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Irving Howe

Stefan Zweig

His Suicide Marks the End of an Era

(March 1932)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 10, 9 March 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the midst of a time such as the one in which we live, it seems almost inconsequential to discuss the death of any ONE man – even if it be the suicide of as noted an author as Stefan Zweig. The capitalist world in which we live values human life so little – far less, for instance, than a good lathe part or a few Garand rifles – that one becomes hardened, almost indifferent to the phenomenon of premature death. When the casualties are numbered in figures too large to have any vivid significance in the minds of those who remain, one is tempted to ask: what is the importance of another death – and the death of a man who lived his entire life in comfort and was not forced to die with the horror of the battlefield as his last image of consciousness?

Yet there is an importance to the suicide of Stefan Zweig – an importance which even the casual commentators of the capitalist press could not fail to note; and it was that which made them so uncomfortable in discussing Zweig’s last act.

Zweig was not really a great writer. Nothing that he wrote bears promise of living much beyond the present; and much of what he wrote – the biographies and historical sketches – were little more than pot-boilers.

Zweig’s forte was the minutely polished short story, the stylistically meticulous work – perfect in its small way, but adding little to the reader’s emotional or intellectual stature.

To a degree this method was the reflection of the class to which Zweig so completely adhered: the Viennese petty bourgeoisie with its light facade of culture, its freedom and its shallowness. Zweig never made any pretense at being interested in social or political life. He was the respectable and successful author throughout; not even the First World War, apparently, affected his literary development to any vital degree.

It was only the Second World War – the TOTAL war, which leaves nothing untouched – that finally brought Zweig face to face with the reality of our times. And his one great act of intellectual decency is the statement he left at his suicide, in which he admitted that he was incapable of meeting that reality.

Zweig – be it remembered to his credit – did not attempt to rationalize when he left this world. Even in his exile he had lived handsomely; material or financial cares never entered his life, and he was honest enough to so admit in his parting statement.

His Europe Could Never Return

He had come to the end of his day. The Europe, he wrote, which he had known and loved – was devouring itself; the language which he loved was now the property of the fascist maniacs. Whatever would happen, one thing was certain: his Europe could never return. Rather than a painful and dubious attempt to reorientate his life to these new conditions, he had decided to leave. It was the end of his day.

Zweig, never interested in politics, was yet the victim of politics; but even in his death he could not analyze in political terms. We would say that Zweig was expressing, in his farewell letter, the end of a culture and a society; that, regardless of his realization, his suicide epitomized the blind alley of the culture he personified. Whatever was fine and beautiful in it can only find new expression in the cultural renaissance which is the promise of socialism; or it can find permanent burial in the concentration camps of fascism. But the verdict of history does not permit it to live again as it did once before.

That, then, is the choice as we see it. We can hardly blame Zweig for not seeing the same way. His entire life precluded such an understanding. We can at least honor him in this: his final act in life was his most understanding – and far more courageous than many others of his genre who live on as useless, dried out skeletons.

Never able to break beyond the bounds of the bourgeois world, Zweig was both one of its most accomplished personifications and cruel victims. He was no less a casualty of the Second World War than any of the American, British, Dutch, German, Russian or Japanese boys who may be dying at this very moment.

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Last updated: 17.5.2013