Stefan Zweig: Great European reprints a lecture given by Jules Romains, poet, dramatist, and author of the lengthy series of novels, Men of Good Will, a few months before the start of World War Two. For the book, Romains added a preface, written in exile in New York in 1941. This book’s timing, therefore, is exceptionally poignant. As Romains delivers his original lecture, Europe is still at peace–if barely. A few threads of hope remain intact in the cultural fabric of Europe as he, Zweig, and others had come to know and define it: “I was going to say: ‘All that is over and done with,'” Romains writes of this cosmopolitan era, “but it would be an exaggeration. Rather: ‘All that is completely changed–greatly endangered.'”
When he writes his preface some months later, that hope has been shattered by blitzkrieg and the relentless stream of German victories and conquests that began in September 1939 and continued till Stalingrad in early 1943.
At the moment Romains wrote his preface, though, Zweig still lived, and that was enough for him to hold on to a slim faith in the future:
We who since 1914 have passed through one of the worst periods in human history can say to one another that we shall perhaps know a better, a slightly better period, if we get through this one and live long enough. It will last as long as it can. May it last longer than we do!
He did not know that Zweig was already descending into a black depression that would lead, in early 1942, to his committing suicide, along with his wife, in a small town in Brazil. “…[T]he world of my own language having disappeared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself…. I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth,” Zweig wrote in his last note. How this knowledge might have altered Romains’ outlook, we cannot say. But in saluting a contemporary he greatly admired and respected, Romains was, in effect, writing an obituary of a unique generation. These men saw themselves as Europeans–advocates of western culture and the faith of Enlightenment and human progress rather than as French, German, Austrian, or Italian. Despite the inevitable bumps along the way, the jolts and jags from xenophobes, racists, and fundamentalists, the progress of progress itself was, or so they thought, destined to plow forward.
Above all, they were believers in what Romains calls “the critical sense,” which was the antithesis of the political movements then reaching their crescendos:
Of what does human misfortune now consist, and above all what horrible things are threatening mankind? What is the chief danger? Is it an excess of composure, of reason, or the critical sense? God knows it is not! On the contrary, it is the rapid development throughout the masses of the new fanaticisms: fascism, racism, nationalism, and communism, or mixtures of them in different proportions…. [I]t is the unbridled proscription of all critical sense, all lucid play of reason….
No wonder that men such as Zweig were the first to be singled out and sent into exile. It was a technique dating back to the days of the Tsars (viz. E. H. Carr’s The Romantic Exiles). Lenin adopted it early in his revolution (viz. Lenin’s Private War), and Hitler applied it to both artists (viz. Exiled in Paradise) and scientists (viz. Hitler’s Gift). The result, as Romains notes, is that,
…[O]ne of the extraordinary things about the days we are living through is that undoubtedly for the first time in the history of civilization more than half of the great men of the present, of those who have done the most for the honour of their respective countries, of Europe, or humanity, are fugitives and exiles. And the majority of them were in no way involved in politics, Yes, this will be the subject of hundreds of essays in the schools of the future, an inexhaustibl theme for orators: the disgrace of an epoch–our own–when Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Guglielmo Ferrero, Stefan Zweig, Emil Ludwig, Ivan Bunin, and others were all of them at once exiles, men driven from their countries.
Thanks in large part to NYRB Classics, Stefan Zweig’s work seems to be emerging finally from decades of neglect, at least in the English language. Clive James recently summed Zweig up as “The Incarnation of Humanism” in the final biographical essay in his wonderful collection, Cultural Amnesia. Whether Romains will have the same good fortune has yet to be seen (I was going to write remains, but that looked like a pun). The whole idea of Europe and humanism has itself been taking a bit of a beating lately, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider this little book and remind oneself of what that idea has meant to others when it was under a much greater threat.