Stefan Zweig Biography: Chapter Six - World War I
Zweig was a self-proclaimed pacifist, and humanist. To understand many of his writings, and possibly the man himself, it is crucial to remember that Zweig survived two terrible wars. Both wars raged in the heart of Europe, where he lived and worked, and both wars reached a level of catastrophic devastation that was beyond imagining. To move from the Golden Age of Viennese art and culture, to the smoking ruin that Europe became, indelibly marked Zweig for the rest of his life.
The true horrors that World War I and II inflicted upon mankind would not be fully explored until years after World War II. Indeed, Zweig himself did not write about the wars explicitly. His own memoir, The World of Yesterday, is an exploration of the dying days of the Habsburg Empire. Zweig was fixated on the past, and cast his gaze ever back to the history of the Golden Age of Vienna, and the eventual murder of that Age. To understand his fixation, and get a glimpse into the mind of Zweig, that history must be understood.
At the start of the 20th century, Zweig’s home of Vienna was the de-facto capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria and Hungary were separate countries, unified by a single monarch, after 1867. A citizen of Austria enjoyed autonomy as an Austrian, just as a Hungarian was a citizen of Hungary. The Emperor of Austria also claimed title as King of Hungary. The uneasy compromise, a result of many wars over many years, kept an uneasy peace. Both countries needed each other for common defense. Although there was, in theory, one leader of the whole empire, the two countries had separate parliaments, and separate Prime Ministers. It was a rather unique governmental system, but it seemed to work. Austria-Hungary was the second largest country in Europe, and enjoyed a great deal of power and influence. Always, however, there were problems. A great deal of nationalism existed on both sides. The truce, fragile to begin with, remained always shaky.
This was the Vienna of Stefan Zweig’s youth. The truce remained, and Vienna, always a center for arts and culture, enjoyed a great renaissance. To be wealthy in Vienna at this time was to enjoy a life of beauty and privilege that few in the world could claim to equal. That Golden Age crashed, however, and began a cycle that would lead to the ravages of the Nazi Empire.
Due to Russian expansion hopes in Bosnia, there was a great deal of tension between the countries of Austria-Hungary, and Russia. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 began a chain of events that led to what was called “the Great War.” By the time World War I was over, Austria-Hungary dissolved as a sovereign state, and became a de facto satellite country of imperial Germany. The Allies of World War I helped redraw the borders of both Austria and Hungary, and the Golden Age of Vienna was over.
Zweig spent his time during the Great War as a secretary in the Ministry of War Archives. He did his duty as a citizen, but never saw battle, due to earlier sickness in his life. He felt that the war in Europe was, literally, insane and could not countenance it. During two years of the war, 1916-1918, Zweig responded in the best way that he knew how: he wrote a play entitled, Jeremias.
Jeremias is often seen by critics, and biographers, as a direct result of Zweig’s friendship with Romain Rolland. This may not be entirely fair, however, as Zweig had expressed his own pacifism throughout much of his life. That Rolland was an influence of one sort or another on Zweig, though, is certain. Rolland was an accomplished writer and mystic, and an avid supporter of the theatre.
Rolland, a French writer, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1915. By the time he and Zweig became acquainted, he was already a powerful literary force. His dedication and zeal for pacifism were well known, and he worked with a variety of world leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi of India, and Joseph Stalin of Russia. Rolland’s antiwar passion inspired a host of other great writers of the day, including Zweig. Zweig eventually wrote a biography of the man. Rolland inspired others, as well. Hermann Hesse dedicated his famous novel, Siddhartha, to Rolland.
Zweig’s anti-war play, Jeremias, owes at least some of its inspiration to Rolland. Jeremias is a tale about national arrogance, and the bloodlust that engaging in war can bring. It is set in Jerusalem, at the start of the Babylonian War against the Assyrians. The prophet, Jeremiah, warns the Jewish people of the slaughter to come. His warnings are ignored, and the people react violently to his prophecy. The war leads to much destruction, including the temples of the Jewish people. Jeremiah, correct in his prophecy, must flee the city, and leads the people away from the ruins. He tells them that the temples are just physical structures, and that the Kingdom of God resides in their own hearts.
Zweig felt that his play was a war protest, in the strictest sense, and declared it so in a letter to his friend, the great German playwright, Gerhart Hauptmann. The play debuted in Zurich, receiving significant critical praise. The play was popular, and became a symbol of pacifism in the face of the machinery of war. Its central themes are indicative of much of Zweig’s own personal philosophy, inspired in part, by Romain Rolland. First, war itself is an insane act, and should be avoided at all costs. Second, engaging in battle will only lead to bloodshed and ruin, not peace. Finally, religion is largely nothing more than human dogma. Spirituality is eternal, and should reside within.
Zweig was never an orthodox Jew. His family barely recognized its Jewish roots. His play, Jeremias, is nearly impossible to view through the lens of orthodoxy. Zweig certainly did not intend the work to be a celebration of Jewish heritage. The play is, foremost, a statement about senseless violence. It then becomes all the more ironic, and terrible, that all texts of Jeremias were ordered burned, when the Nazis came to power in Europe.