On Stefan Zweig, the Soul of Europe

On Stefan Zweig, the Soul of Europe

“You see? There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

These juicy musings are not to be found in Stefan Zweig’s opulent literary oeuvres. They belong to Wes Anderson’s adorably melancholy bon vivant Gustave H., the gentle connoisseur of life under the velvet curtains of Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s an institution, the Hotel and the film itself, inspired by the immortal works of Stefan Zweig, as is carefully noted in the film’s credits. Anderson pays tribute to an Auteur (much like himself, of course), a historiographer, a novelist, an essayist, the most popular and celebrated literary superstar of the first half of 20th century. Back then Zweig’s name was on the lips of everyone, from the stuffy halls of his darling Vienna, to the roaring bowels of literary Paris (Britain, I think, was the only notable geographic exception. Ever the Brexiteers, then as now).

Zweig’s luxuriously opulent writing style is akin to the fluffiest profiteroles gently melting on the tip of one’s tongue. Zweig takes any subject, time period, or historical persona, and delivers delicious page-long paragraphs of philigreed prose, so overwhelmingly, shockingly beautiful that you might catch yourself re-reading some suave little phrase depicting Casanova’s syphilitic wounds or Nietzsche’s migraines countless times, delighting in the sheer beauty and grace of the nouns, verbs, and adjectives laid out before you on the page. Such skill and beauty could bring tyrants to their knees. Alas… Zweig’s books failed to charm that one particular tyrant of his age, Hitler, and so his books, among other literary diamonds and other, smaller gems, were sentenced to be burned at the stake, in those infamous book burning barbarities of the nazi epoch.

So why is Zweig the soul of Europe? Surely, not just because of his literary calisthenics?

Focusing on Zweig’s essays (his short stories and biographies of famous people deserve a separate discussion), it’s apparent that his great hope for a united, supranational Europe, his incessant belief in humanity’s potential, is always tainted with insurmountable sadness and fatherly disappointment with the sorry state of affairs in this rabid, galloping, sleepless world. After the unparalleled disaster of the First World War Zweig wonders: this time around, when the storm clouds gather, when the war trumpets sound again, will Europe destroy itself completely?

Zweig is the faithful guardian of the three thousand year old treasure chest of European civilization. He serenades its culture and argues with passion that Europe’s most brilliant epochs were when it allowed for a free exchange of people and ideas. The liberal genius of the Renaissance, he muses, was killed off by the competitive isolationism of Reformation, much like the glorious openness of Rome was laid waste by the fratricidal squabbles of the Dark Ages.

Zweig marvels at all that the people of the continent were able to achieve, this glimmering Tower of Babel, now lying half-in-ruins, half-abandoned, the grand construction halted on account of petty nationalist fervour eating away, like rust, at its foundations.

“This is the monstrous moment we are living through today. The new Tower of Babel, the great monument to the spiritual unity of Europe, lies in decay, its workers have lost their way. Still its battlements stand, still its invisible blocks loom over a world in disarray, but without the communal effort to keep the work going it will be entirely forgotten, just like the other in the time of myths.”

In this and his many other essays written after the First World War and just as the tanks and the boots were being polished for the Second, Zweig calls for, essentially, the European Union, a supranational entity where people are free to move around and collaborate, a potent antidote to future wars, a golden crown fit for this reverend continent to wear. He speaks of Europe where a Slovakian worker and a Norwegian fisher would partake in a lively exchange of ideas, in a kind of a socialist conference, where good thoughts are as plentiful as canapés or shrimp cocktails. It is through the free flow of ideas (and goods and services, of course) that the soul of Europe could finally be chiseled out of its beautiful yet lifeless torso. But hurry, Zweig cautions, hurry to muster that courage, that spirit, that will, for the hellmouth of war is about to open once again. And here we see Anderson’s Gustave H wagging his Ralph Fiennes alabaster finger and blasting that memorable bit about the “slaughterhouse of humanity…”

The parallels with political, social, philosophical, and economic dilemma plaguing Europe today are blatantly obvious. What do we have on the menu today? Eurofatigue, euroskepticism, Brexit, assorted ultra-right characters, the migrant crisis, Putin’s dead eyes, and a nasty gut feeling of something wicked on the horizon. The socio-political air smells of gunpowder, and only a barely palpable veil of ignorance masked as respectability parts us from something awful.

Zweig did not survive that darkest hour and killed himself in 1942 in Brazil, where he fled earlier, bidding a sad adieu to his European motherland. In his infinite sadness, he just narrowly missed the hopeful turn of the tide with the Americans joining in the war efforts. He also missed the Marshall Plan and the founding of the EU. I cannot help but think he would have become some kind of an official EU arts dignitary, a Mozart of Brussels bureaucrats, the Eternal Euro-Optimist, the Classical Globalist with a gorgeous writing style…

In his essay History as a Poetess, Zweig describes history as “the workshop of God,” where dates and figures are only made meaningful by the poetic authority of those who transmit them:

“History only lives where it achieves a certain poetic grandeur, which is why the highest accomplishment of a people is to transform as much of its national history into world history as possible, its private people’s myth into a world myth.”

This view of history is that very “faint glimmer of civilization” our friend Gustave H speaks of in the film, right before he gets punched in the face by a throng of Nazi-esque police-thugs. And so the best of humanity, like Gustave, like Zweig, like countless others across continents, tirelessly labour on turning their little myths into the heritage of the world, dismantling walls, stretching out hands, and re-building that proverbial Tower of Babel.

I leave you with Zweig’s best essays:

  1. The Sleepless World
  2. The Tower of Babel
  3. History as a Poetess
  4. European Thought in Its Historical Development
  5. The Unification of Europe
  6. In This Dark Hour

Image: a still from The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014

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