Death in Exile

Explaining the Suicide of Stefan Zweig

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    There has been an extraordinary revival of interest in the author Stefan Zweig in recent years. New books now shed light on his final years in exile and the reasons for his death by suicide.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • During the 1920s and 1930s, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was among the world’s most popular writers, with bestsellers in dozens of countries.
    • Zweig left his native Austria for exile in Great Britain, the United States, and then Brazil. He never returned to Europe.
    • In February 1942, he committed suicide with his wife at their home near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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Stefan Zweig in seinem Salzburger Domizil
The author Stefan Zweig in Salzburg in 1931. He would later go into exile to escape the "barbarity" of WWII. Source: Trude Fleischmann/picture alliance/Imagno

Even his suicide was a kind of performance. Before Stefan Zweig took an overdose of sleeping pills and lay down to die, he combed his hair a last time, buttoned his collar, and straightened his tie. In the police photos of the scene, the writer and his wife Lotte look peaceful and composed, as if they have simply drifted off to sleep. Lotte wears an elegant kimono, her head resting on her husband’s shoulder. A picture of a love unto death. By then the couple had seen a decade of exile from Hitler, restlessly moving from one country to the next. They died in Brazil seventy-five years ago, as the night of February 22 in 1942.

He was “exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering,” Zweig said in his suicide letter. “I greet all my friends! May they live to see the dawn after the long night! Impatient, I am going ahead of you,” he added. Lotte was less given to pathos. To her sister-in-law she wrote: “Believe me, what we are doing is for the best.” But did they intend to die together? In his Zweig biography, The Impossible Exile, American scholar George Prochnik points out a number of inconsistencies. Zweig wrote only of himself in his farewell letter, his wife went unmentioned. Her body, unlike his, was still warm when they were discovered: She must have taken the poison later than him. Perhaps he only meant for himself to die?

The Zweigs were full of optimism when they set out for Brazil: They began learning Portuguese on the ship from New York to Rio. The bestselling author was received “like a superstar,” writes Mr. Prochnik. The Brazilian foreign minister was there to greet them at the quay; they walked down the gangplank in a hail of flashes from the press photographers. Zweig believed that he was arriving in a post-racial paradise. Brazil was, he wrote, “the only place where the race question does not exist. Blacks and whites and Indians, the most marvelous mulattos and creoles, Jews and Christians all live together in an indescribable peace.”

 

Brazil was, Mr. Zweig wrote, a place where all races could 'live together in an indescribable peace.'

This turned out to be wishful thinking. In Brazil, as elsewhere, the ruling class were the descendents of white conquerers. The country’s ruler was the dictator Getúlio Vargas, an anti-Semite who only offered Zweig asylum because he was world-famous. Shortly after the Zweigs arrived in August 1941, his book Brazil: Land of the Future was published, based on a previous visit to the country. To Brazilian intellectuals, it was a bitter disappointment: Zweig applauded Vargas, claiming Brazil had “less past and more future” than Europe, thanks to the dictator’s “Estado Novo” movement.

It was not the first time Zweig showed political naïveté. He came to Brazil to create some distance for himself from politics, Europe, and the war. In New York, he complained of the many other refugees seeking his help, calling it a “refugee avalanche.” In fact, he helped many, offering money and advice. In May 1941, he founded “European P.E.N. in America,” to resist Nazism. But to find space to work, he moved out of New York City to the small upstate town of Ossining.

“I will be happy if I can forget Europe, accept our possessions as lost, become indifferent to fame and success, and just be thankful to be alive in this divine landscape while Europe is in misery and hunger,” he wrote to his ex-wife Friderike. The Zweigs rented a bungalow in the “divine landscape” around Petrópolis, a health resort close to Rio de Janeiro, once Emperor Dom Pedro II’s summer residence. Here, Zweig rediscovered his old productivity, revising his autobiography The World of Yesterday, and writing his last work, a novella, The Royal Game.

As he wrote his nostalgic autobiography, Zweig knew he would never see The World of Yesterday again. “I am forced to be a defenseless, powerless witness to humanity’s descent into a barbarism thought forgotten,” he wrote, in a mixture of defiance and resignation. He had been forced to leave his home city of Vienna, “like a criminal,” he said. Two days after his house was searched by fascist police in 1934, Zweig—a pacifist and humanist—took the train for London, never to return. His first great book written in exile was a biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam, a portrait of an eloquent but indecisive intellectual; it was also a kind self-portrait.

Zweig long hesitated to criticize the Nazis openly, concerned about the Jews they “held hostage” in Germany. After struggling with bouts of depression, arriving in Brazil prompted euphoric moments. He was enthralled by Rio’s Carnival: “How I would have loved it earlier, a whole city dancing, moving, singing for four days, without police or commerce, a crowd united by joy!” he wrote. But even these lines have a hint of farewell. Continuing bad news from the war depressed him. He wrote to a colleague: “Perhaps those who quietly put an end to it all were the wisest. They rounded off their own lives, while we hang on, lingering under our own shadow.”

 

“I am forced to be a defenseless, powerless witness to humanity’s descent into a barbarism thought forgotten.”

Stefan Zweig, from "The World of Yesterday"

 

Along with Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger, Stefan Zweig was among the most famous of the WWII German exiles. But he had no wish to be a moral authority. “Intellectuals should stick to their books,” he said. He spoke on political subjects only with considerable reluctance. But his last address book, now published in a facsimile entitled Telephone Book, reveals his close relations with other exiles. The slim volume, begun in 1940, included 158 names, including many famous writers, musicians, and journalists.

This was a heavily revised book, with addresses crossed out and rewritten several times. Many exiles had no fixed home for many years, and Zweig broke with many friends who remained behind in Europe. Figures like the poet Hans Carossa and the composer Richard Strauss, once admired by Zweig, stayed in Germany, continuing their careers under the Nazis.

At the end of his life, Zweig was overcome with fear, pessimism, and apathy. His letters in the last two years of his life, gathered in a new edition, recount his long journey into hopelessness. In November 1941, he spoke of a “breakdown with black thoughts.” In January 1942, he admitted: “I am depressed about this endless war.” In his farewell letter to his brother-in-law, he summed up his situation: “At sixty years of age, I can no longer bear the thought of more years in this dreadful time.” In the end, Stefan Zweig saw no alternative to suicide.

 

This article originally appeared in Handelsblatt’s sister publication, Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. 

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