Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth: How Europe’s exiled intellectuals ended up on a Belgian beach

On July 1936, a Czechoslovakian Jewish journalist named Stefan Lux entered the general assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva, shouted “C’est le dernier coup”, and shot himself with a revolver. Lux wanted his suicide to be a warning cry against anti-Semitism and Nazi militarism. But if he thought that even such a public sacrifice would serve as the “final blow” against fascism, he was tragically mistaken. Two years after Lux’s death came the dismemberment of his country in the Munich Agreement and the Germany-wide pogrom known as Kristallnacht. The following year brought the Second World War and the beginnings of the Holocaust. All that Lux’s death accomplished was to confirm the very powerlessness it was meant to protest. Nor did he even win the posthumous thanks of posterity, given that today his name and his deed are practically unknown.

Lux features in an offstage cameo role in the non-fiction chamber drama that is Summer Before the Dark. The German journalist Volker Weidermann has devoted this short, elegiac book to the German émigré writers, most of them Jews, who congregated in Ostend in the summer of 1936, mainly because they had no place better to go. At the centre of this unhappy cenacle were two writers who shared Lux’s fate. Stefan Zweig’s journeys took him all the way to Petrópolis, Brazil, before he gave up hope and took an overdose of barbiturates (with his wife, Lotte) in 1942. Joseph Roth’s death also deserves to be called a suicide: he died in Paris in May 1939 after years of acute alcoholism. (His final crisis was precipitated by yet another suicide, that of Ernst Toller, the communist playwright, who had killed himself in New York City a few days earlier.)

The effects of exile on Zweig and Roth had been immediate and dramatic. When Hitler came to power in 1933, each man was at the peak of his literary career, though that success took very different forms. Roth was a long-time star correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, and had just written the novel that was his masterpiece, The Rad­etzky March. Zweig, who lived in splendour in Salzburg, Austria, was a writer of sensational novellas and digestible works on the history of ideas, books that were immensely popular in Germany and beyond. Their close friendship endured despite the evident differences in their temperament – Zweig was a moderate bourgeois, Roth a romantic bohemian – and, trickier still, in their abilities: Roth was a writer of genius, while Zweig knew he had only talent.

Roth, as a Jew and a well-known critic of Nazism, knew that he had to flee Germany immediately. He left for Paris on the day Hitler took power, 30 January 1933, and never returned. Zweig, an Austrian citizen and an outspoken liberal pacifist, soon came under pressure from his country’s authoritarian regime, and he transplanted himself to England in 1934. Zweig’s books were burned and banned in Germany, but he remained so popular in translation that he was never short of money. Roth, on the other hand, was now unemployable as a journalist, and lived hand-to-mouth on tiny advances from small émigré publishers. Their correspondence, which can be found in the 2012 book Joseph Roth: a Life in Letters, is fascinating for the double imbalance of power it shows. Roth depended on Zweig’s money and influence, yet he insisted on the superiority of his own literary and political standards. He had no qualms about lecturing the man who supported him, writing to Zweig in October 1933, for instance: “Haven’t you got that yet? The word has died, men bark like dogs. The word has no importance any more, none in the current state of things . . . Everything is shit.”

In recent years, the reputations of both men have undergone a sudden revival in the English-speaking world, thanks to extensive new translations and biographical works. Summer Before the Dark is a sign of how far this revival has succeeded: it is now possible for these writers and their émigré milieu to be the subject of a work of popular history very much like those Stefan Zweig used to write. One of his most successful books, Sternstunden der Menschheit (Decisive Moments in History, 1927), was a collection of a dozen historical sketches of moments that “changed the world”, from the Battle of Waterloo to the fall of Constantinople. Summer Before the Dark, on the other hand, is a story of people who failed to change the world: men who were expelled from history by the Nazis and had to watch helplessly as it steamrollered them into oblivion.

In choosing to take up this story in the summer of 1936, Weidermann finds a moment of relative calm and normality in the émigrés’ lives. The urgent flight from Germany is over; the chaotic and deadly flight from the German armies is still in the future. Ostend itself seems like a place where nothing bad could happen: “the expansive long beach, the big, overly broad promenade, the elaborately curved casino with its large terrace, the bistros with their little marble tables outside, the wooden bathing huts in the sand”. It is a middle-class paradise of the sort we associate with pre-First World War Europe. Indeed, Zweig was at Ostend in July 1914, and continually delayed his departure in the belief that war was just a rumour. Not until he was on the last train to Germany, and passed trucks carrying cannons towards the Belgian border, did he begin to believe that the crisis was for real.

Weidermann opens his book at that moment of false security, just as Europe’s new Thirty Years War is about to break out. He sketches in the subsequent lives and careers of Zweig and Roth with economical strokes, bringing out the ready-made contrast between the two. Like virtually every writer on the subject, Weidermann can’t help condescending to Zweig:
Zweig is still writing out of a world, and about a world, that no longer exists. His ideal [of tolerance and mutual understanding] is pointless, unrealistic, risible, and dangerous . . . What use is tolerance in a world in which any man and everything he lives for and everything he writes are in danger of being ground to a pulp?
By contrast, Roth, with his fantastic dreams of restoring the Habsburg throne, may be unreal and absurd, but at least he is passionately committed.

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