Why Europeans are reading Stefan Zweig again
Posted by hkarner - 21. Dezember 2016
Source: The Economist: Charlemagne
The writer, wildly popular in his time, now seems more apt than ever
AFTER this bleakest of years for Europe, glib talk of the 1930s is in the air. The bonds of trust between nations are fraying, and the old saw that the European Union advances only in times of crisis is being tested to destruction. Populists are on the march. Britain is on the way out. And Europe’s neighbours are either menacing it (Russia) or threatening to flood it with refugees. One hyperventilating Eurocrat recently confided to your columnist that he feared another Franco-German war.
Small wonder that gloomy Europeans are starting to dust off their Stefan Zweig. A prolific and, in his time, wildly popular author of novels, biographies and political tracts, Zweig incarnated the interwar ideal of the cultivated European. A Jew who saw his books burned by the Nazis, he was exiled first from his Austrian home, in 1934, and then from Europe. Zweig’s literary star was eclipsed by contemporaries such as Thomas Mann and Joseph Roth. But his witness to Europe’s catastrophe, and his dedication to the cause of its union, have helped restore him to popular affection. (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”, a 2014 film inspired by Zweig’s writing, may also have had a hand.)Zweig held the aesthete’s distaste for the grub and grind of politics, but his calls for European unity grew more urgent throughout the 1930s as the continent stumbled towards war. When it finally came, Zweig could not muster the hope he had encouraged in others. In “The World of Yesterday”, a lament composed towards the end of his life for the cosmopolitan fin-de-siècle Vienna of his childhood, Zweig declares Europe “lost” to him as it tears itself apart for the second time in living memory. In 1942 Zweig and his young wife committed suicide in their adopted home of Petrópolis, nestled in the hills above Rio de Janeiro.
In the harsh assessment of John Gray, a critic, Zweig showed too little courage in life for his death to be considered tragic. But there is no hiding the irony in what was to follow. Less than a decade after his suicide six European countries agreed to unify their steel and coal production, establishing a club that was to evolve into the European project which Zweig had for so long urged into being. An organisation built on such prosaic foundations would doubtless not have excited the high-minded scribbler’s imagination (and for all its pan-European commingling, Brussels will never match Zweig’s Vienna). But it sought to achieve via bureaucratic means what Zweig had hoped to attain through education and culture: to make war between France and Germany not just unthinkable but impossible.
That founding myth of what was to become the EU still animates its leaders today. In a recent speech Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, nodded to Zweig’s warning that those caught up in historical change never notice its beginnings. Mr Tusk deplored the “trap of fatalism” that, he argued, had ensnared today’s moderate politicians facing the threat of populism. In Zweig’s time, he added, liberals gave up “virtually without a fight, even though they had all the cards”.
Old-timers in Brussels lament the lack of vision among today’s crop of leaders, as if a transplanted Kohl, Mitterrand or Delors would be enough to restore Europe to health. But it is not only politicians whose memories of the 1940s are fading. By rendering war among its members unimaginable, the EU has undercut its own support. Without such an animating mission, some question the sacrifices of sovereignty that EU membership demands.
The crises of recent years provide one answer. Although some of the EU’s woes can be traced to mistakes of its own making—the integration by stealth that sometimes treated voters as inconvenient, or the design flaws of the single currency—others came from outside and called for a co-ordinated reaction. Without the EU, the Russian threat would loom much larger and squabbling governments would have struggled even more to respond to the migration crisis. Problems like climate change and terrorism demand joint management. For all the EU’s missteps, Europe’s problems would be harder to solve in its absence.
Beware of pity
Zweig’s message is doubly seductive. His insistence on the pendulum-like nature of European history, swinging back and forth over centuries between prickly tribalism and the craving for co-operation, reassures the fearful that today’s disunity may prove temporary. His attacks on the small-minded politicians of his age satisfies the disdain in which contemporary pro-Europeans hold their leaders. “The European idea”, Zweig wrote, is “the slow-ripened fruit of a more elevated way of thinking.” Plenty in Brussels find this supercilious thought admirable.
But as Zweig acknowledged, a supranational club can never command the affection of citizens as a nation can. His own remedy—a rotating European capital with events and festivities to ape national spectacles—eventually came to pass, albeit in diluted form. But the European Capital of Culture, alas, has not yet lifted Europeans to the state of elevated consciousness Zweig hoped for. The enduring tug of national allegiance still provides the best means to mobilise Europeans to action. If those who dream of a federal European superstate, as Zweig did, have lost the argument, better to work with the grain of national politics than to rue the idiocy of those who won.
Ten years ago the danger for Europe was of courtly decline into irrelevance. Since then the tempo of events has quickened and the risk of disintegration deepened. The EU, that most peculiar of institutions, has not yet worked out how to leaven the need for a central authority with the democratic energy of nation-states. Today’s emergencies make the task more pressing. But the challenges in today’s rich, free, democratic and largely peaceful Europe are not those of the 1930s. Zweig began “The World of Yesterday” with a suggestion from Shakespeare: “Meet the time as it seeks us.” On that, at least, he had a point.