Stefan Zweig, A Global Phenomenon

His work was prolific, comprising hundreds of texts translated into more than sixty languages, with millions of copies sold all over the globe. These numbers alone illustrate the sheer force of the literary phenomenon that is Stefan Zweig, who for a century has remained one of the most widely read German-language authors. But how did this Viennese wordsmith become a best-selling writer and citizen of the world? Why are his stories still read and reworked across oceans and continents, almost eighty years after his death? These questions are at the heart of the thrilling exhibition “Stefan Zweig. World Author“, displayed at the Literaturmuseum in Vienna’s first district.

Exploring original manuscripts, letters and photographs, we discover how both Stefan Zweig and his stories have come to travel the world. Born in 1881 into a family of the Viennese bourgeoisie, Zweig rose to literary fame in the 1920s with novellas such as Amok and his historical biographies of Joseph Fouché or Marie Antoinette. His works were soon translated not only into English, Italian and French, but also Russian, Yiddish and Japanese.

Stefan Zweig translated world author
Zweig’s works continue to be translated into numerous languages (© FK)

Just like his writings, the author himself also set out to travel the globe, as illustrated by the numerous postcards that Zweig sent his friends. While he began with European explorations as a young man, his trips soon took him way beyond the Old World’s borders – to Algeria, India, the United States and many other destinations. This sense of journey has, in turn, found its way into Zweig’s texts: While Amok is set in the Dutch East Indies, for instance, the novel Magellan follows the eponymous Portuguese navigator in his expedition across the oceans.

This story of travel and restlessness, however, is also one of loss and exile. Fearing persecution by the Austrofascist regime, Zweig emigrated to London in 1934. With Austria’s Anschluss in 1938, an eventual return to his home country became unthinkable. After the outbreak of World War II, he moved on to New York and later to the Brazilian town of Petrópolis. These painful experiences are reflected in his later works, particularly in the novella The Royal Game and his memoir The World of Yesterday. Disillusioned and despairing at the future of Europe, Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte Altmann both committed suicide on February 23, 1942.

I grew up in Vienna, the two-thousand-year-old supernational metropolis, and was forced to leave it like a criminal before it was degraded to a German provincial city. My literary work, in the language in which I wrote it, was burned to ashes in the same land where my books made friends of millions of readers. And so I belong nowhere, and everywhere am a stranger, a guest at best.

The World of Yesterday (1942)
Stefan Zweig postcards world author
Postcards sent by Stefan Zweig from destinations all over the world (© FK)

Zweig continues to inspire artists everywhere; his writings have spawned countless adaptations in film, theatre or even music. In 2005, for instance, the Chinese director Xu Jinglei creatively retold Letters from an Unknown Woman, moving the story to 1940s Beijing. More recently, the author himself has become the subject of artworks: Both Maria Schrader’s biopic Farewell to Europe and the French graphic novel Les derniers jours de Stefan Zweig portray his exile and final days in Brazil. Furthermore, Zweig’s nostalgia for the lost world of interwar Europe is beautifully captured in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The unbroken spell of Zweig’s stories lies not only in their empathy and universal themes, but even more so in the author’s humanist commitment. Having witnessed the horrors of World War I during his his civilian mission to the Galician front, Zweig became an unwavering champion of pacifism. In his eyes, literature and art could serve as a means to transcend national borders and unify the world.

This philosophy was, of course, tragically contradicted by the events that ensued and the horrors of the 20th century. Furthermore, when examined today, some aspects of Zweig’s perspective can (and must) be criticized as Eurocentric and condescending towards the inhabitants of the so-called Third World. Nonetheless, as the exhibit makes clear, it remains up to us to rethink and renew this cosmopolitan project. At a time where violent nationalism is on the rise across the globe, Zweig’s vision still speaks to us and has lost nothing of its urgency.

The richly illustrated exhibition is fully bilingual (© FK)

As our Metropolitans will be delighted to hear, the special exhibition on Stefan Zweig is fully bilingual, with English translations provided to all texts. On the occasion of your visit, you can also discover the museum’s permanent exhibition, tracing Austria’s rich literary history from the Enlightenment through the present day. (Please note, the latter is in German only.) Both can be visited from Tuesday to Sunday, between 10 AM and 6 PM – further details here.