Stefan Zweig’s endless retreat

In December 1930, Stefan Zweig began writing a biography of Marie Antoinette. He was living in Salzburg, Austria, having moved there from Vienna in 1919 after World War I. He was almost 50 and at the height of his literary fame, living comfortably on the Kapuzinerberg in a large yellow villa crowned with turrets and ringed by high walls. When he wasn’t writing, he was traveling to Berlin or Paris, calling on the artistic celebrities of the day like a modern Boswell. When in Vienna, he went to the opera or lounged in cafés with Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler. It was a good life lived in the gloaming of interwar Europe.

“With diabolical cunning,” Zweig wrote of the French queen,
history began making a spoiled darling of Marie Antoinette, who had the Kaiserhof as a home in childhood, wore a crown before she was out of her teens, had charm and grace and wealth in liberal measure…. But destiny, having raised her to the pinnacle of good fortune, dragged her down again with the utmost refinements of cruelty…. Unaccustomed to suffering, she resisted and sought to escape. But with the ruthlessness of an artist who will not desist from his travail until he has wrung the last possibilities from the stubborn clay he is fashioning, the deliberate hand of misfortune continued to mould, to knead, to chisel, and to hammer Marie Antoinette.
Behind this portrayal of individual apocalypse lay self-description and prophetic vision. Like Marie Antoinette, Zweig was charming and graceful. Klaus Mann described him as the embodiment of Vienna’s cultural kaleidoscope, fusing “French suavity with a touch of German pensiveness and a faint tinge of Oriental eccentricity.”

He was also rich. His father was a businessman who turned a weaving mill in northern Bohemia into a booming industrial success. His mother had strong banking connections in Italy, and Zweig inherited a large portion of the family pile in his late teens. His apartment in Vienna was an epicurean domain of rare books set against walls of burning scarlet, of gold leaf dusted into goblets of heady liquor; the rooms were stuffed with the relics of genius, such as one of Beethoven’s desks, as well as cavernous, crimson leather armchairs. Whereas many of his Central European contemporaries sat down to write after spending a long day at the office (Kafka famously worked at an insurance firm), Zweig was able to devote himself to his writing full time.

His success as a writer came early. By 1901, while a philosophy student at the University of Vienna (he defended a doctoral thesis on Hippolyte Taine), Zweig became a frequent contributor to Theodor Herzl’s Neue Freie Presse, the capital’s most respected newspaper. Zweig recalled that his first commission felt “like Napoleon presenting a young sergeant with the cross of the Légion d’Honneur.” He enjoyed Herzl’s company and respected his singular commitment to the Zionist cause, but Zweig never subscribed to a doctrine that he thought repurposed the creeds of European nationalism.

Zweig was proof that Jews could thrive under the liberal autocracies of late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe. Between 1848 and 1916, there was, according to the historian Tony Judt, “an era of political constraint but cultural and economic liberation.” Jews were excluded from the business of government, but they shared and shaped the high culture of their societies. Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March was a mournful tribute to a dying monarchy that had allowed Jews to flourish. And while Zweig ignored the inner decay of the Habsburg Empire and was tone-deaf to the politics and prejudices of mass society, he too saw Vienna as the tolerant capital of Mitteleuropa’s republic of letters, where universal affinity trumped national distinction. A separate Jewish homeland, with its future “cannons, flags, [and] medals,” was not the answer to Europe’s “Jewish Question”; the city of Freud was.

Zionism was at odds with what Zweig called the “supranational feeling of freedom.” He thought that if there was any common ground among Jews, it was in the timeless epic of their wandering, a symbol of “Jewry’s cosmopolitan human mission.” This argument was partly informed by his wanderlust. In a letter to Martin Buber, Zweig claimed that foreign travel had borne out “the value of absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel oneself a guest everywhere, to be both participant and mediator…. I feel with gratitude that it is Judaism that has made this supranational feeling possible for me.”

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