Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Stefan Zweig's Last Letter

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), Austrian and Jewish, left Austria in 1934 for England, then New York, and finally Brazil. His work - once the most translated one - had been denounced, banned and vilified in Germany and Austria.

During political disturbances early in 1934, policemen arrived at Zweig’s house, demanding to search it for weapons. As soon as they had gone, Zweig packed his bags for London, where he had recently rented an apartment, and he never lived in Austria again.
Leo Carey, The New Yorker
Zweig, who had been "one of the most renowned authors" (via) and "an object of admiration" and envy before, lived in exile (via), in Brazil "the only place where the race question does not exist", Zweig wrote. He continued: "Blacks and whites and Indians, the most marvellous mulattos and creoles, Jews and Christians all live together in an indescribable peace." Brazil was ruled by Vargas, an anti-Semite dictator who only offered Zweig asylum because he was so famous (via).

On 22 February 1942, he combed his hair, buttoned his collar, straightened his tie, took an overdose of sleeping pills and lay down. His death, together with his second wife Charlotte Elisabeth Altmann, is often interpreted as a political act. In fact, he was "anything but outspoken" which frustrated writers of the time (via)
If Zweig’s death wasn’t quite the political act it seemed, the popularity of that interpretation is understandable. A man in whom genuine modesty and a genius for self-publicity existed side by side, Zweig spent his life backing into the limelight, and his death followed the same pattern. The day after their bodies were discovered, Stefan and Lotte Zweig were given a state funeral. President Getúlio Vargas attended, along with his ministers of state. Petrópolis shuttered its shops as the cortège passed and deposited Stefan and Lotte in a plot near the mausoleum of Brazil’s former royal family. A day or so later, a friend received a farewell letter from Zweig, asking that his burial “should be as modest and private as possible.” Leo Carey, The New Yorker
In his suicide letter (entirely written in the first person singular although he committed suicide together with his wife), he wrote:

“Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself.
But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom – the most precious of possessions on this earth.
I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them." (via)

image via