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25 January 2016

Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth: How Europe’s exiled intellectuals ended up on a Belgian beach

In choosing to take up this story in the summer of 1936, Weidermann finds a moment of relative calm and normality in the émigrés’ lives.

By Adam Kirsch

On 3 July 1936, a Czechoslovakian Jewish journalist named Stefan Lux entered the general assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva, shouted “C’est le dernier coup”, and shot himself with a revolver. Lux wanted his suicide to be a warning cry against anti-Semitism and Nazi militarism. But if he thought that even such a public sacrifice would serve as the “final blow” against fascism, he was tragically mistaken. Two years after Lux’s death came the dismemberment of his country in the Munich Agreement and the Germany-wide pogrom known as Kristallnacht. The following year
brought the Second World War and the beginnings of the Holocaust. All that Lux’s death accomplished was to confirm the very powerlessness it was meant to protest. Nor did he even win the posthumous thanks of posterity, given that today his name and his deed are practically unknown.

Lux features in an offstage cameo role in the non-fiction chamber drama that is Summer Before the Dark. The German journalist Volker Weidermann has devoted this short, elegiac book to the German émigré writers, most of them Jews, who congregated in Ostend in the summer of 1936, mainly because they had no place better to go. At the centre of this unhappy cenacle were two writers who shared Lux’s fate. Stefan Zweig’s journeys took him all the way to Petrópolis, Brazil, before he gave up hope and took an overdose of barbiturates (with his wife, Lotte) in 1942. Joseph Roth’s death also deserves to be called a suicide: he died in Paris in May 1939 after years of acute alcoholism. (His final crisis was precipitated by yet another suicide, that of Ernst Toller, the communist playwright, who had killed himself in New York City a few days earlier.)

The effects of exile on Zweig and Roth had been immediate and dramatic. When Hitler came to power in 1933, each man was at the peak of his literary career, though that success took very different forms. Roth was a long-time star correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, and had just written the novel that was his masterpiece, The Rad­etzky March. Zweig, who lived in splendour in Salzburg, Austria, was a writer of sensational novellas and digestible works on the history of ideas, books that were immensely popular in Germany and beyond. Their close friendship endured despite the evident differences in their temperament – Zweig was a moderate bourgeois, Roth a romantic bohemian – and, trickier still, in their abilities: Roth was a writer of genius, while Zweig knew he had only talent.

Roth, as a Jew and a well-known critic of Nazism, knew that he had to flee Germany immediately. He left for Paris on the day Hitler took power, 30 January 1933, and never returned. Zweig, an Austrian citizen and an outspoken liberal pacifist, soon came under pressure from his country’s authoritarian regime, and he transplanted himself to England in 1934. Zweig’s books were burned and banned in Germany, but he remained so popular in translation that he was never short of money. Roth, on the other hand, was now unemployable as a journalist, and lived hand-to-mouth on tiny advances from small émigré publishers. Their correspondence, which can be found in the 2012 book Joseph Roth: a Life in Letters, is fascinating for the double imbalance of power it shows. Roth depended on Zweig’s money and influence, yet he insisted on the superiority of his own literary and political standards. He had no qualms about lecturing the man who supported him, writing to Zweig in October 1933, for instance: “Haven’t you got that yet? The word has died, men bark like dogs. The word has no importance any more, none in the current state of things . . . Everything is shit.”

In recent years, the reputations of both men have undergone a sudden revival in the English-speaking world, thanks to extensive new translations and biographical works. Summer Before the Dark is a sign of how far this revival has succeeded: it is now possible for these writers and their émigré milieu to be the subject of a work of popular history very much like those Stefan Zweig used to write. One of his most successful books, Sternstunden der Menschheit (Decisive Moments in History, 1927), was a collection of a dozen historical sketches of moments that “changed the world”, from the Battle of Waterloo to the fall of Constantinople. Summer Before the Dark, on the other hand, is a story of people who failed to change the world: men who were expelled from history by the Nazis and had to watch helplessly as it steamrollered them into oblivion.

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In choosing to take up this story in the summer of 1936, Weidermann finds a moment of relative calm and normality in the émigrés’ lives. The urgent flight from Germany is over; the chaotic and deadly flight from the German armies is still in the future. Ostend itself seems like a place where nothing bad could happen: “the expansive long beach, the big, overly broad promenade, the elaborately curved casino with its large terrace, the bistros with their little marble tables outside, the wooden bathing huts in the sand”. It is a middle-class paradise of the sort we associate with pre-First World War Europe. Indeed, Zweig was at Ostend in July 1914, and continually delayed his departure in the belief that war was just a rumour. Not until he was on the last train to Germany, and passed trucks carrying cannons towards the Belgian border, did he
begin to believe that the crisis was for real.

Weidermann opens his book at that moment of false security, just as Europe’s new Thirty Years War is about to break out. He sketches in the subsequent lives and careers of Zweig and Roth with economical strokes, bringing out the ready-made contrast between the two. Like virtually every writer on the subject, Weidermann can’t help condescending to Zweig:

Zweig is still writing out of a world, and about a world, that no longer exists. His ideal [of tolerance and mutual understanding] is pointless, unrealistic, risible, and dangerous . . . What use is tolerance in a world in which any man and everything he lives for and everything he writes are in danger of being ground to a pulp?

By contrast, Roth, with his fantastic dreams of restoring the Habsburg throne, may be unreal and absurd, but at least he is passionately committed.

Zweig is partly to blame for the way posterity treats him. In his memoir, Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday), he is so modest about his achievements that he practically writes himself off, along with the liberal values he held dear. Yet how many people are possessed of the genius they high-handedly condemn Zweig for lacking, and in a geopolitical crisis how many would demonstrate better judgement than he did? Perhaps we dislike Zweig precisely because he reminds us too much of ourselves; and we romanticise in Roth the egotistical, self-destructive artist we would shun in real life.

For even in Weidermann’s friendly account, Roth comes across, without question, as an impossible man: self-pitying, improvident, monstrously needy. Irmgard Keun, another émigré writer in Ostend that summer – and “the only Aryan here”, as she cheerfully acknowledged – fell in love with Roth at first sight and spent years tending to his needs, such as holding his head during his daily bouts of vomiting. But even she eventually ran away: “I left him with a deep sigh of relief . . . I felt as if I’d escaped an unbearable burden.” Zweig was able to maintain a relationship with Roth only by keeping him at a distance, emotionally and physically. Yet under the circumstances, his devotion to his friend must be considered truly magnanimous.

A book about Roth and Zweig – and Keun and Toller and Arthur Koestler and Willi Münzenberg, all of whom play small roles – is necessarily a book about despair. Yet if there is an objection to be made to Summer Before the Dark, it is that Weidermann turns what ought to be a wretched, wrenching experience into one that is merely melancholy, not without a kind of glamour. He does not omit the grim details of the émigrés’ lives: we see Roth’s “badly swollen” feet, the stigmata of advanced alcoholism, which make it hard for him to wear shoes. Yet the whole approach and tone (and title) of the book are intent on turning Ostend 1936 into a kind of late-afternoon idyll of European civilisation. From our point of view, it is all so “interesting” – the brilliant minds, the political drama, the friendships and love affairs. Only by turning to Roth’s letters, or the essays of Walter Benjamin, can we begin to grasp what it really meant to be exiled and waiting for death in an indifferent world – as millions of people are in our own time.

Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 by Volker Weidermann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, is published by Pushkin Press (169pp, £12.99)

Adam Kirsch’s books include “Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas” (W W Norton)

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war