Tuesday 19. October 2021
#161 - June 2013


Souls of Europe: Stefan Zweig


The European Union today may seem unsure of itself, its political leaders vacillating, its intellectuals confused in regard to the way ahead and vague about Europe’s identity. For the Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, Europe was his Heimat, his home, and even though not a believer in any classical sense, he was convinced Europe had a soul.

Stefan Zweig was the best known and undoubtedly the most widely sold European author of the inter-war years. Born in Vienna in 1881, his literary output and variety of subject matter, to say nothing of the social circles in which he moved, Zweig had an impact and a readership similar to that enjoyed by William Somerset Maugham in the English-speaking world.


Seventy-one years ago, on 22 February 1942 the Austrian author, playwright, essayist and journalist Stefan Zweig, together with his young wife Lotte, died at their own hand in their adopted home at Petropolis, a leafy suburb of Rio de Janeiro.


The collapse of the European dream

The double suicide shocked the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic and left Zweig’s enormous circle of friends reeling in grief. The author’s friends did however understand. Zweig had lost everything: his beloved Vienna had been annexed in the Anschluss, the elegant Salzburg home in which many of them had been guests had been seized by the Nazis, Paris – a city for which he had a particular affection - was under German occupation, he had even given the typewriter which he had used to write his autobiography to a friend. Zweig’s death, as he friends knew, was occasioned by the collapse of the European dream.


A new Europe was to be born from the ashes of World War II in a way that the committed pacifist and internationalist Stefan Zweig could never have imagined thanks to the vision, shaped to some considerable extent by Catholic social teaching, and political will of Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi. Fifty-six years on from the Treaty of Rome, which established the EEC, that founding vision has become clouded and political will is very shaky indeed as the European Union of today grapples with the Euro crisis. And yet the language of the dream, which the technocratic pragmatism of today’s Berlaymont mandarins threatens to silence but which Zweig articulated with all the poetic eloquence and melancholy so characteristic of the Mitteleuropa Jewish intelligentsia of the inter-war years, is again to be heard, sometimes in the unlikeliest of quarters.


When interviewed by Ian Traynor, European editor of The Guardian, in late January 2012, on the eve of yet another make-or-break Euro summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded him that, despite her reputation as cautious and pragmatic, her deep conviction was: ‘[Europe] is my continent – a continent where people hold the same values dear that I do.’ Earlier, at his guest lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, echoing the aspirations of Merkel’s compatriot, Pope Benedict XVI, referred to that same community of values, adding that Europe’s future depended on the spiritual being an integral part of the mix in the recovery of the continent’s sense of purpose and identity [TABLET 17/24 December 2011].


Stefan Zweig saw Europe as a community of culture and as author, playwright, journalist and indefatigable public speaker, whose independent means made it possible for him to travel widely, spent his entire adult life enabling the peoples of Europe to know one another better. He translated the works of fellow internationalists, the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren and the French novelist Romain Rolland, into German to make them known in the German-speaking world. He wrote colourful and imaginative historical biographies of such varied figures as Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart [largely researched in the reading room of the British Museum], Napoleon’s sinister chief of police Joseph Fouché, and, as if to exhibit his Europhile credentials, his master-work of biography, Erasmus of Rotterdam. Zweig believed in helping Europeans know one another better and gain insights into one another’s Geist. For him too, Europe’s soul was a top priority.


Central to Zweig’s personal and literary ambitions was the creation of a universal brotherhood based on an understanding of shared human and cultural values. He and his first wife Friederike deliberately chose to live in Salzburg, precisely because it marked the cross-roads of Europe.


Hence the urgency of Europe’s search for itself, launched originally by Jacques Delors back in the early nineties and espoused by Pope Benedict and Jonathan Sacks, as a quest for Europe’s soul. It is interesting to see that Livres de Poche have just published the complete works of Zweig in attractive paperback editions, clearly expecting a wide readership. That search for the elusive soul of Europe might well begin with a re-discovery of the writings of Stefan Zweig.


Patrick H. Daly

General Secretary of COMECE


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