Some months before the suicide of Stefan Zweig in February 1942, Klaus Mann bumped into him on Fifth Avenue. Zweig, whom Mann referred to as “the tireless promoter of striving talents,” held a special place in Mann’s imagination since his early youth. On the publication of Mann’s first books, Zweig’s was “the most heartening and hearty” voice enjoining him to courage. “Go ahead, young man!” Zweig urged in a congratulatory note. “There may be prejudices against you because of your famous parentage. Never mind. Do your work! Say what you have to say!—it’s quite a lot if I’m not mistaken.” Zweig’s high expectations proved inspirational, and Mann, like many other fledgling authors, came to see Zweig as an exemplary patron with a maternally solicitous streak. He heartened the anxious by cajoling them to self-expression and quietly deployed his ample bank account to dissolve logistical obstacles confronting the impecunious. Yet now, in the middle of New York City in 1941, Zweig looked bizarre—unkempt and entranced. He was so lost in some dark train of thought, Mann wrote, that it took Zweig a while to realize he was being observed. Only when directly addressed did Zweig rouse himself “like a sleep-walker who hears his name,” abruptly metamorphosing into the familiar, polished cosmopolitan of old. Still, Mann could not rid himself of the memory of that first wild look—a stare Carl Zuckmeyer, the refugee playwright, encountered a few weeks later when, over dinner, Zweig asked him what the purpose was of continuing to live as a shadow, “homeless in all countries . . . We are just ghosts—or memories,” Zweig concluded.
In a few years, Zweig had unraveled; stumbling from the ranks of the world’s most successful writers and (in Jules Romains’ phrase) a “catalyst,” dedicated to forging affiliations between artists and advocates of European humanism, into a lonely, spectral wanderer. The zealous bibliophiliac had lost his 10,000 books and was reduced to haunting the libraries of New Haven and Manhattan, fingering the volumes he’d once defined as “handfuls of silence, assuaging torment and unrest.” His commanding residence on the Kapuzinerberg above Salzburg, formerly an archbishop’s hunting lodge, where he composed at a desk that once belonged to Beethoven and entertained a steady stream of luminaries and artistic aspirants, had been replaced by a shady little bungalow in Ossining up the hill from Sing Sing. (What did the frequent train rides up and down the Hudson past those massive walls with their gunner watchtowers conjure for this man who writhed at even venial bureaucratic infringements on mobility?) He spent his days struggling to complete his memoir, lacerated by visions of the war and fretting about identity documents. Lotte, his intriguing, under-acknowledged second wife, could not lift his mood. On the night at the Wyndham Hotel when Zweig tried to bequeath his old friend Joachim Maass his beloved Remington typewriter (an act Maass saw foreshadowing Zweig’s renunciation of life), Lotte remarked privately to Maass, “the only thing I can do now is compel him to drag me with him.”
For all the glaring depression of his final years, Zweig’s suicide with Lotte in Brazil outraged certain members of the exile community. His voluntary death was impugned as a deliquescent surrender to Hitler by one whose fortune and sheer popularity shielded him from the savagery most émigrés had to contend with. It was for some, Thomas Mann among them, the culminating failure in a long history of failing to set the right example—a charge leveled equally at Zweig’s life and literary production. In a letter to Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, explaining his refusal to make a fuss over Zweig’s demise, Mann cited Zweig’s “radical, unconditional pacifist disposition,” which—despite the fact that “one had to pray for” the coming of this war—had led Zweig to see in it just another “bloodstained misfortune and a negation of his whole nature.” Zweig, Mann observed, had actually “praised France for not wanting to fight and thus ‘saving Paris.” He had balked at living “in any of the belligerent countries,” and when it was apparent that Brazil, too, would be drawn into the war, Mann opined, Zweig consequently “took leave of life.” Indeed, Mann implied, there was something about Zweig that was simply too weak for this world—and repellant to the life spirit for being so.
Echoes of Mann’s critique can be found in Hannah Arendt’s condemnation of Zweig’s “hypersensitivity,” his detachment from the cause of the Jewish people en masse—the inadequacy of the “whole structure of his life, with its aloofness from civic struggle and politics,” which left him “unable to fight against a world in whose eyes it was and is a disgrace to be a Jew.” And in Michael Hofmann’s recent cap-a-pie impeachment of Zweig’s life and works, wherein he characterizes him as a reprehensible “passivist,” and thoroughly “putrid” fruit of “catty, envious Vienna,” a sentimental faker who (in Robert Neumann’s words) “spent his life on the run.”
When approaching Stefan Zweig’s story, many of his detractors seem to mine what Zweig’s friend Freud described as humanity’s psychical bedrock, the “repudiation of femininity.” (Freud used the term in the stereotypical sense of a submissive attitude linked with structural disempowerment.)Yet perhaps there’s another way of looking at Zweig’s complex history—another lesson in this “femininity”—that unfolds outward toward the larger predicament of the times as opposed to closing in on Zweig’s ambiguous core. As Zweig himself wrote of Marie Antoinette, after noting her absence of heroic impulse, “[But] history the demiurge can construct a profoundly moving drama even though there is nothing heroic about its leading personalities. Tragical tension is not solely conditioned by the mighty lineaments of central figures, but also by a disproportion between man and his destiny.” In our own era of perpetual disruption and upended cultural values, Zweig’s preemptive surrender evokes a line from yet a third Mann, Thomas’s brother Heinrich: “The vanquished are the first to learn what history holds in store.”