How Stefan Zweig set out and found himself isolated in a faraway land

The snowy white villa where Stefan and Lotte Zweig once lived, and where they took their own lives, is perched under terracotta roofs over a busy street in Petrópolis, in southeastern Brazil. The noise of traffic and day laborers nearly overshadows the tufts of lush greenery and terraced gardens between the houses. A sign by the drive and a plaque over the terrace door announce it as “Casa Stefan Zweig.”

Stefan Zweig
The Casa Stefan Zweig in Petrópolis is today a museum devoted to his life and literary oeuvre. // © Casa Stefan Zweig

Petrópolis was a logical choice for the Zweigs in 1941. Situated in the mountain region of the Serra dos Órgãos, but close enough to the former capital of Rio de Janeiro, the city had long been the favorite of the Brazilian elite, a gracious, hilly neighborhood offering tranquility and relief from the summer heat. Stroll along the grand Avenida Koeler today, turning right on the Rua da Imperatriz, the shabby elegance of the fine old buildings reflects the history of the Brazilian aristocrats who once lived there. Well-kept gardens, parks, imperial museums and a gothic revival cathedral all surround the center of this quaint and beautiful old town.

“Hardly in my life have I seen a more calm and pleasant town, a tasteful city”, Zweig wrote in one of his first letters from his Brazilian exile. “We feel extremely happy here, the little bungalow with its large covered terrace (our real living room) has a splendid view over the mountains and just in front a tiny Caféhaus called “Café Elegante,” where I can have a delicious café for a Groschen.” For Zweig, the region with its mild mountain summers reminded him of “a town as beautifully abandoned as Bad Ischl in October.” For a visitor, it is difficult to imagine that it was here in the midst of this Brazilian idyll that the great late Austrian author chose to end his and his wife’s life.

Stefan Zweig
In 1936, Zweig traveled for the first time to Brazil, where he was wildly popular, meeting diplomats and the president Getúlio Vargas’ daughter, pictured right. // © Stefan Zweig Centre Salzburg

A Child of his Time

Born in 1881 in Vienna into a traditional Jewish family, he was a child of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kulturzwang (drive for culture), interested in literature and the arts from a young age on. In 1900, he published his first story, Forgotten Dreams, followed by Spring in the Prater, covering psychological themes and often portraits of strong women. He was interested in potential new forms of art and technological advances, which he wrote about with great enthusiasm. His interest in technology culminated in his 1927 book Decisive Moments in History, in which he described decisive events such as the fall of Constantinople and the laying of the first telephone cable to the United States.

The Great War changed Stephan Zweig. Seeing it as foolishly self-destructive and an irreparable loss, the war turned him into an ardent pacifist. He wrote of “beginning my personal war: the fight against the betrayal of reason during the current mass suffering.”

Although Zweig never considered himself a religious Jew, he did take credit for being part of the Jewish-driven cultural renaissance in Austria and Central Europe at the time, with its core mission to disseminate a cosmopolitan worldview. At the same time, his writing often took on the underlying nostalgic tone typical of Jewish storytelling, what biographer George Prochnik described as “whole collections of sentimental glorification of a certain shtetlish authenticity.”

Although fascinated by the cultural developments in Austria right after the Great War, Zweig wrote in his most famous book World of Yesterday with a very strange and haunting undertone drawing on his childhood and youth, condemning, for example, the Austrian education system that destroyed ambition and seemed prejudiced against the young. Many of Zweig’s contemporaries, such as the late Friedrich Torberg, who at around the same time wrote the classic Der Schüler Gerber, struggled to cast off the shackles of an oppressive education system that discouraged creativity. They saw it as an example of the qualities that undermined the society and helped pave the way for the next war.

Like many of his contemporaries, Zweig’s fate was marked by fight from his homeland and a life in exile, a tragic refugee at a time of war and destruction. His personal voyage in exile changed Zweig’s language, thoughts and feelings forever.

Stefan Zweig
Zweig and his first wife Friderike on a 1937 visit to Henry and Grete Joske in Vence, France. Zweig and his second wife Lotte committed suicide in Petrópolis in the night of February 22-23, 1941. In his farewell letter, Zweig wrote: “Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself. But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless.” // © Wikipedia Commons

The Road to Exile

On February 18, 1934, four policemen knocked on Zweig’s door in his house on the Kapuzinerberg in Salzburg. Someone told the police that Zweig, the prominent pacifist, was hoarding weapons in his house. Obviously, it was absurd, but unnerved at what was coming, Zweig and his then-wife Friderike packed their bags and left for London. Although he wanted to like England – like Freud, there he saw sobriety and the rule of law that he missed in Vienna – he was not able to find any social or literary contacts. Granted British citizenship, they joined the growing refugee community in Bath. But Zweig felt out of place, perceiving England as a soggy class-based society that didn’t offer any of that colorful passion that he had found in European culture at large.

Zweig was 55 years old when he arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1936, to a celebrity welcome. It was a mild August day, and the air was “humid and sweet,” the seaside city “pulled me in with soft, female arms, in a wide and tender embrace,” as Zweig would later tell in his monumental homage Brazil: Land of the Future.

“It was the arrival of a cosmopolitan in a strange and foreign land,” says Margit Dirscherl, lecturer at LMU Munich, “a world citizen and European now in an almost unrecognizable world. While his books were forbidden by the Nazis in Europe, here in Brazil, he sees mixed race couples walking hand in hand, people of all colors, races and backgrounds working at the port, serving at restaurants and strolling through town.” It was a utopian dream, where Zweig was welcomed as a celebrity. Hundreds of journalists wanted to interview him, and during a reading of his work in the city center of Rio, more than two thousand fans came to listen.

Small City Life

He came back to Brazil from New York in the winter of 1940, with his new wife Lotte Altmann and moved not to Rio but to Petrópolis. He didn’t like big cities. He had chosen Salzburg over Vienna, Bath over London. It was the same in Brazil.

The first days were happy. Lotte and Stefan sent letters to relatives and friends. But it was the longing for the past, however, that moved him the most. The food was unfamiliar. Not speaking Portuguese and rejected by the German migrant community, they felt isolated. Lost in his memories, he became deeply depressed.

In The Royal Game, written just before his suicide, Zweig tells the story of Dr. B, in hiding from the Nazis, playing obsessively through a book of master chess games in defense against the despair of exile, and the yearning for the order in a world he has lost. Like much of his work, it is deeply nostalgic, recreating a vivid and more perfect past – the ethos Wes Anderson used as the background for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Set in a reconstruction of the grand old Südbahnhotel on the Semmering, Anderson uses the idealization of the imperial past of Austria- Hungaria in a longing for order – aspects of nostalgia we know from The World of Yesterday.

Today, with the recent Austrian film Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe and the reissuing of his work, Zweig himself has become a subject of nostalgia.

And from Brazil, the flare-up of an anti-immigrant mood in Austria looks only too familiar.