Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink
by stefan zweig
pushkin press, 216 pages, $15.95
“No one should be denied the right to write his letter from the front as a European, to call himself a citizen of Europe and, in spite of borders, consider the world as a fraternal community.” —Stefan Zweig, “European Thought in its Historical Development”
Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) was a refugee from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which he considered a living representation of Europe’s spiritual unity. When the old order was destroyed in 1918, Zweig looked to a network of writers and intellectuals across the Continent to try to recover—or, better, to rediscover—how to make Europe one again. Zweig was wildly popular across Europe in the interwar years, so much so that the Nazis burned his books and prohibited him from publishing in Germany. Fleeing Europe, with brief stops in London and New York, Zweig died by his own hand in Brazil, exhausted from watching Europe’s self-destruction. This new collection of Zweig’s work, none of which has previously been translated into English, is the latest installment in a Pushkin Press initiative to return Zweig to prominence. The collection runs from 1914, on the eve of one war, to 1941, in the midst of a second one.
The central question of Messages from a Lost World is whether, and on what basis, Europe can be understood as a civilizational whole. Zweig must be understood in light of the ramshackle political construct of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the titular “lost world.” Americans often find it difficult to understand the Empire—the successor to the Holy Roman Empire, which had been dissolved by Napoleon a century earlier—and its place in the European imagination. For Americans, the Great War is defined by Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. On this account, the Empire represented a social order that was hierarchical, religious, and supranational, a hotbed of retrograde or even illiberal views, whereas the ethnically based nations Wilson favored were harbingers of a progressive future of “self-determination.”
But for many Europeans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a real, if shaky, expression of the possibility of a united, liberal Europe. It was especially so in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when under the seemingly endless reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, the Habsburgs seemed to be managing the various nationalist impulses surging underneath the peace of Vienna. This was not fully true, of course; prejudice and injustice existed within the Dual Monarchy as anywhere else, sometimes encouraged by the state. But the Habsburg imperium maintained its attraction. Freud, for example, famously said that he would not live anywhere else. Joseph Roth found the “Habsburg” identity worth defending, as he sets out in his novel, The Radetzky March, published in 1932, the same year as Zweig’s essay.
Zweig held onto a dream of unity, even as political realties showed him the dream was an illusion. The Roman Empire and the Latin language were the initial bonds, followed by the millennia-long dominance of the Catholic Church. Yet first the Reformation, then the French Revolution, and finally the rise of nationalism shattered Europe’s fragile bonds. Though some of his fellow intellectuals found solace in Communism, Zweig was never tempted. Philosopher John Gray, in his foreword, explains that Zweig was torn between loyalty to the “liberal Habsburg realm that he describes with such nostalgic fondness,” and recognition that such a world was disintegrating under the pressures of nationalism and bigotry. Zweig was pessimistic about the future, but he was equally convinced that the European idea remained possible.
In his 1940 essay “The Vienna of Yesterday,” Vienna is the true European imperial city, because it combines under a genial and benign tolerance many different peoples and creeds. Vienna “was the capital of a world empire. . . . It was in the Hofburg that the old dream of a united Europe was unceasingly being born; for it was a supranational empire . . . that the Habsburgs strove for, not Teutonism’s world domination.” Viennese culture is “the ideal breeding ground” for the new Europe, because it is a mix of all European elements. Zweig, who was Jewish, distinguished a Viennese patriotism from an exclusive “German” nationalism. Zweig had been an ardent supporter of the First World War, but was turned by it toward a kind of pacifism. By 1941, he was half-apologizing to American audiences for his use of German: “It is in this language that we have, throughout our lives, fought against the self-glorification of nationalism and . . . the force of nationalist criminality that is laying waste to our world.”
So far, Zweig’s analysis has a reactionary, wistful tone, which never quite left him. But in other writings, Zweig’s liberal, romantic side competes with his traditional instincts. In a lecture on “the unification of Europe,” Zweig proposes a series of conferences in various European capital cities as a way to combat the “sacro-egotism” of nationalism. The European ideal “is not a primary emotion like patriotism or ethnicity . . . but [is] the slow-ripened fruit of a more elevated way of thinking”—one that was not quite natural, in contrast to tribalism. This sounds like an idea made in Brussels, destined to be drowned under bureaucracy and crony capitalism. But Zweig kept trying. He thought at one point that music would be the unifying force. Great music formed a supranational community, like that of the Renaissance antiquity-lovers; music was the “true lifeblood of humanity,” and musicians were “the great travelers . . . the messengers between peoples.” Alternatively, Zweig proposed that technology could be the answer, given its ability to eliminate distance. If one can access every part of Europe instantaneously, how could one think of oneself as anything other than a European? But music and technology proved weak reeds to hold together what Christopher Dawson called a “society of peoples.” Europe is not one entity except in the imagination; it needs a powerful imagination to create and sustain its unity. Technology separates as much as it joins, and no single cultural force has been able to substitute for empire, language, or faith.
Gray and translator Will Stone stress that Europe is facing dark days, due to revived nationalistic sentiment, and they hope that Zweig’s intellectual pan-Europeanism will carry the day. Stone decries the rise of nationalism during the “progressive” decades of Brussels-led Europeanism. Rather than simply papering over those differences, the European Union may have exacerbated them, by denying any spiritual foundation to what it means to be a European. As Gray has written, liberalism’s proclaimed ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism are at best harmless, at worst tools for corporate-progressive oppression. They have, in any event, not sufficed to unify people from Britain to Poland. The various peoples, no longer bound by memories of Roman law, Latin language, or Christian belief, take to the most basic forms of tribalism. Perhaps this is why a new generation of historians is taking a fresh look at the Habsburgs as a model for European governance: one different from, and arguably more successful than, Belgian secularism. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was, after all, an anomaly: A sprawling geographic entity, it grew more by marriage and happenstance than by warfare. A confessional state, for centuries it managed a multi-religious empire.
There is confusion about European ideals on the right as well. Daniel Hannan, a Brexit supporter, has suggested that Britain may have more in common with Singapore, given their common devotion to capitalism, than with socialist, post–Christian Europe. Such views, however, fail to appreciate Zweig’s recognition that the basis for “Europe” transcends particular economic systems. Appreciation for the historical and cultural materials that are common from Poland to Britain is the first step in a new imagining of Europe. Zweig’s Europe endured crises of a magnitude that the contemporary scene has not yet matched. So his hope for a “united states of Europe,” as he called it, should be remembered along with his pessimism: “a genuine conviction does not need to be confirmed by reality to know it is just and true.”
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.