcited, hateless atmosphere” was a balm for a withered thinker. But the idyll didn’t last long, Europe was weakened in its essence and not even British society was alien to this fact, despite the fact that “they lived more peacefully, more contentedly and were more interested in their gardens and little hobbies than in their neighbors.” Aware that it was impossible to free himself from a fate that was tied to the destruction of all he loved, he tried to find the strength to take the leap and cross the Atlantic in search of that America he first knew on his visit in 1911. Paralyzed by what he saw as an internal challenge, Zweig knew how the story of sickened Europe would end and therefore, citing Shakespeare, said that “So foul a sky clears not without a storm.”

With one foot in England and the other in America, between 1935 and 1940, Zweig radicalized his opposition to Nazism. In the same vein as his Erasmus of Rotterdam, he wrote The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin. With this new essay he once again sketched his own portrait or rather that of who he would have wished to be if he had had the strength and courage to play the role of the humanist Castellio who preferred to die with a clean conscience than to give in to the blackmail of Calvinist fanatics.

Away from the Hitler-loving masses, Zweig tried to imitate Castellio’s essay style, but that was all. He knew he could do nothing else. Hence the bitter tone he uses when writing of the isolated heroism of the individual that wages war on the superstitious masses that condemn Servet as a heretic. Zweig would have liked to stay in Austria and end up like Castellio defending the lives of those who didn’t have the benefit of his world-renowned artistic halo. To compensate, he offered this work, with which he aimed to egg on his contemporaries and move them to an action that he himself was unable to take, precisely when the German dictatorship consolidated after Hindenburg’s death and this country began its Renanian military expansionism and, then, threatened Austria and Czechoslovakia while the liberal democracies of Europe stood by with arms crossed.

The importance of this work must not be overlooked. It is a political treatise that contains the heart of Zweig’s liberal sentiment; the individualism that loves freedom and personal rights and that, almost out of principle, distrusts the masses and their amorphous power, just as Canetti would later write in his famous Crowds and Power.

Conceived of as a tragedy, the essay is structured around three characters: an executioner, Calvin; a victim, Servet; and his defender, Castellio. The aim of the text is not to praise Servet’s moral high ground justified by his ideas, but to show the executioner as a modern dictator: a tyrant that bases his despotism on the use of propaganda, bringing the community together around an absolute idea that makes the people an obedient mass devoid of any moral dignity.

Under the totalitarian mechanics of an ideology of the masses, the city of Geneva is described as a horrible scene reminiscent of Piranesi: a collective prison where none of the inhabitants is free. Of all the characters, only Sebastian Castellio preserves his dignity in opposing the people’s mass violence. As Malesherbes later did before the Revolutionary Assembly that condemned Louis XVI to the guillotine, Castellio faces the terror of the fervent masses. And he does so armed with liberal weapons: the word and his intelligence.

To Zweig, the gesture is surprising as he is an idealist defending freedom of thought against tyranny all on his own. So much so that he can’t help wondering who Castellio really is. The answer is clear: “Reckoning up the material forces available to the two men, it is no exaggeration to compare one of them to a fly and the other to an elephant. Castellio was a nobody, a nullity, as far as public influence was concerned; he was, moreover, an impoverished scholar, hard put to make a living for his wife and children by translations and private tuition; a refugee in a foreign land, where he had no civil status nor even the right of residence, an émigré twice over; and, as always happens in days when the world has gone mad with fanaticism, the humanist was powerless and isolated amid contending zealots.” And, despite the extraordinary repercussion that The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin had, there was nothing the essay could achieve, as Zweig was another fly, putting his creative freedom up against Hitler’s elephantine power.

Alone after his break from Rolland when the latter became a communist, the start of the Spanish Civil War warned Zweig that the end of Europe was unavoidable. During his voyage to South America in 1936, his ship stopped in Vigo. There he witnessed scenes he had seen before in Germany and Italy, so “when the ship put out again after a few hours I quickly went down into my stateroom. It was too painful for me to cast another glance at the beautiful country which had fallen prey to gruesome devastation through foreign guilt; Europe seemed to me doomed to die by its own madness. Europe, our sacred home, cradle and Parthenon of our occidental civilization.”

Zweig’s final hope: America as Europe’s utopia

His stay in Argentina and Brazil in 1936 led Zweig to the conclusion that Europe, just like his lost Austria, was too debased to be saved. He then put his hope in the new continent and directed all his weak desires in this direction. If his stop in Vigo had confirmed his fears, his visit to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro gave him, once again, the opportunity to vanquish them. And it was in America where he found the old Europe he desired and yearned for, although invigorated by the energy of those who had made this possible by setting down European roots on the other side of the Atlantic.

Hence in walking along the streets of Buenos Aires he wondered if he wasn’t in Spain, although this time in a new world that was much larger and not corrupted by hatred. This experience of a transcontinental Europe led him to believe he could start again outside Europe. Really, Zweig thought, we shouldn’t tie ourselves to a moribund past, but participate in the rebirth of a new ideal community that is larger and joined by much more daring links. And, “if I had given Europe up for lost with that last look toward the coming war, I began to hope and believe again under the Southern Cross.”

His return to Europe was ephemeral. His definitive exile to the American continent coincided with the German invasion of France in spring of 1940. His Magellan provides a glimpse into his thoughts of the time. “Navigare necesse est”, the title of the first chapter of this book, laid out what was the only possibility of survival for his European ideal, and that it was none other than America, which Europeans could make their salvation if they rid themselves of all yearning for the past they left behind on the coasts of the old continent.

However, Zweig’s hopeful pessimism couldn’t save him from the attraction of death, perhaps because he believed that the task of remaking Europe must be undertaken by those who were free of the nostalgic burden of an irrecoverable yesterday. And, thus, when Hitler’s troops were about to strike their blow in France in 1940, he gave a lecture in Paris entitled “The Vienna of Yesterday”. In this lecture he evoked his lost Austria: “Isolated from the community of the great nations, we knew […] how to preserve our cultural standing in Europe.

And to the end, we were able to carry out our mission, which dates back […] to Roman times: defending culture against the attacks of barbarous peoples. We carried out that mission yesterday, in our Vienna of yesteryear […] I won’t speak of Vienna today […]. Art and culture can’t live without freedom and, more specifically, the culture of Vienna can’t progress if, as in current circumstances […], our city is cut off from the invigorating waters of European civilization. The titanic battle currently underway the world around has put the future of our culture in play, and I don’t need to tell you where my hopes lie.”

His native Vienna had disappeared and it was up to others to recover it. Like Trotta, described by his friend Joseph Roth in The Emperor’s Tomb, only the eternal sleep of death awaited him. Roth’s character finds this in yesterday itself, next to the tomb of emperor Franz Joseph. For Zweig, however, it was in that new transatlantic Europe in which he had placed the occidental hopes of his dreams of a liberal Europe: the new American Arcadia.

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Stefan Zweig or Liberalism as Fate. (2021, Mar 29). Retrieved October 25, 2021, from