Stefan Zweig Biography: Chapter Seven - World War II
Europe was a very different place after World War I. Old empires had fallen, and new ones began to rise. Though Zweig had remained in Austria during most of the Great War, he left as often as he could to escape its ravages, and settled for a while in Switzerland. Sometimes the war seemed to touch him only tangentially. This nebulous quality about Zweig always mystified his biographers. He was in the center of two terrible atrocities, World War I and II, yet his responses to them were always indirect: a play or a news article here, a book there. Rather than comment on the war directly, he always addressed it as a terrible turning point. Before the war, Vienna was Eden, after the war, there remained only disillusionment.
After World War I, Stefan continued to write and publish. He met the woman whom he would eventually marry, Friderike von Winternitz, in 1912. Friderike’s family had blood ties with the nobility of Austria. She grew up with a measure of privilege. The two pursued their relationship, despite the war, and married in 1914. The date is somewhat disputed. Zweig himself only publicly acknowledged the marriage around 1920. Friderike had converted to Catholicism in her 20s, and had been previously married. It was difficult for her to secure a divorce. In the Catholic tradition, it was considered a sin for her to pursue another marriage.
Friderike later became a significant influence on public opinion concerning Zweig, who had become the most popular author in the world. She was steadfastly loyal to Stefan, working tirelessly to insure that he wanted for nothing. As well as becoming his wife, she also became his typist, secretary, financial organizer, and general jack-of-all-trades. She never seemed to find any fault with her husband or, at least, she never publicly acknowledged any faults. Even after their divorce, she refused to speak ill of him, directly.
However, she did make a great deal of money from her relationship to Stefan. She published memoirs, interviews, and countless articles that recounted her life with the well-loved author. Since Stefan himself did not publish his own memoirs until after his death, Friderike was free to write whatever she chose. Stefan’s memoirs spoke very little about his marriages, or his private life, so there was no direct evidence to refute any of Friderike’s claims. Many of these accounts put her at odds with the Zweig family. Stefan’s brother, Alfred, was especially distrustful of Stefan’s wife, Friderike. He disliked her, almost from the moment they first met, and always felt that Stefan had married below his station. He saw Friderike as an opportunist, one who had swooped in during a time of insecurity in Stefan’s life. Alfred did not die until 1977, and refuted Friderike’s accounts of his brother’s life until his dying day.
Stefan and Friderike moved to Salzburg, Austria in 1920. They occupied a beautiful house that Zweig had authorized Friderike to purchase. The house was a modest villa, by the standards by which both Zweig and Friderike were accustomed, but it was sufficient. Zweig wanted to return home from Switzerland, but he could not bear to live in Vienna again. He considered it a part of his old life and chose Salzburg instead, as a way to begin anew. Their return trip to Austria was fraught with symbolism that was not lost on Zweig.
The once beautiful train bore evidence of the Great War. Many of the windows were broken, and the train itself was battle-scarred. As Zweig and his wife sat down, to prepare for the journey to their new home, they noticed a similar train about to depart. On it, Zweig reported, was the ousted Emperor of Austria and his wife, heading into permanent exile. He could see them both, sitting stiffly and quiet, preparing to leave the home they had once ruled. The image of the Emperor, leaving his native country, struck a chord with Zweig. He saw it as a metaphor of the death of the beautiful Austria of his youth. Despite this poignant image, Zweig returned home thinking that the terrible ravages of war had finally passed him by.
Stefan’s move to the house in Salzburg marks a significant break in his literary career. It is not a break that he noticed himself, however. All of the writing that he published before this move would later became his most obscure. The plays and poems written before this move are little known today, and his most famous writings were published after this move to Salzburg.
Zweig was never content to stay in one place for long. The early years of his marriage to Friderike were typical of his relationships with most of the women in his life: they were useful in securing him a stable home, but he always left whenever domestic life became too hectic. Such was the case for his home in Salzburg. Zweig stayed long enough to see his house properly appointed with furnishings, and then returned to his native Vienna, to visit his family, and to renew his relationships with the literati. Friderike, ever loyal to her husband and his literary pursuits, was not far behind him. She stayed in Salzburg just long enough herself to see the domestics attended to, and to secure a nanny for her daughters, Suse and Alix. The children, from her previous marriage, were generously provided for, but the two girls rarely traveled with Stefan and Friderike. It is also interesting to note that Stefan never officially adopted the girls. Children were far too much of a hindrance for his hectic life.
Stefan was very busy during the 1920s. He and his wife worked tirelessly to produce his books and articles. He had perfected the form of the novella, and published them at a rapid pace. He often broke publication records with each successive volume. Although many of Zweig’s contemporaries had financial difficulties, due to the depression after World War I, the Zweig family continued to be wealthy, and affluent. Salzburg remained Stefan’s home base, and much of his later work saw its production there. He continued his vast correspondences with nearly every major personality in art, theatre, literature, music, and philosophy. Always in the background, though, the threat of the impending Nazi war loomed.
Stefan always seemed to miss the significance of the rise of the Nazi empire. He treated them, in his pre-war letters and diaries, more as a political nuisance than anything. Although the anti-Semitism espoused by the Nazis was well known, Zweig treated it more like the rhetoric of the ignorant, than as a real threat to his way of life. Hitler was growing in power, however, and the Zweig family felt the darkness rising. Everything began to change in late 1931, close to Zweig’s fiftieth birthday.
Newspaper articles and op-eds soon appeared that lambasted Zweig for his lack of service on the battlefield in World War I. Anti-Jewish sentiment grew strong, and many who had hated in secret were now able to express their views in the open. Zweig was, for the first time, exposed to anti-Semitism in a direct and dangerous way. It was simple for such critics to paint Zweig in an unwholesome light. They seized on any line he had ever written about Germans, or Germany, and twisted those lines in any way they saw fit. When Adolf Hitler secured the seat of Chancellor of the German Reich in 1933, Zweig became very fearful. He could deny the danger to himself, and his family, no longer.
Zweig found that he had to curtail his travel plans and, for the first time, he had to avoid speaking and touring in Germany. The horror of the Holocaust was yet to come, and many could not have predicted it, but Germany itself was already inhospitable to Jews. Zweig had never known a time when he could not travel to any place he pleased. Even during World War I, he moved about as much as he could. This was no longer true. The German press became increasingly venomous to all things Jewish. Zweig, despite his popularity and book sales, was a prime target. The great book-burnings had begun in Germany, and Zweig’s volumes were among the many that were burned openly, in state-sanctioned protests against Jewish products and philosophy.
Zweig continued to tour for a while, and spent some time in Britain. He fell in love with the British Museum, and spent time perusing the manuscripts and rare texts housed there. He felt very comfortable during his visit, and considered Britain to be a refuge. It was far from the Nazis and their insanity. His letters dated from this time become more frantic, as he realized the threat that Germany had become. Many of his German contemporaries had already begun to flee the country, in fear for their lives.
A scandal erupted in late 1933, and early 1934. Zweig was painted as a seditionist by the German government for his part in a magazine publication. The magazine’s contributors were all ex-patriots, and Jews, and the Nazi regime deemed the publication anti-German. The scandal was a complete fabrication, as Zweig had only a passing involvement in the publication. It was enough, however. Zweig’s books were targeted, and their future publication was completely banned in Germany by 1936. The Nazis were closing in.
In early 1934, the sanctity of Zweig’s writing studio and home were both violated. He awoke to find four police at his villa in Salzburg. They had arrived on suspicion that Zweig harbored weapons for an anti-Nazi political faction. Zweig was calm, but silently outraged. They searched Zweig’s home and, after finding nothing, left. It was the final straw for Zweig. He realized that he could no longer avoid the Nazis in Austria, and he moved his wife and family to London in 1934. Nazi influence followed, however.
Zweig had no sooner settled into his new home before he was faced with new accusations. According to the charges, he had spoken openly against the government of Austria. In truth, he had spoken for the need of humanitarian aid for Jewish children in Germany. The speech was later twisted to reflect Zweig as a seditionist, and he had to fight the libel of many of his own country’s leaders. He managed to fight off the charges, for the present, and secured new publishers for his works. He also hired a new secretary from the German-Jewish immigrants who had fled Nazi oppression: Charlotte “Lotte” Altmann, who was 26 years old.
Zweig and his wife, Friderike, had marital difficulties. Many of them sprang from Stefan’s refusal to return permanently to Salzburg, a decision that probably saved both of their lives. He continued to work in London and produced his novel, The Impatient Heart, in 1936.
The Nazi influence continued to spread across Europe, but Zweig fled deeper and deeper into his writing. He did contribute to the debate concerning Jewish writers, however. He urged them to write, and to write often. He did not feel that their voices should be silent. Zweig’s marriage to Friderike disintegrated during this time, and he took a new lover, his secretary, Lotte Altmann.
By 1935, Zweig had already met the great German composer, Richard Strauss, after the death of Zweig’s contemporary, Hoffmannsthal. The two had discussed Strauss’ new operetta, The Silent Woman, and Zweig was asked to write for the piece. Plans to perform the musical production in Dresden, Germany, were made, and the stage performance was scheduled for the summer of 1935. Strauss was very famous in Germany, and used his influence to include Stefan’s name as a major writer and contributor to the operetta. Stefan had already dealt with trouble in Germany due to his Jewish heritage, and wanted no part of the affair. Strauss, however, had a political point to make, and he desperately wanted to defy the Nazis in the open. He took a gamble, and published Zweig’s name on the operetta.
The opening performance sold out, and the operetta became both a critical and a popular success. The joy was short-lived, though. After only three performances, Strauss’ operetta was banned by the Third Reich. He could never play it again, due to his inclusion of the name of a banned Jewish writer on the production. Strauss was forced to resign his position as the head of musical culture for Germany, and Zweig never wrote for him again.
Zweig’s relationship with Lotte intensified. The two spent more time together, and his estrangement to Friderike was complete. He also decided to unburden himself of part of his enormous manuscript collection. Zweig wanted to become more mobile, in case it became necessary for him to flee again. He sold a large portion of the collection, and then took his first tour of South America in the summer of 1936.
His tour was successful, and he fell in love with Rio de Janeiro, and the country of Brazil. Zweig received the presidential treatment while in Brazil, and visited with heads of state as well as many South American celebrities. He was already famous in South America, his fame as a great European author having preceded him. He picked up new material for writing, especially biographical content, and returned to London.
In 1937, Zweig became part of a new experiment. He was interviewed by the BBC, for a new form of entertainment: the television. Zweig was one of the first personalities ever interviewed in such a way. He found the experience rather shallow and topical, however, and refused future such invitations.
His marriage to Friderike, who refused to leave Salzburg permanently, was essentially over, and Zweig filed for divorce. Friderike fiercely fought the divorce, but lost, and their marriage was dissolved. Stefan sold his house in Salzburg, divested himself of most of his remaining manuscripts and paraphernalia collection, and gave Friderike a large sum of money to provide for her and her girls. The two officially divorced in 1938 but remained correspondents and friends until Stefan’s death.
He visited Vienna for the last time in 1937. Austria’s autonomy was in dire jeopardy and was threatened by Nazi Germany annexation. It was fortunate that Zweig left. Hitler ordered his troops into Austria in March of 1938. Stefan’s brother fled to France. He tried to bring Stefan’s mother as well, but she died in late 1938. Stefan’s entire family was now free from the Nazis, including his father, who had died in 1926. Zweig’s friend, Sigmund Freud, was one of the last to leave before complete Nazi domination. Old and sick, Freud left Austria for London, leaving much of his grand collection of manuscripts behind.
Stefan and Lotte moved to a house in Bath, England, in 1939. When Stefan went to secure the paperwork for his marriage to Lotte, an official who rushed into the room interrupted him. He declared that Germany had invaded Poland. World War II had truly begun and, now, Britain was a part of it. Stefan and Lotte were married in a rushed ceremony.
Stefan was officially declared by Britain as an enemy resident, as well as his new wife. She was a German native, and the annexation of Austria placed him in this class as well. Even in Britain, a former refuge, the two could not escape Nazi influence.
Stefan became severely depressed toward the end of 1939. He had lost his home, his lifestyle, and his homeland, all in a relatively short span. He watched the disintegration of Europe, and the life he had always known. His own financial future was secure, as his books continued to sell well, but the future of the world was not secure at all. Zweig often received letters for help and support from his friends, many of them exiled writers and artists, and he felt powerless to help them. Stefan had friends and acquaintances in vast quantities, but many of them were still in terrible danger in Germany and Austria, unable or unwilling to flee the inexorable Nazi tide.