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Letters Between Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth

Stefan Zweig to Joseph Roth, March 31, 1936 (from London)

…You must get it out of your head, the idea that we’re somehow being rough with you, or hard on you. Don’t forget we’re living in a period of general doom, and we can count ourselves lucky if we get through it at all. Don’t go accusing publishers, don’t blame your friends, don’t even beat your own breast, but finally have the courage to admit that however great you are as a writer, in material terms you’re a poor little Jew, almost as poor as seven million others, and are going to have to live like nine tenths of the human beings in the world, on a small footing and with a tightened belt. For me that would be the only proof of your cleverness: don’t always “fight back,” stop going on about the injustice of it all, don’t compare your earnings to those of other writers who don’t have a tenth of your talent. Now is your chance to show what you call modesty….

Roth to Zweig, April 2, 1936 (from Amsterdam)

…You know you’ve no need to tell me of all people what it is to be a poor little Jew. I’ve been that since 1894, and with pride. A believing Eastern Jew from Radziwillow. I would drop it if I were you. I’ve been small and poor for 30 years. Heck, I am poor.

But nowhere is it written that a poor Jew may not try to earn a living. That’s the only advice I turned to you for. If you don’t know, then say so. I thought you might be able to put me the way of some film people, or something….

Roth to Zweig, July 10, 1937 (from Brussels)

…You blame God for your aging, instead of thanking Him for it. You don’t understand that people have gotten worse, because you were never willing to see them as good and bad and as human until Judgment Day, which you are so slow to believe in. How can I talk to you? Because you notice it getting darker, you stand there bewildered by the approach of night; and you think, furthermore, that it’s something personal to do with you. Even currency devaluations you take as a personal affront, because you had thought you could save yourself by living in the isles of the blest. Now, for the sake of money, you want to return to the Continent, and to its darkest part. (Mind you don’t stay there too long!) You are independent of publishers and advances. You can afford to write nothing at all for two years. You truly are a “freelance.” Who else can say that of himself?

[Romain] Rolland has disappointed you. My Lord! He always was a false prophet and in thrall to noble errors and idealistic self-deceptions. Just before the World War he idolized the Germans and put to sleep whatever alertness the continent had. After the war he proclaimed the absolute goodness of humankind, and today he’s a lackey of the Russian executioners. In the truest sense of the word, he has never known where God dwells, and he never will till his dying day.

You already have a clear notion—being of the tribe of Asra, who have God, even if they never get him—of the inadequacy of all human idealisms that you bathed in from the time of your youth, and in which you have steeped yourself. You’re bound to be disappointed. The nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi is just as unhelpful to me, as Hitler’s violence is detestable. Of course you shouldn’t sign up for any party or group. I don’t see why that should even occur to you. You are an unregistered member of a motley group as it is, with tumblers, men of the world, rascals and dilettantes and liars, all coexisting with a small handful of decent individuals. You think you have already withdrawn from it. Oh no, you haven’t! Why for instance did you send a statement to be read out at the PEN Club? An organization where Communists and Fascists shoulder the yoke of politics and the state, and you come along and intone your: Down with politics! You’re not serious. Don’t you understand? That might be the way to speak in front of a republic of ghosts, but not to a lurid organization where arseholes have seats and votes alongside brains. Do you think you’ll tug at [Lion] Feuchtwanger’s conscience?* Will you hell! Why do you do these things! You can’t get over the loss of Germany! It’s only if Germany exists that you can be a cosmopolitan.

Show equanimity to the world and give what you have in the way of goodness to three or four individuals, not to “humankind,”

your old

Joseph Roth

Stefan Zweig letters copyright © Williams Verlag AG, Zürich, 1976.

Joseph Roth Briefe copyright © 1970 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne, and Verlag Allert de Lange, Amsterdam.

  1. *

    Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958) was a German-Jewish novelist and playwright prominent during the Weimar period. He was critical of the Nazis well before they came to power, left Germany in 1933, and eventually sought asylum in the United States. 

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