Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig

erasmusThanks to reissues of his fiction by New York Review Classics and Pushkin Press, and, now, a new biography by George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World and a Wes Anderson film, Grand Hotel Budapest, inspired by his works, Stefan Zweig can no longer be considered a neglected writer. Among English language readers, that is–his works have stayed popular in German, French and other languages.

Very few of Zweig’s non-fiction books have been reissued in English, however. I think this is partly due to the fact that tastes and standards in biography have fundamentally changed in the decades since World War Two. To be taken seriously now, a biography has to be based in a fair level of objective research backed up with proof in the form of footnotes or citations and an extensive biography. In Zweig’s time, it was assumed that the writer had done his or her homework and this left them free to focus on biography as an investigation into character or into the relationship between and individual and his time.

Yet the latter is exactly what makes Zweig’s biographies so interesting now. One cannot read them without being aware of the context in which they were wrote, which gives the books a double effect: one sees both the subject and the author in relation to their respective eras.

Zweig wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1934, not long after Hitler came to power in Germany, but when he and others could already sense that the world he knew and loved, The World of Yesterday as he titled his memoir, was entering a “terrible moment of mass intoxication.” Erasmus’ life was also caught up in the conflicts that arose from the rise of the Protestant faiths. It’s hard not to read the following, for example, and not find oneself thinking simultaneously of the Reformation and the rise of Nazism:

In general, those events which we are wont to deem of great historical importance hardly enter the sphere of popular consciousness. Even the huge waves of the earlier wares merely touched the outside margin of folk-life and were confined within the borders of those nations or those provinces which happened to be engaged in them. Moreover, the intellectual part of the nation could usually hold aloof from social or religious disturbances, and with undivided mind contemplate the welter of passion on the political stage. Goethe was such a figure. Undisturbed amid the tumult of the Napoleonic campaigns, he quietly continued his work.

Sometimes, however, at rare intervals through the centuries, antagonisms reach such a pitch of tension that something is bound to snap. Then a veritable hurricane stampedes over the earth, rending humanity as though it were a flimsy cloth the hands could tear apart. The mighty cleft runs across every country, every town, every house, every family, every heart. From every side the individual is attacked by the overwhelming force of the masses, and there is no means of protection, no means of salvation from the collective madness. A wave of such magnitude allows no one to stand up firmly against it. Such all-encompassing cleavages may be brought about by social, religious, or any other problem of a spiritual and theoretical nature. But so far as bigotry is concerned, it matters little what fans the flames. The only essential is that the fire should blaze, that it should be able to discharge its accumulated store of hate; and precisely in such apocalyptic hours of human folly is the demon of war let loose to gallop madly and joyously throughout the lands.

In such terrible moments of mass intoxication and sundering of the world of mankind, the individual is utterly helpless. It is useless for the wise to try and withdraw into the isolation of passive contemplation. The times drag him willy-nilly into the fray, to right or to left, into one clique or into another, into this party or into that.

Zweig himself essentially suffered this fate, being forced, as a Jew and a liberal intellectual, into exile–an intolerable exile, as Prochnik puts it, during which he grew increasingly despondent. Less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his wife took their lives by drug overdose, feeling that a Nazi conquest of the Americas was inevitable. No doubt in the years leading up to that decision, he often felt himself dragged willy-nilly, utterly helpless.

Knowing where his despair eventually led him, the final sentences in this chapter have a bitter irony:

Fanaticism is fated to overreach its own powers. Reason is eternal and patient, and can afford to bide its time. Often, while the drunken orgy is at its highest, she needs must lie still and mute. But her day dawns, and ever and again she comes into her own anew.

How sad that Zweig was not able to hold onto this confident outlook.

You can read about Jules Romains’ tribute to Zweig in this post from 2008.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul
New York City: Viking Books, 1934

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