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.”

 

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