I am no agitator. But if you have something on your conscience, write it down. It will do you good. Your friends will be pleased.
Letter from Joseph Roth to Stefan Zweig in London Nov. 23rd 1933
London, for Stefan Zweig, was as much of a home as he had anywhere between 1933 and 1939. A blue plaque in Hallam Street, to commemorate his time in the city, was refused in 2012. English Heritage judged it ‘best to let this debate play out further’. The Austrian writer’s ‘London connections did not appear strong enough.’ His ‘profile has never been as high in Britain as elsewhere’ and there existed no ‘consensus’ here on the merits of his work.
The London Review of Books had, two years earlier, printed Michael Hofmann’s very determined assault on Zweig’s reputation. Hofmann dismissed him as a spoilt child of fortune, unpardonably middle-brow. Showing how this ‘kitschmeister’ (best left to ‘teenagers of all ages’) had been mocked in private by more gifted contemporaries, Hofmann added some memorable invective of his own. He was doubtless unimpressed by the writers, actors, scholars (and England football manager) who spoke up for a plaque. English Heritage was also unmoved. A spectral online trace is all that remains of the idea.
Broadcasting House backs onto Hallam Street and the area has been home to many influential journalists. There is a plaque, at the street’s northern end, for example, to Ed Murrow, the best-known American reporter in war-time London. He and Zweig, the most widely translated living author in the world at the time, might easily have passed one another in the street. It’s unlikely they knew each other. Zweig did give one cagey interview to the BBC while in England – an early experiment in television – but generally he avoided journalists.
Ed Murrow stayed as the bombs fell, on Hallam Street as elsewhere. His eye-witness accounts arguably helped to swing American public opinion behind intervention in Europe. His more highly-strung neighbour had by then already departed for the West Country, before taking ship to New York. Zweig finally settled in Brazil, where he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.
An obscure affair about a blue plaque might hardly seem worth recalling. I wonder, though, nine years on, whether the sands have not shifted sufficiently under all our feet that we find ourselves now viewing that failed bid from a different perspective? If we are not to have a plaque, then let us at least not have it for the right reasons. I will argue here that the building on which there should or should not be a plaque was never in Hallam Street anyway.
It was to 11 Portland Place that Zweig moved in October 1933. He came to England to work on a biography of Erasmus with which he was having trouble, then stayed on to write several other books. He was, even then, less well known in England than on the continent and relished the anonymity. He was in need of good libraries and space to think and write. As he moved in to his new address, he ‘had the feeling almost of returning to his beginnings’, an unknown in London as he had been when he first set out as a writer in Vienna. Zweig had not visited England since his student days and had just turned 50. His marriage was in trouble: his first wife was still in Salzburg and his secretary would soon become his second. He had multiple reasons for a spell in England.
He liked the place, too, though his observations of life here have a remote, touristic air. He formed a close relationship with his London publisher, kept up with a few other émigrés, Sigmund Freud among them, at whose funeral he gave the oration. But his circle was limited and he appreciated the English respect for privacy. He was at least half-admiring of the English immersion in hobbies also, though their sense of exemption from European developments puzzled him.
His books were publicly burnt in Germany from May 1933 and many viewed his move as an abdication, a self-indulgence. He had proved reluctant to identify as a Jewish writer and join in public declarations condemning the Hitler regime on that basis. He had his reasons and we’ll come to those, but to his critics, and even at times to his friends, he was a coward, an epicure. That the Nazis, newly arrived in power, must have Austria in their sights was clear to anyone with eyes to see. Zweig, for his part, for now, went on imagining that he could still reach German readers from this new base.
He moved to Hallam Street in 1936 and took British citizenship in 1939 when his Austrian passport expired. 11 Portland Place was pulled down after the war and its site is now occupied by part of a large modernist block. Gaze up from the pavement at the sheer plate glass: this is emphatically not the Grand Budapest Hotel and it never was. That his ‘London connections are not very strong’ seems, from this angle, an understatement. You are struck, rather, by how total the erasure has been.
But were his critics partly right? Did he not perhaps lack some of that pluck in which an Ed Murrow, say, abounded? Wasn’t his time here merely the first phase of an ignominious withdrawal? The book he came here to work on might shed some light. Fellow novelist Joseph Roth wrote to him, when Erasmus was published in 1934, calling it ‘the noblest book you’ve ever written’, praising its language as ‘simple and precise’. He asked if he could quote from it in the book he was writing at the time, The Antichrist. Thomas Mann told his diary that he was persuaded by its central argument: ‘mankind has no use for rational, decent order or tolerance, no yearning for ‘happiness’ at all, but prefers recurrent tragedy and untrammelled destructive adventure.’
If Erasmus sounds more like a book about the 20th century than the 16th, that was intentional. ‘The only other epoch comparable with [the 16th century] is our own,’ its author wrote. He turned down work in Hollywood because this biography ‘mattered more’ and told a friend that he had not in twenty years felt his work to be so necessary. Alfred Döblin observed how many writers at this time sought ‘consolation in historical parallels’. Zweig was not alone in turning to the past as he tried to come to terms with the present. Brecht and Hauptmann had re-written The Beggars’ Opera in 1928. Roth himself would publish his novel about Napoleon in 1936.
Was this evasion? Zweig for his part understood only too well the role contemporary mass-communications were playing in Europe’s disaster – describing Nazi propaganda in a letter as ‘chloroform of the spirit.’ In London, Broadcasting House was constantly before him, quite literally: the building had opened only a year before he arrived and stood directly opposite 11 Portland Place. Having, on his own admission, ‘no gift for polemics’, Zweig felt more comfortable expressing his opposition to current events ‘through symbols’, in this case through a book about the 16th century, or ‘Europe’s fateful hour’ as he called it.
His response emerged slowly. From Italy in 1932, where he had given a lecture about the ‘European idea’, Zweig wrote to a friend about Mussolini’s treatment of the press: ‘if the National Socialists come to power [in Germany] it will be a thousand times worse…’ he observed. The final paragraph of the same letter begins ‘I dream of a book about Erasmus of Rotterdam.’ Two years later, Erasmus was his first book to appear with a new publisher after his old one dropped him. It sold well anyway, even in Germany.
Luther’s stage presence, his mesmerising power as a preacher and orator, are front and central in his account. They are contrasted with Erasmus’ quieter gift, with the fastidious intellect and the relative thinness of attachment to particular places of this ‘first conscious European’. For all their differences, both men could see that the Church was in crisis. Erasmus urged reform, counselling against a formal break with Rome, fearful of the conflicts that would ensue. Luther ‘won’ and the Church split. Europe was plunged into a century and more of savagery.
Zweig later called his Erasmus a ‘veiled self-portrait’ and ‘my most personal and private work.’ The identification was certainly close: he wrote to a friend of his ‘Erasmian temperament’ and jokingly described his adventures in search of another flat in London not as his own at all but as those of a ‘friend of mine called Erasmus’. As England had been, for Erasmus, ‘a country of self-discovery’, so Zweig wrote to a friend that he had ‘not felt better anywhere for years.’ As Zweig spent his days poring over manuscripts at the British Library, so Erasmus, escaped from a Dutch monastery to the liveliness of Thomas More’s household, revelled in England’s ‘culture and knowledge.’
After a visit to Italy in 1509, Erasmus returned to his newly adopted homeland with the idea for what would become In Praise of Folly, still his best-known work. Dedicated to Thomas More, the book is warmed right through with the fellowship he had found in England. He wrote it easily, taking just a week to set down his superbly ironic survey of European society and its corruptions.
The figure of Folly steps forward and asserts from the outset that she alone deserves the gratitude of humanity for all her busy-ness on its behalf. Describing herself as the ‘source and origin of all life’, she proclaims the ‘benefits of keeping oneself untainted from the contagiousness of wisdom.’ Unlike lesser divinities, she has no need of temples: the whole earth is her altar. Neither has she any need of formal worship. Humanity pays her the sincerest compliment of all: imitation.
She counsels only a ‘wholesome neglect of thinking’ – what could be simpler? Science, logic, philosophy: ‘in the first golden age there was no need of these perplexities.’ Only liberate yourself from ‘the pangs of the labouring mind’ and you will be ‘troubled with no remorse.’ Who needs experts? ‘Nothing’, Folly declares, with an insight that rings impressively true just now, ‘Nothing is more welcome and bewitching than the being deceived.’ The book ends with a rousing hymn to the triumph of gibberish. Those affected ‘speak many things in an abrupt and incoherent manner… they make an articulate noise without any distinguishable sense or meaning.’
Religion is lacerated all the way from respectable church-goer, to the priest, his Bishop and the Pope himself. Secular rulers, the professions, the young, the middle-aged and the old – none is spared. Just as party-goers ‘send out for a paid comedian’ to ‘drive away dullness and solemnity’, so, Folly observes, do entire peoples, faced with the most serious questions, listen for preference to mountebanks and buffoons. Warning: some British readers may find this suggestion offensive.
Zweig’s Erasmus was his coded attempt to address a ‘moment of mass intoxication.’ His appeal to common historical experience was in itself an expression of faith in the European collective, but he saw too, only too clearly, the hopelessness of such an appeal. ‘There is a fight to the death between Prussia and European civilisation. Or hadn’t you noticed?’ snapped his exasperated friend Roth in one letter. But Zweig’s Erasmian self-portrait was hardly an un-critical one – as Roth appears not to have ‘noticed’. Humanism’s failings are checked off with merciless precision. Particularly where they ran up against ‘the great battering-ram of German nationalist aspirations.’ ‘Every word’ of Luther’s sermons ‘was racy, pungent, spiced, like the rye bread, freshly baked, that we find on the German peasant’s table.’
Erasmus and his ‘supranational ideal’, by contrast, were no more rooted in England than anywhere else. He was ‘everywhere a visitor, a guest, never assimilating the manners and customs of any specific people.’ His world was really, like Zweig’s, a tiny circle of the very very gifted. This biography might have been written, as Zweig claimed, ‘for the small readership of those who understand half-tones’, but it was also an act of self-castigation. It issued a damning verdict upon everything he himself had lived for and been. His Erasmus is a profoundly un-realised figure: ‘all his life a passionless man.’ Only in his Praise of Folly did he show ‘that he knew and secretly fought against his inborn rationality, impartiality, sense of duty, moderation.’
If Erasmus was an answer to his critics, it was no vindication. Indeed, a chill of premonition hovers about certain phrases: ‘non-partisanship and his way of passing things by with averted eyes placed him outside the pale of the living,’ Zweig wrote, more eerily accurate in his own case than in that of his subject. He did answer those who accused him of going into ‘hiding’ in England: ‘I won’t deny it when you say I’m hiding. If you are unable to impose your own decisions, you should avoid them. You forget… that I state my problem PUBLICLY in my Erasmus, where I portray the so-called cowardliness of a conciliatory nature without celebrating it…’
But this is from a private letter. Couldn’t he have ceded ground to his critics more publicly? Yes, if he had been a different writer from the one he was. If the European collective had not been at the core of who he was. If that collective frame of reference no longer obtained, his world no longer worked. Small wonder that he was reluctant to admit it. The best thing any writer could do, Jewish or not, was to continue writing good books, which is what he did.
That it was in England that he began writing The Buried Candelabrum, based on a legend about the menorah, again suggests that the charge of faint-heartedness had found its mark, even if he reserved the right to answer it in his own way. He also supported a Yiddish theatre group and The House of a Thousand Destinies, a homeless shelter in Whitechapel.
11 Portland Place was the scene of a writer’s grim struggle. Everything that ought to have prepared him for this moment left him instead powerless to react in any way that might influence events. Would he even have wanted the scene of that struggle remembered? Perhaps his spirit felt itself inexplicably lightened, on the other side, as the wrecking ball swung in Portland Place.
It was as the ‘man with a book’ that Holbein portrayed Erasmus. The Renaissance of the humanists, Zweig argued, was as close as Europe ever came to achieving a ‘collective life’. It was through them that Europe ‘found its vocation.’ That vocation not only implied ‘the eclipse of national vanity’, but also presented itself as a ‘spiritual demand.’ Those who work for an ‘all-embracing European nation… cannot afford to blink the fact that their work in this cause is perpetually menaced by irrational passion.’
There is surely a problem about Zweig’s analogy between the 16th and 20th centuries. The crudity of his Luther-Hitler analogy upset reviewers, as did the unsubtle identification with Erasmus. Both Luther and Erasmus, after all, could agree about Europe’s central problem: the need to reform the Catholic Church. Upon what exactly were the likes of Adolf Hitler and Stefan Zweig agreed? Is it not wilful to insist upon your cultural habitus when it is up against a new reality so completely alien to it? When all about you, others are listening to the radio (and / or logging on to their Twitter feeds)?
Joseph Roth might urge his friend to abandon his shallow humanism but knew there was no point in trying to convert him to his view that ‘Germany can still be saved by Christ’. Zweig’s Europe, like that of his Renaissance hero, was essentially a humanist dream, created not on any imperial or religious model but ‘through gentle convincing’. ‘Voluntary adhesion and inner freedom’ would be its ‘fundamental laws.’ ‘The instinct of his age’ chose Erasmus to speak for this dream. Zweig chose him to speak for it again just as the 20th century nightmare took hold.
Joseph Roth’s The Antichrist is addressed to the same historical moment. It interprets the global crisis, of which Hitler’s ‘accession’ was a symptom, as part of a profound unmooring, ultimately religious in nature. Roth’s vision is darker and more demonic than Zweig’s. It comes across as both a wilder and also truer response to that age of extremes.
But Zweig’s response, oblique as it is, has lasted at least as well. It’s as if he was gambling on Europe’s ultimate survival, whatever its immediate prospects. His faith may have been a secular one but it did not prove shallow. To read his Erasmus now is to feel, unmistakably, that original impulse from which the European Union later grew. Idealists, he warned, need to remember that the ‘torrent of unreason’ can be unloosed at any moment: ‘Nearly every generation experiences such a set-back, and it is the duty of each to keep a cool head until the disaster is over and calm is restored.’
However evasive it seemed to some of his contemporaries, much of Erasmus feels uncannily addressed to what came ‘after’. His speeches on Europe in the early Thirties had emphasised the need to stop teaching history as a résumé of who won which war and why, thereby normalising conflict. The young should be introduced also to the infinitely various ways in which their different countries have worked together. For anyone who grew up in the 1980s, the Erasmus student exchange programme, whereby students in one country could attend universities in other parts of Europe, seemed a natural development of this premise. With hindsight, the Europe in which we grew up was a brave attempt, however flawed, to restore the humanist dream.
It is Zweig’s dream from which we have been woken with a start: ‘I love the poorly educated’, bawled Donald Trump. And if his Brexiteer friends don’t put it quite so bluntly – having enjoyed, so many of them, Rolls Royce educations – it’s not because they don’t feel it too. 73% of those who left school without qualifications voted Leave, which is a lot of people. 75% of those with postgraduate qualifications voted Remain, which is not so many. The English school system being what it is, this was inevitably a class issue. The decision to fight a proxy class war over Europe was taken. We will be living with the consequences of for the foreseeable future.
The Referendum, in any case, returns us to the central conundrum of Zweig’s book. ‘Pan-Europa, Cosmopolis, must exist before it can win general allegiance,’ but it remains always ‘a distant and scarcely visible goal.’ Was, is, then, European-ness always an identity which appeals mainly to an educated minority? In humanism, ‘there is no room for the passion of hatred’ so that a ‘panhuman ideal such as Erasmism lacks that elementary attraction which a mettlesome encounter with a foe who lives across a frontier, speaks another language, and holds another creed, invariably exercises.’ Something very like the outlines of our ‘immigration debate’ are clearly visible here.
Remainers have been much criticised for their mealy-mouthed admissions that the EU is flawed. They have been criticised, in other words, for believing in an idea which is difficult to realise. ‘An idea which does not take on material shape is not necessarily a conquered idea or a false idea,’ as Zweig put it. Whether or not it prevails, it continues ‘to work as a ferment in subsequent generations…’
Might that ‘ferment’ not take the form of a fresh discussion about how to commemorate Zweig’s time in London, nine years on? It doesn’t matter whether the end-result is a plaque or not, in Hallam Street or Portland Place or anywhere else. If we can manage something recognisable as a discussion, that will be victory enough. Because to have such a discussion would automatically, now, become an exploration of what Europe means. The pre-Referendum debate, that purely theatrical exchange of snarl-words, amplified and orchestrated by social media, can in no way be described as a ‘discussion’. As the UK withdraws from the Erasmus programme and foreign language courses are cut, this is surely the moment to ask who Erasmus was and why anybody ever thought he mattered.
The whole point here would be the discussion. Those who have never heard of Erasmus or Zweig or Luther and don’t see why they should have will be free to have their say. Those who do know something about these people and do rate some or all of them would, similarly, have the chance to explain why.
And plaque or no plaque, we might all emerge, belatedly, a little the wiser.
Stefan Zweig, Erasmus, Cassell, 1934
Stefan Zweig, The Buried Candelabrum, East and West Library, 1944
Stefan Zweig, Briefe 1932 – 1942, Fischer, 2005
Erasmus, In Praise of Folly, Peter Eckler, 1922
Joseph Roth, Antichrist, Peter Owen Publishers, 2010
Oliver Matuschek, Stefan Zweig: Drei Leben, Eine Biografie, Fischer, 2006
Klemens Renoldner, Rüdiger Görner ed., Zweigs England, Schriftenreihe des Stefan Zweig Centre, Salzburg, Vol. 5, 2012
D.A. Prater, European of Yesterday, OUP, 1973
Michael Hofmann, Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, Granta, 2012
Volker Weidemann, Summer Before the Dark, Pushkin Press, 2016