Zweig’s Wanderlust


Stefan Zweig in Vienna with his brother Alfred, c.1900

From The Nation:

By 1901, while a philosophy student at the University of Vienna (he defended a doctoral thesis on Hippolyte Taine), Zweig became a frequent contributor to Theodor Herzl’s Neue Freie Presse, the capital’s most respected newspaper. Zweig recalled that his first commission felt “like Napoleon presenting a young sergeant with the cross of the Légion d’Honneur.” He enjoyed Herzl’s company and respected his singular commitment to the Zionist cause, but Zweig never subscribed to a doctrine that he thought repurposed the creeds of European nationalism.

Zweig was proof that Jews could thrive under the liberal autocracies of late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe. Between 1848 and 1916, there was, according to the historian Tony Judt, “an era of political constraint but cultural and economic liberation.” Jews were excluded from the business of government, but they shared and shaped the high culture of their societies. Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March was a mournful tribute to a dying monarchy that had allowed Jews to flourish. And while Zweig ignored the inner decay of the Habsburg Empire and was tone-deaf to the politics and prejudices of mass society, he too saw Vienna as the tolerant capital of Mitteleuropa’s republic of letters, where universal affinity trumped national distinction. A separate Jewish homeland, with its future “cannons, flags, [and] medals,” was not the answer to Europe’s “Jewish Question”; the city of Freud was.

Zionism was at odds with what Zweig called the “supranational feeling of freedom.” He thought that if there was any common ground among Jews, it was in the timeless epic of their wandering, a symbol of “Jewry’s cosmopolitan human mission.” This argument was partly informed by his wanderlust. In a letter to Martin Buber, Zweig claimed that foreign travel had borne out “the value of absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel oneself a guest everywhere, to be both participant and mediator…. I feel with gratitude that it is Judaism that has made this supranational feeling possible for me.”

Jews were a fugitive people without a nation, “homeless in the highest sense of the word.” But Zweig thought that the absence of rootedness and the eternal reality of the diaspora were central to the Jewish sense of identity.

“A European Union?”, Gavin Jacobson, The Nation