Stefan Zweig was a prolific Austrian author of novels, short stories, plays and biographies. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in November 1881 and committed suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil, in February 1942.
Stefan Zweig (1881-1942)
Zweig developed a fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche when he was a student at the Maximilian gymnasium (school) in Vienna. According to Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, and his examination of Nietzsche in Der Kampf mit dem Dämon (The Struggle with the Daemon), the gymnasium provided a “treadmill” of learning which was designed to suppress the exuberant spirit of youth. Zweig cast about for solace and found it in Nietzsche’s books. These he discussed at coffee houses and read under the desk as his teacher “delivered his time-worn lecture.” It was the rebellious nature of Nietzsche that attracted Zweig. According to Zweig, Nietzsche chose to “kick over the traces of his official duties and, with a sigh of relief, quit the chair of philology at Basel University.” Having broken the “shackles which bound him to the past” he was ready to become “an outlaw, an amoralist, a sceptic, a poet, a musician.” Ironically the gymnasium’s oppressive regime provided the fertile environment necessary for Nietzsche’s influence to take hold of Zweig, and consequently he developed a “hatred for all authority” and a “passion to be free – vehement to a degree” that was, according to Zweig, “scarcely known to present-day youth.”
The aspect of Nietzsche that appealed most to Zweig was his so-called “Dionysian” spirit. Zweig’s examination of Nietzsche in The Struggle with the Daemon was, as he acknowledged, not so much a biography as a portrait of a life as “a tragedy of the spirit, as a work of dramatic art.” It was “the fact that his daimonic nature was given free reign,” despite the inherent self destructive risk, that appealed to Zweig. This he felt transformed Nietzsche’s destiny into “legendary wonder.” Zweig repeatedly contrasted Nietzsche with Goethe. He suggested that Goethe also had a daimonic spirit, but that he recognised it and kept it under tight control, so that he could “be the ruler of his own destiny.” According to Zweig, as a rule “the thralls of the daimon were torn to pieces,” but Goethe opposed or subdued the “Dionysian disposition,” and “having subdued the daimon, was self-controlled to the end.” For Zweig this made Goethe a less interesting character than Nietzsche. However, in placing the unrestrained Dionysian spirit on a pedestal, Zweig ignored a critical aspect of Nietzsche’s own philosophy. Nietzsche developed a complex vision of two contrasting human drives. According to Nietzsche, the “Apollonian” exemplified the principle of individuation; the distinct, well ordered, disciplined, coldly logical, restrained and carefully bounded nature of individual existence. Conversely, the “Dionysian” exemplified the collapse of the principle of individuation: passion, intoxication, ecstasy, primal savagery and the dissolution of the boundaries that keep the individual distinct from nature. Whilst Nietzsche regarded neither the Apollonian nor Dionysian drives as healthy in isolation, he did emphasise the Dionysian spirit as the key to cultural regeneration in The Birth of Tragedy. However, Nietzsche later warned that this Dionysian spirit, though crucially important, should be tempered by the Apollonian.
Despite Zweig’s admiration of the Dionysian spirit, his portrait of Nietzsche was not without a measure of equivocation. He suggested in The Struggle with the Daemon that Nietzsche (along with Hölderlin and Kleist) was a thrall, “possessed … by a higher power, the daimonic.” This daimonic nature impelled him “towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation, and even self-destruction.” He argued that this spirit enabled his mind to reach new heights but that ultimately it destroyed him. While Zweig admired Nietzsche’s spirit he also recognised the surface reality of his life. Nietzsche worshiped amor fati, happiness and good health. Yet as Zweig showed, the reality was that he was also a lonely man, constantly ill, reliant on tinctures and medicaments, unhappy and timid in his everyday dealings with other people.
Despite this equivocation, Zweig’s life would suggest that he did more than pay lip service to Nietzsche’s Dionysian ideal. He glorified composers, poets and writers, infused his own prolific works with his emotional life, and deployed his art as his primary response to the suffering and catastrophes of his time. Zweig informs us that “Nietzsche wished neither to better the world nor to inform the world.” “His ecstasy was,” Zweig suggested, “an end in itself, a delight sufficient in itself, a personal voluptuousness, wholly egoistical and elementary.” Zweig likewise privileged the artistic spirit as a superior end in itself over active worldly participation. He regarded Erasmus of Rotterdam as an example of the anti-fanatical life par excellence, a man to whom “artistic achievement and inner peace is the most important thing on earth.” He suggested that Jews should refrain from pursuing political goals and solutions which only draw attention and increase antisemitism, and instead follow the example of Erasmus. This, Zweig suggested, was his “own way of life symbolized.”
Zweig had always been a pacifist. During the First World War he felt that his pacifism demanded that he use his pen in solidarity with the innocent victims of the conflict. Consequently he worked with Romain Rolland and other literary figures to develop a peace campaign in Switzerland. However, by the time the Nazis rose to power, his pacifism had warped into a paralyzing passivity. Such was his interpretation of Erasmus’s way of life. This probably explains why Zweig refused requests from his friends during the early 1930s to write anything against fascism and Nazism. Referring to an operatic project he had collaborated on with Richard Strauss (Zweig wrote the libretto for Die schweigsame Frau), he observed in The World of Yesterday that “from all quarters friends urged me to protest publicly against a performance in National Socialist Germany.” He refused to protest, stating that he “fundamentally” loathed “public and pathetic gestures.” According to one of his biographers, Donald Prater, when Zweig was encouraged by his friend Ernst Fischer to write an article against fascism, he felt unable to comply, feeling that it was the author’s duty in such times to publish only things that were “inspiring and satisfying.”
Zweig’s failure to deploy his pen against fascism and antisemitism can be contrasted with Nietzsche. Nietzsche was ambivalent if not hostile about Judaism and Christianity as cultural systems (he regarded both as forms of slave morality), but he praised and defended Jews qua Jews. For example, in Beyond Good and Evil (§251), he described Jews as “the strongest, toughest, and purest people now living in Europe; they know how to prevail even under the worst conditions,” and he envisaged an important role for Jews in the regeneration of European culture. He stated that “to that end it might be useful and fair to expel the anti-Semitic screamers from the country.” Nietzsche expressed similar sentiments in Human, All-Too-Human (§475) and Daybreak (§205). In a letter to his sister around Christmas 1887, Nietzsche stated that he was filled with “ire or melancholy” over her marriage to “an anti-Semitic chief.” He even stated in a letter to Franz Overbeck in January 1889, shortly after the beginning of his psychological breakdown, that he was having all “anti-Semites shot”.
Zweig’s Dionysian ideal had a dark side. According to Friderike Zweig (Friderike was Stefan’s first wife and his close friend even after he remarried), he was “interested in mediocre, stupid or luke-warm people only if they were suffering.” Friderike observed that he depicted “illiterates as mental cripples, unable to grasp the breadth of the universe,” and considered “average people as a ‘quantité négligeable’”. According to Friderike, in this respect, he “contradicted his otherwise humane approach” (in Friderike Zweig’s biography: Stefan Zweig). Something of this can be seen in Erasmus, in which Stefan blamed the “broad masses of the people” for preventing his hero’s “lofty and humane ideals of spiritual understanding” from coming to fruition. The “average man,” he concluded, was too far “under the spell of hatred, which demands its rights to the detriment of loving-kindness.”
Zweig’s air of superiority over the “average” or “illiterate” man can also be found in his Schachnovelle (1942; published as The Royal Game in 1944 and subsequently as Chess or Chess Story). In this novella, Czentovic, an almost unbeatable chess playing prodigy, is depicted as the antithesis of Zweig’s Dionysian ideal. Czentovic is portrayed as a “half-illiterate” simpleton, “indolent,” “slow-speaking,” “narrow-minded,” with a “vulgar greed,” ignorant “in every field of culture,” unable “to write a single sentence in any language without misspelling a word,” and completely lacking in “imaginative power.” However, eminent intellectuals who were “his superior in brains, imagination, and audacity” all collapsed before his “tough, cold logic.” This depiction of the one dimensional simpleton, a pure Apollonian with no Dionysian spirit, stands in contrast to the tragic culture loving “Dr B.” Dr B is presented as having suffered a prolonged isolation at the hands of the Nazis resulting in a psychological breakdown. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this was clearly based upon Zweig’s perception of his own experience of isolation in Brazil. Dr B, now free from his isolation in the hotel room, challenges and at first manages to defeat the chess prodigy, but Czentovic adapts to his new opponent. Recognizing Dr B’s psychological fragility, he adopts an infuriating slow pace in order to break him. In the rematch, Dr B is not only defeated but driven to the brink of madness by Czentovic’s relentless but snail paced logic. Dr B’s Dionysian spirit is crushed by the cold Apollonian logic and brutal psychology of his supposedly inferior opponent.
Zweig’s so-called “humane approach,” which privileged those with an artistic spirit over the “illiterate” and “average” person, had more than a passing resemblance to Nietzsche’s portrayal of “noble” benevolence. In On the Genealogy of Morals (bk I, §10-11), Nietzsche expressed admiration for the “nobility” who employ “benevolent nuances” in their dealings with the so-called “lower orders”. According to Nietzsche, these lower orders are driven by the “venomous eye of ressentiment.” Zweig similarly suggested that the “average man” was “under the spell of hatred.” Conversely, they both believed that the so-called noble man, with his Dionysian artistic spirit, is able to consider those unlike him with a benign forbearance, as merely “bad” rather than “evil.” Zweig’s intoxication with freedom, his consistent dissolution of the boundaries between art and life, and his compassionate but disdainfully patronising attitude towards so-called “average” people, does seem to fit with Nietzsche’s Dionysian ideal, though crucially he ignored Nietzsche’s later observation that it was dangerous not to temper it with Apollonian self control.
Jacob Golomb argued in “Stefan Zweig: The Jewish Tragedy of a Nietzschean ‘Free Spirit’” that Zweig’s suicide was the result of “his indefatigable determination to subsist all his life as a ‘pure’ Nietzschean.” Golomb observes that “speaking of Nietzsche’s aversion to pity, Zweig continues to refer to him as to ‘the most brilliant man of the last century.’” However, Zweig in fact developed an ambivalent rather than purist attitude towards Nietzsche. The short extract, “the most brilliant man of the last century,” is found in his novel Beware of Pity (1939). The full passage from this novel reveals an abhorrence to Nietzsche’s aversion to pity rather than, as Golomb implies, a sympathy for it: “But you’ll never get me to utter the word ‘incurable.’ Never! I know that it is to the most brilliant man of the last century, Nietzsche, that we owe the horrible aphorism: a doctor should never try to cure the incurable. But that is about the most fallacious proposition of all the paradoxical and dangerous propositions he propounded. The exact opposite is the truth.” Unlike Dr. Condor, the character in the novel that articulates this sentiment, Zweig did not have the emotional resources to attempt to cure the incurable. This does not demonstrate, as Golomb suggests, the “bankruptcy of the existential stance of a Jewish ‘free spirit’” – but simply that Stefan Zweig lacked, like many other people of his time, the resilience necessary to deal with the catastrophe occurring in Europe. One reason for this weakness was the emotional scars he carried from the First World War. One moment Europe had been in a golden age of progress and the next it was falling apart. Zweig’s previously unflinching faith in a supra-national Europe crumbled as a consequence.
In Schachnovelle, Zweig contrasted Dr B’s isolation, forced by the Nazis to remain in a comfortable but plain hotel room for months at end with only a clandestinely hidden book of chess solutions to entertain him, with that of Jews who suffered physically in concentration camps. This comparison (in which he suggested that Dr B’s fate was worse) would seem to reveal Zweig’s inability to truly confront or understand the horrors that Jews were facing in Europe during the early 1940s. However, when Zweig wrote this novella, he, like Dr B, was on the brink of a psychological break. Shortly thereafter he committed suicide (and the novella was published posthumously). His alter-ego, Dr B, surmised that the Jews in the concentration camps at least “have seen faces, would have had space, a tree, a star, something, anything, to stare at, while here everything stood before one unchangeably the same, always the same, maddeningly the same.” Like Dr B, Zweig was unable to cope with his sense of isolation. Zweig managed to escape the Nazi plague spreading across Europe and ended up in Brazil in August 1940 (two years prior to the publication of Schachnovelle). According to Friderike Zweig (by this point Stefan’s ex-wife), he wrote to her to inform her that “the landscape was indescribably beautiful, the people charming, Europe and the war more remote.” He stated that “with a good library, life here could be very pleasant.” He expressed a similar sentiment in Brazil: A Land of the Future. According to Zweig, “the European arrogance which I had brought with me as so much superfluous luggage vanished with astonishing rapidity. I knew I had looked into the future of our world.” However, the “fairy-like Petrópolis” provided only a temporary respite. He felt guilt about the fate of the Jews he had left behind. He also felt a crushing sense of isolation. His attempts to overcome these feelings through his usual solution, the creation of uplifting literary works, failed. Like Nietzsche, Zweig was ultimately torn to pieces by his struggle with the Daemon. When he could endure these feelings no longer, he committed suicide.