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His Exile Was Intolerable

The Grand Budapest Hotel

a film directed by Wes Anderson
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Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostende, Belgium, 1936

On February 23, 1942, Stefan Zweig and his young wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil. The following day, the Brazilian government held a state funeral, attended by President Getulio Vargas. The news spread rapidly around the world, and the couple’s deaths were reported on the front page of The New York Times. Zweig had been one of the most renowned authors of his time, and his work had been translated into almost fifty languages. In the eyes of one of his friends, the novelist Irmgard Keun, “he belonged to those that suffered but who would not and could not hate. And he was one of those noble Jewish types who, thinskinned and open to harm, lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit and lacks the capacity themselves to do harm.”1

The suicide set off a surge of emotion and a variety of reactions. Thomas Mann, the unquestioned leader of German-language writers in exile, made no secret of his indignation at what he considered an act of cowardice. In a telegram to the New York daily PM, he certainly paid tribute to his fellow writer’s talent, but he underscored the “painful breach torn in the ranks of European literary emigrants by so regrettable a weakness.” He made his point even clearer in a letter to a writer friend: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.” Why had Zweig been unable to rebuild his life? It wasn’t for lack of means, as Mann pointed out to his daughter Erika.

This is the subject of Georges Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile, a gripping, unusually subtle, poignant, and honest study. Prochnik attempts, on the basis of an uncompromising investigation, to clarify the motives that might have driven to suicide an author who still enjoyed a rare popularity, an author who had just completed two major works, his memoir, The World of Yesterday, and Brazil: Land of the Future. He had also finished one of his most startling novellas, Chess Story, in which he finally addressed the horrors of his own time, proving that his creative verve hadn’t been in the least undermined by his ordeals. Recently he had married a loving woman, nearly thirty years his junior. And he had chosen of his own free will to leave the United States and take refuge in Brazil, a hospitable nation that had fired his imagination.

Why had exile proved so intolerable to Stefan Zweig when other artists drew a new vigor and inspiration from it? Prochnik notes that Claude Levi-Strauss,

walking New York’s streets for the first time in 1941, described the city as a place where anything seemed possible…. What made [its charm], he wrote, was the way the city was at once “charged with the stale odors of Central Europe”—the residue of a world that was already finished—and injected with the new American dynamism.

Zweig never experienced moments of terror or the life-and-death decisions to be made in the course of a few hours, nor was he forced to slog through the long and challenging reconstruction of a professional career. He always seemed to get out well before the wave broke, with plenty of time to pack his bags, sort through his possessions, and, most important of all, pick his destination. He left Austria and his beautiful home in Salzburg as early as 1933. A police search on the false pretext of unearthing a cache of illegal weapons led him to depart for Great Britain, leaving his wife, Friderike, and his two stepdaughters behind. Unlike his German colleagues, including Thomas Mann, who had left Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 with no hope of returning home until there was a change of regime, Zweig was able to travel freely between London, Vienna, and Salzburg for another five years. An Austrian passport, valid until the Anschluss in March 1938, allowed him to make trips to the United States and South America.

But Hitler’s rise to power had serious and immediate consequences for Zweig, in particular the loss of his German publisher, Insel Verlag. Still, at the start of the Nazi era, Zweig’s books continued to be available in Germany. Even though it was forbidden to display them or allude to them in the press, his sales figures remained virtually unchanged in 1933 and 1934. More surprising still, Richard Strauss—who had asked Zweig to write the libretto of his opera The Silent Woman—fought against the suppression of Zweig’s name on the program of the work, at a time when mentioning Jewish artists was prohibited. The opera had its premiere in June 1935, but only two performances followed. Strauss was nevertheless very anxious to continue working with Zweig. He even suggested they keep the collaboration secret until better times, but Zweig’s sense of solidarity with his fellow Jewish artists forbade him to accept.

Those first years of what we can call a comfortable exile were punctuated not by drama—because Zweig was a master at the art of avoiding drama in his personal life—but by a number of conjugal adjustments. Stefan and his wife were on very good terms, and he’d asked her to hire him a secretary when he moved to London. She selected a German refugee, Lotte Altman, a serious young woman, delicate and discreet, who suited Zweig perfectly. Lotte traveled with him frequently, and went with him to meet Friderike in Nice, before he was to take the ship for New York.

The stay in Nice was proceeding harmoniously, at least until Zweig asked Friderike to stop by the British consulate to iron out a problem. When she got to the consulate, she realized that she’d forgotten an important document and went back to the hotel to retrieve it. She walked into the room and found Stefan and Lotte fast asleep. They had a rude awakening but Friderike kept her sang-froid, found the document, and headed back to the consulate; upon her return, however, she demanded not that Lotte be fired, but that she immediately take some time off. A few days later, Zweig boarded his ship. Friderike accompanied him to his stateroom. A letter was waiting for him on the dresser. Both of them recognized Lotte’s handwriting, and Zweig made the surprising gesture of handing it to Friderike without opening it. The entire incident strikes me as indicative of his gift for evasiveness and his loathing of conflict.

Zweig arrived in New York in January 1935: he was fifty-four years old and at the height of his career. He wasn’t a novelist of Thomas Mann’s caliber, and he knew that. He was sufficiently self-effacing to take pride in the fact that the Nazis had burned his books along with those of Freud, Einstein, and the brothers Mann. But his sales beat all records. “Shortening and lightening seem to me a boon to the work of art,” he had written to Richard Strauss and quite naturally he chose as his favorite literary form the novella, a quick and concentrated format that lent itself to splashy, racy subjects; it won him plenty of readers who were tired of “nineteenth-century triple-deckers.” His biographies, which smacked more of novelized history than exhaustive scholarship, sold well for the same reasons. He’d recently published his biography of Erasmus, which he considered a veiled self-portrait: Erasmus, the humanist, represented his own values while his antagonist, Martin Luther, was emblematic of the man of action.

The book was an immediate success, even in Germany. His reputation, his self-imposed exile, his friendship with Joseph Roth and other artists destroyed by political developments, his network of contacts with refugees in Switzerland, Great Britain, and France, all prompted the intense curiosity of journalists. Everyone wanted to hear him condemn the Nazi regime. A press conference was held in the offices of his publisher, Viking. But in response to the precise and pointed questions from reporters who wanted to know what he thought of Hitler, what was going on in Germany, the state of mind among the German populace and the refugees, Zweig was evasive, regarding the press with “his typical ‘languid composure’” and concluding with the statement, “I would never speak against Germany. I would never speak against any country.”

Prochnik, well aware that the biographer’s job is not to judge but rather to try to understand, instead of taking a simplistic approach and condemning Zweig’s passive stance, chooses to view it as a manifestation of his hope that the German people might still come to their senses—perhaps influenced by the fact that his books were still selling so strongly in Germany. Thus “the best response to Hitler’s election was not to demonize his supporters, Zweig believed, but to communicate to them the value of the rich German cultural legacy that was being jeopardized by Nazi politics.” Zweig envisioned the publication of a monthly literary review that would feature articles in different languages, so as

to cement, by its high ethical and literary standards, an aristocratic European brotherhood that eventually would be able to counteract the demagogic propaganda unleashed by those forces that were trying to bring about the moral destruction of Europe.

Nothing came of the project and a disappointed Zweig returned to Great Britain, convinced that he’d lost all real influence. He felt certain that it was impossible to beat the Nazis on their own terms, and he chose to believe that his silence would be taken as condemnation. That was an attitude far too subtle and circumspect to be grasped by political refugees and the American public.

His refusal to come out openly against Hitler weighed even more heavily as Thomas Mann became more and more politically active. When the University of Bonn revoked Mann’s honorary degree, in 1936, he wrote an emphatic diatribe, underscoring his “immeasurable revulsion against the wretched events at home.” It was read in Germany in the form of a clandestine pamphlet, attaining a circulation of 20,000 copies, after which it was translated and distributed in the United States and worldwide. Mann thus became the unrivaled spokesman for all artists in exile, as acknowledged by Toscanini, who praised the text as “magnifico, commovente, profondo, umano.”

Nonetheless, Zweig remained silent: “One would like to crawl into a mouse-hole…. I am a man who prizes nothing more highly than peace and quiet.” He took advantage of the next two years of respite—Austria remained independent until 1938—to sell his house in Salzburg and especially his extraordinary collection of manuscripts, keeping only a few particularly choice rarities and Beethoven’s desk. He also put an end to his marriage, while successfully remaining good friends with Friderike. He seemed to be girding himself to deal calmly with an enormous upheaval:

Our generation has gradually learned the great art of living without security. We are prepared for anything…. There is a mysterious pleasure in retaining one’s reason and spiritual independence particularly in a period where confusion and madness are rampant.

But he was deceiving himself.

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Fox Searchlight Pictures
Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Things changed radically on September 3, 1939, when, in the aftermath of the invasion of Poland, Great Britain declared war on Germany. From one day to the next, Zweig became an enemy alien in the eyes of Great Britain. Psychologically, it came as a rude shock. “I believe that the new Ministry for Information should be informed a little at least about German Literature and know that I am not an ‘enemy alien’ but perhaps the man who (with Thomas Mann) could be more useful than any others,” he wrote to his publisher.

Of course, the British weren’t about to take the ridiculous step of putting a renowned author in an internment camp, but Zweig was forced to go through the extensive process of requesting identity papers, and while waiting for them was forbidden to travel more than five miles from his place of residence unless specifically authorized, which in turn required hours of his time and lengthy discussions with functionaries who’d never heard of him. His exasperation was bound up with his despair at finding himself deprived of his native language. Not only was it now impossible for him to publish anything in Germany, refugees were strongly advised against speaking German in public. “[Our] language…has been taken away from us, [and we are] living in a country…in which we are only tolerated.” In his journal he wrote, “I am so imprisoned in a language, which I cannot use.”

In spite of his indignation, he did everything necessary to apply to be a naturalized subject, and completed the process in March 1940, for himself and for Lotte, whom he’d married a few months earlier. At the same time, he purchased a number of US Savings Bonds and asked his American publisher, Ben Huebsch, to hold onto them for him. Events continued to rush headlong. The fall of France shook him up. The threat of an invasion of England terrified him. Finally, faithful to his habit of seeking exile in advance, he left for New York with Lotte in July 1940.

It was a changed man who set foot in America. Disheartened, embittered, and irritated by New York’s luxury, magnificence, and glamour, disgusted by his own aging to the point that he tried a rejuvenating cure of hormone injections that left him just as weary and upset as before, he was miserable. The only bright spot in this period was the arrival of Friderike, for whom he had obtained one of the special visas that had been set aside for a thousand or so endangered intellectuals.

One way to understand Zweig is in contrast to Thomas Mann, who came to the United States around the same time, forcefully declaring that he represented the best of Germany: “Where I am, there is Germany…. I carry my German culture within me. I have contact with the world and I do not consider myself fallen.” Zweig lacked such self-confidence, and bemoaned the fact that “emigration implies a shifting of one’s center of gravity.” The chief difference between the two men was that Mann was a member of the German high bourgeoisie, with roots sinking many generations deep in his country’s past, while Zweig, a Jew who rejected Zionism, appreciated above all else “the value of absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel oneself a guest everywhere.”

Prochnik, who is well aware of the painful shift in self-perception that can afflict those in exile, clearly shows how the elegant Viennese author—acclaimed, free to go wherever he liked, so unobservant a Jew that his mother wrongly suspected him of having converted, who had been married to a Catholic2—despaired when he found himself suddenly plunged into the ranks of the wandering Jews. “His sense of being forced to identify with people who bore no relation with him had come to seem—along with nomadism—the defining experience of exile.”

Zweig suffered all the more because, in spite of his pleasant life as a rich and assimilated Jew, he was always aware of how precarious matters could be for his coreligionists. Here Prochnik recounts a significant anecdote:

One day in the 1920s when Zweig happened to be traveling in Germany with [the playwright] Otto Zarek, the two men stopped off to visit an exhibition of antique furniture at a museum in Munich…. Zweig stopped short before a display of enormous medieval wooden chests.
“Can you tell me,” he abruptly asked, “which of these chests belonged to Jews?” Zarek stared uncertainly—they all looked of equally high quality and bore no apparent marks of ownership.
Zweig smiled. “Do you see these two here? They are mounted on wheels. They belonged to Jews. In those days—as indeed always!—the Jewish people were never sure when the whistle would blow, when the rattles of pogrom would creak. They had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.”

We have the impression that he was suddenly gripped by an ancestral fear and that the nightmare embedded deep in his subconscious had suddenly become real.

Another change came in his attitude toward those who came to him for help. He’d always shown an easy generosity in the past, but the supplicants multiplied in number and he realized he was unable to keep up: “[I am] the victim of an avalanche of refugees…. And how to help these writers who even in their own country were only small fry?”

Still paralyzed by his stubborn refusal to take a clear political position, he couldn’t follow the example set by Mann, equally beset by those in search of help, and support the aid organizations. Asked to deliver a ten-minute talk at a fund-raiser for the Emergency Rescue Committee, he spent hours perfecting an anodyne speech: “I do not want to say a word that could be interpreted as encouragement for America’s entry into the war, no word that announces victory, nothing that justifies or glorifies war, and yet the thing must have an optimistic ring.”

The only solution he could find was to plunge headlong into his work. He left New York and took refuge in Ossining where he’d be able to finish his autobiography, now that he was done with his book about Brazil. That town was an odd choice, devoid of all charm and interest, lying in the shadow of Sing Sing prison, but still it was justified by the presence there of Friderike, an indispensable assistant in checking certain details of his text. He worked feverishly and, at the end of the summer of 1941, exhausted, yearning for a life that might afford him a certain degree of stability, he decided to go back to Brazil, which had offered him a permanent residence permit.

This decision failed to bring him the calm that he expected. Though his book on Brazil had acceptable sales, it was not given a favorable reception by Brazilian critics annoyed at Zweig’s vision of an exotic and picturesque paradise. Still in search of more tranquility, he left Rio for the small town of Petrópolis where, as he wrote to Friderike, “One lives here nearer to oneself and in the heart of nature, one hears nothing of politics…. We cannot pay our whole life long for the stupidities of politics, which have never given us a thing but only always taken.” Once again, he was deceiving himself.

On December 7, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. The next day, the United States declared war. Zweig was once again seized by a wave of irrational panic. He feared a German invasion of South America. Every possible way out seemed to be sealed off, one after the other. He despaired at being “miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends and conversation.” But there was one constant in Zweig’s life, the urge to write. He set to work on his last novella, Chess Story, and for the first time he brought Nazis in action into the plot. In his story, an Austrian lawyer is arrested in Vienna. The Gestapo subjects him to an intolerable form of mental torture. The man is confined to a hotel room, cut off from all human interaction, deprived of books, pen, paper, and cigarettes, and sentenced to spend weeks staring at four bare walls: “There was nothing to do, nothing to hear, nothing to see, nothingness was everywhere…a completely dimensionless and timeless void.” He finished writing on February 22. The next day, he and Lotte drank a fatal dose of Veronal.

The photo taken by the police shows him stretched out on his back, his hands crossed; she’s lying beside him, her head on his shoulder, one hand on his. Prochnik concludes: “He looks dead. She looks in love.”

Mort à jamais?” (Dead forever?) asks Proust’s narrator when the writer Bergotte dies. To Proust, an artist could never die if his works outlive him. In 1942, Zweig certainly looked dead. No one read his books anymore. But he was only in purgatory. His books were rapidly reissued after the end of the war, in Austria, Germany, Italy, and France—the most popular title being The World of Yesterday—and later in Great Britain and the United States. More recently, thanks to New York Review Books and Pushkin Press, a substantial portion of his oeuvre has been republished in new translations, and there is clearly a Zweig revival underway.

Even more surprising, the revival extends to the movies. In his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson takes his inspiration not from a specific novella but from the entire body of Zweig’s work and his life. The film is set in the imaginary republic of Zubrowka (the irresistibly droll name is evocative of a Polish bison grass–scented vodka) and tells of the difficulties faced by Monsieur Gustave, the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. The film—zany, fast-moving, punctuated by a chase scene with a villain on skis pursued by a duo riding a luge, a prison escape involving tiny metal files concealed in pastries, an elderly countess’s idyll with the concierge, a murder, and a venomous heir—would simply echo the madcap comedies of the 1930s if Anderson hadn’t so deftly given his story a background set in a Europe where any sense of security is rapidly slipping away. That is where the film’s debt to Zweig lies.

Of all the characters in the film, it is unexpectedly the concierge—played by Ralph Fiennes in rare form, with a trim little paintbrush mustache, shifty eyes and a supple grace to his movements, comfortable mastery of all languages, a certain latitude in his sexual tastes, and an overall sense of calm broken here and there by glimmers of disquiet—who best evokes Zweig. And precisely like Zweig, who could reach out at any time to his friends, relations, and publishers around the world, Monsieur Gustave, a member of the all-powerful society of hotel concierges, can draw upon a network of infallible efficiency.

But all these contacts prove useless in the face of an increasingly brutal political reality. In his memoirs, Zweig laments the end of a world where you could travel without passports, without being called upon to justify your existence, and in the film it is the arrival of the border guards that spells the doom of the fictional concierge. The first time they appear, he’s saved by the intervention of an officer who recognizes in him an indulgent witness of his childhood holidays, but the second time he falls victim to the gratuitous violence of the henchmen of a terrifying power. It’s Zweig’s influence that tinges the film with nostalgia and gives it its depth.

—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar

  1. 1

    Quoted by Leon Botstein in “Stefan Zweig and the Illusion of the Jewish European,” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Winter 1982). 

  2. 2

    Friderike Zweig, née Burger, had a Jewish father but converted at a young age. 

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