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Stefan Zweig’s Struggle with Nietzsche and the Daimonic Spirit (1881-1942)

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.


Zweig Photo

 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.”


 Nietzsche PictureFriedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)


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’s success. Nietzsche was ambivalent about Judaism and hostile to Christianity as cultural systems (he regarded both as forms of slave morality), but he was full of praise for Jews qua Jews. For example, in Beyond Good and Evil (§251), he described Jews as “the strongest, toughest, and purest race 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” (see Walter Kaufmann’s The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 456-457, 687).

Zweig’s Dionysian ideal also 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.” She 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” (see 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 “supposedly 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.


Golomb, Jacob. ‘Stefan Zweig: The Jewish Tragedy of a Nietzschean “Free Spirit”’, in Jacob Golomb (ed.), Nietzsche and the Austrian Culture (Vienna: WUV, 2004).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy,” “Beyond Good and Evil” and “On the Genealogy of Morals,” in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 2000).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (trans. R. J. Hollingdale; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Extracts from “Human, All-Too-Human” and various letters, in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche (London: Penguin Books, 1976).

Prater, Donald A. European of Yesterday: A Biography of Stefan Zweig (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

Zweig, Friderike. Stefan Zweig (trans. Erna McArthur; London: W.H. Allen, 1946).

Zweig, Stefan. Beware of Pity (trans. Phyllis Blewitt and Trevor Blewitt; London: Cassell, 1939).

Zweig, Stefan. Brazil: A Land of the Future (trans. Andrew St. James; London: Cassell, 1942).

Zweig, Stefan. Erasmus (trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul; London: Cassell, 1934).

Zweig, Stefan. Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche: The Struggle with the Daemon (London: Transaction Publishers, 2010). Originally published as Der Kampf mit dem Dämon in 1939.

Zweig, Stefan. The Royal Game (trans. B. W. Huebsch; London: Cassell, 1944). Originally published as Schachnovelle (Chess Story) in 1942.

Zweig, Stefan. The World of Yesterday (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). Originally published in 1943. Zweig started writing this volume in the early 1930s and sent it to his publisher the day before he and his second wife committed suicide.

G. K. Chesterton and the Anglo-Jewish Newspapers (the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish World and Jewish Guardian): 1918-1921

One argument that is often advanced against the claim that G. K. Chesterton was antisemitic is that some Jews have defended him from the charge. This is true. Michael Coren, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, is just one recent example. No doubt there were other Jewish fans of Chesterton then as there are now. Laurence Solomon, one of Chesterton’s friends, no doubt defended him from the charge. It would be interesting to know how he perceived and reacted to Chesterton’s caricatures and stereotypes. As Richard Ingrams recently asked in the Tablet, did Chesterton really believe that his Jewish friends would be okay with being “forced to wear an Arab-style headdress in public” and being forced to “live in a ghetto?” [1] Did these ideas irritate his Jewish friends Did they simply ignore them? Did they find them amusing? In most cases there is no way to know. The author Gladys Bronwyn Stern, another Jewish convert to Catholicism, regarded Chesterton as a saint. As early as the 1950s she wrote that she would “offer no apology for the habit which has gradually stolen in on me, of regarding two close friends whom I have never met, G. K. Chesterton and Baron von Hügel, as undoubtedly saints” [2]. 

However, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint, though true, is a questionable defence. As Joseph Pearce, one of Chesterton’s most fervent defenders, has noted, “it is true that the adage ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ is not, in itself, an adequate defence against the charge of anti-Semitism” [3]. Whilst some Jews have defended Chesterton, a number of his Anglo-Jewish contemporaries regarded him as an antisemite. The Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill has been cited in Chesterton’s defence on a number of occasions. It is often claimed that they were close friends. It took some digging but I did in fact find a couple of letters that suggest that prior to 1916 some sort of amicable relationship may have existed between the two authors. However, from 1916 onwards, Zangwill argued that Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton were antisemitic on a number of occasions. For more on this, see the claim that Chesterton and the Anglo Jewish author Israel Zangwill were friends.

The three prominent Anglo-Jewish newspapers during Chesterton’s lifetime, the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish World and Jewish Guardian, were all critical of Chesterton’s antisemitic discourse. In June 1918, the Jewish Chronicle criticised G. K. Chesterton for his accusation that the Jews carelessly trampled people underfoot as they rushed to the tube stations during air raids. The paper stated that “we cannot congratulate Mr. G. K. Chesterton on the reply he makes to the Jewish World on the questions that journal addressed to him. Mr. Chesterton’s paper, the New Witness, referring to the last air raid, asserted that while the attack was dealt with in a highly satisfactory way ‘the conduct of Jews of all classes during these raids continues deplorable in the extreme.’” The Jewish Chronicle observed that based on a “hotch-potch” of so-called evidence from “a lady sub-editor [i.e. Ada Chesterton], her maid, and unknown chatterers at Euston, Jews of all classes … are accused of deplorable cowardice and bad conduct in the extreme.” It stated that this was “a cruel and reckless libel upon a Community which has sent its sons by the thousand to the Front, and is every day called upon to suffer new pangs and fresh bereavements.” The Jewish Chronicle reported that Mr. Chesterton argued that it was more important to understand the cause of these Jewish rushes than to deny “so vast a popular impression as that of the different attitude of Jews and Gentiles towards the War.” “The spectacle of Mr. G. K. Chesterton bidding us bow down before a ‘vast popular impression,’” was, the paper concluded, “deliciously funny” [4]. When quizzed by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle as to whether he himself had witnessed Jews cowering in tube stations, Chesterton admitted that he had not personally witnessed this, but he argued that it was a matter of common knowledge. He stated that “the problem of aliens in air-raids is a thing that everybody knows.” He also argued that he could not be expected to go looking “for Jews in the Tubes, instead of going about my business above ground.” He concluded be stating that: “if my London affairs had led me, as well as my colleagues, into the Tubes during an air-raid, I suppose I should have seen what they saw; and the editor [of the Jewish Chronicle] would have refused my testimony as he refused theirs.” [5].

Referring to “Mr. G. K. Chesterton” in an article on 11 October 1918, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle concluded that: “The argument against active self-defence, the surest of which, is counter-attack, is the well-known one – suppose our counter-attack fails? But that is, in essence, cowardice. This way lies disintegration and defeat. This way lies biting the dust of our eternal heritage. It were far better to fail in a counter-attack against the enemies of our people; it were far better to fail in active self-defence than not to try. It were far better to fall than to allow the ruthless, venomous Chestertons and Bellocs et hoc genus to trample upon our prostrate bodies with their brutal, heavy-footed, relentless anti-Semitism. Hit back! Hit back! Hit back! is the lesson for us, to be learnt by us from the ages through which we have lived” [6].

The Jewish World also criticised G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For example, a series of articles from 23 June through to 22 September 1920, criticised Chesterton for suggesting that the Anglo-Jewish newspapers published the honour rolls of German-Jewish soldiers killed in the war, with the added twist being that Chesterton claimed that this was by no means unreasonable as Jewry constituted a separate and distinct nation [7]. “Mr. Chesterton,” the Jewish World concluded, “now pretends that he does not see why we are so anxious to repudiate his allegation. That is really touching. He starts out to show that English Jews are not loyal to this country though they are its citizens, and then expresses surprise that we desired to repel the insinuation by showing that the proof he relies upon is false” [8].

For more examples from the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish World, I would recommend an article by Dean Rapp, “the Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” published in Patterns of Prejudice [9].

Chesterton’s The New Jerusalem, published in 1920, argued that Jews could never be proper Englishmen. Chesterton suggested that Zionism should be supported as a way of getting rid of the Jews in England, and that those Jews who choose to remain in England rather than travel to Palestine once that option has been made available to them should be given a  so-called “special position best described as privilege; some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws.” “Privilege” was one of Chesterton’s and Belloc’s frequent euphemisms for segregation. Exhibiting his prejudice and stereotypes about both Arabs and Jews, Chesterton suggested that Jews by law should be obliged to go about “dressed like an Arab” [10]. The Jewish Guardian responded by stating that Chesterton had contrived to “write a really stupid book.” The paper suggested that Chesterton would probably “account it a sign of inherited financial preoccupation if one poor Jewish bookman remarks that 12s. 6d. is a high price to exact for 300 empty pages” [11]. On 11 November 1921, the Jewish Guardian reported a lecture by Chesterton to a Jewish organisation called the “Ghetto Circle.” The paper suggested that Chesterton proposed to discuss “national traditions in Europe,” whilst the Ghetto Circle “no doubt would discuss whether he was an anti-Semite.” The Jewish Guardian concluded that this “seemed a very fair division of labour” [12].

In conclusion, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint does not prove that he was not an antisemite; and in fairness, the fact that some Jews have argued that he was an antisemite does not by itself prove that he was. The case must be decided on the basis of the evidence (i.e. what he wrote as a journalist and author) and not the claim that some Jews have defended him, or the myth that the Wiener Library defends him.

Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Anglo-Jewish Newspapers

1.  Richard Ingrams, “More sinner than saint,” Tablet, 12 October 2013, 9.

2.  G. B. Stern, The way it worked out (London: Catholic Book Club, [1956]), 106. See also G. B. Stern, All in Good Time (London: Sheed and Ward, [1954]), 63.

3.  Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 448.

4.  “A Reckless Charge,” Jewish Chronicle, 14 June 1918, 4.

5.  G. K. Chesterton, At the Sign of the World’s End, New Witness, 21 June 1918, 148.

6.  Leopold Greenberg [Mentor, pseud.], “Hit Back! Hit Back! Hit Back!,” In the Communal Armchair, Jewish Chronicle, 11 October 1918, 7.

7.  See Jewish World: “Englishman and Jew” and “An Astounding Statement,” 23 June 1920, 3-4; “Mr. Belloc and the ‘Jewish World,’” 14 July 1920, 2-3; “Now then, Mr. Chesterton!,” 21 July 1920, 3; “Our Challenge to the ‘New Witness,” 28 July 1920, 3; “The Witness,” 18 August 1920, 3; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 25 August 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 1 September 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 8 September 1920, 8-9; “Mr. Chesterton’s ‘Roll,’” 22 September 1920, 2.

8.  “Why?,” Around the World, Jewish World, 22 September 1920, 2.

9.  Dean Rapp, “The Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 24, nos. 2-4, 1990.

10.  G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, [1920]), 227, 248.

11.  “‘G.K.C.’ in Jerusalem,” Jewish Guardian, 3 December 1920, 7.

12.  “Mr. G. K. Chesterton at the Ghetto Circle,” Jewish Guardian, 11 November 1921, 4.