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Why did Stefan Zweig choose suicide when he had the chance of a new life in exile?

Stefan Zweig in an undated photo (Photo: PA)

How does one cope with displacement from one’s homeland, or indeed permanent exile, through war? On Tuesday I blogged about Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell, which concerns the dwindling and exiled religious communities of the Middle East. Earlier I wrote about Dietrich von Hildebrand’s My Battle with Hitler. In the former case Russell describes, for example, the Chaldeans, driven out of Iraq but now colonising parts of Detroit with churches, shops and newspapers. In the latter case von Hildebrand, sustained by his strong Catholic faith, became a respected member of the academic faculty at Fordham University in the States.

What happens if you lack the inner resources to reinvent yourself in a new world? I have just been reading The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik, an account of the last years in the life of the Austrian Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig (UK readers can buy the book here). He did not return to his homeland after Hitler’s invasion of Austria in 1938, moving to Bath, then the East Coast of America and finally to Petropolis, a rural suburb of Rio in Brazil, where he committed suicide, along with his much younger second wife, Lotte, during the night of February 22 1942. He was 60, she was 33.

It might sound odd to say that Zweig lacked inner resources. He was a celebrated and gifted writer of essays, novels and biographies which were published worldwide; he was surrounded by a large circle of cultivated friends; and he was wealthy, with enough private family means to live a comfortable life wherever he chose to settle. How could he not have appreciated, in exile, that he had been given the chance to live when millions of his fellow Jews, denied that chance, had been driven to their deaths in concentration camps? That was the question I began by asking myself.

Prochnik, quoting widely from Zweig’s letters as well as his memoir, The World of Yesterday, written in exile, supplies some of the answer but not all of it. Zweig, a vain man who always dressed fastidiously, feared the aging process. Also, the gradual persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany filled him with dread of future displacement. As a habitué of the Viennese cafe society as well as its concert halls and literary life, he lamented that “the world we loved has gone beyond recall”. He hated hearing the German language, which he had used so lyrically and effectively, being distorted for propaganda purposes in the Third Reich. He felt imprisoned in a language “which I cannot use”.

Even deeper, as a secular Jew and grand man of letters, was his sense of alienation from other Jews, especially the Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe, with their long kaftans, shawls and side-locks, with whom he was now identified and with whom he had “no shared faith”. In England, a country he loved, he was shocked to be regarded as an enemy alien in 1939. Although twice-married, Zweig had no interest in having children, which would have given him an emotional investment for the future. Egoistically, he regarded his books as his children; in exile he wrote bitterly: “Many have died before me, many are inaccessible and they speak other languages than I did.”

Although Prochnik does not spell this out, in retrospect one can see Zweig’s final years of exile as a conscious descent into despair. Removed from all his purely human props and resources and without religious faith to sustain him, he simply felt he had nothing left to live for. To my mind Prochnik is not critical enough of his entirely selfish wish to die, knowing that his young second wife, completely under his influence and caught up in his deepening pessimism, would not consent to live without him.

His death was not suicide “while the balance of the mind is disturbed”, as English coroners kindly (and rightly) often phrase it; it was a solipsistic, willed act of self-destruction, terrifying to contemplate. Why read such a book? At the very least, it reinforced the truth of Cardinal Newman’s wonderful words, which echoed in my mind as I finished the final pages (with their gruesome photo of the dead couple): “If I am in sickness my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what he is about.”