The Jewish author of The Royal Game, hearing of the Nazi victories, chose death

Eighty years ago, on February 22, 1942 (February 23, according to some sources), Austrian writer, poet and literary translator Stefan Zweig died.

Born on November 28, 1881, into a wealthy bourgeois family in Vienna, Stefan Zweig’s father was a Jewish textile manufacturer who had immigrated from the Czech Republic. His family’s financial situation enabled the young Zweig to attend the best schools: He studied philosophy, German studies and Romance studies at the universities of Vienna and Berlin. In 1904, he obtained a doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation on the philosophy of Hippolyte Taine. During his university years, he published poetry and was an active literary translator. His first collection of short stories was published in 1904 under the title The Love of Erika Ewald, and his early narratives are related to the psychoanalytic, decadent impressionist prose of Arthur Schnitzler.

After graduating from university, and enjoying complete financial independence, he began to travel, all over Europe and also to America, India and North Africa. During his travels, he became close friends with the great Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren and the great French peace fighter-humanist writer Romain Rolland, on whose life he published a book in 1921.

As a member of an intellectual group in Zurich during the First World War, he campaigned for an end to the war and a just peace. His anti-war drama Jeremiah, written in 1917, which forced him to emigrate temporarily, is a faithful reflection of his human-political stance at the time.

He returned from emigration in 1919, and his house in Salzburg became a meeting place for intellectuals fighting for European intellectual values. It was then that he began to write his essays, resulting in a series entitled Three Masters, on Balzac, Dickens, and Dostoevsky; he also wrote about Nietzsche, Stendhal and Tolstoy, among others. In 1927, he published his highly acclaimed history book, The Star Clock of Humanity, in which he painted a picture of 12 seminal moments in European history.

In the 1920s, he also wrote his best short stories, whose sensitive portrayal of his personality was inspired by his interest in psychoanalysis. His novels of the late 20s, such as Forgotten Dreams, depict the passion of love escalating to the point of madness under the compulsion of conventional prejudices, and The Confusion of Feelings (1927), which deals with the problem of death in Venice in an empathetic and moving way. In the late 20s he began to write his fictional biographies of historical figures (Fouché, Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart), which were popular between the two world wars.

In 1928, he was invited to the Soviet Union for the celebrations of the centenary of Leo Tolstoy’s birth. His visit launched the publication of his works in Russian, for which Maxim Gorky wrote the foreword.

In 1934, the threat of fascism, which was already looming large in Austria, led him to leave for London after a search of his home in Salzburg. Here, he wrote his only late novel, entitled Restless Heart.

In 1940, he traveled from England via New York to Brazil, where his last and perhaps best-known novel, the anti-fascist The Royal Game, was written in 1941.

It was in Brazil that he began his autobiographical memoirs, which go beyond the personal to provide a multifaceted portrait of contemporary Austrian social and cultural life. This work, Farewell to Yesterday, was published only after his death in 1945. (It was republished in 1981 as The World of Yesterday, translated by Dezső Tandori.)

Despite all the recognition, respect and love he received in Brazil, the writer could not forget his homeland, where the Nazis trampled his name in the mud, banned his writings and burned his books at the stake after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria to Germany.

His decision to commit suicide became final when, in the first phase of the Second World War, radio and newspapers around the world reported the triumphant advance of German troops.

He prepared carefully for his voluntary death, always carrying a vial of poison with him. After a moving farewell to all those close to him, on February 23, 1942, the 60-year-old writer bid farewell to life with his second wife, Charlotte Altmann, in Petrópolis, Brazil.

The Stefan Zweig Centre in Salzburg is dedicated to the life and work of the writer. A comic book about the last days of his life was published in Paris in 2012 by Laurent Seksik and Guillaume Sorel. His work inspired the 2014 Oscar-winning film Grand Budapest Hotel by American filmmaker Wes Anderson. In 2016, Maria Schrader directed Stefan Zweig – Farewell to Europe, a film about the writer’s last years in exile.

In 2012, the house of the writer and his wife in Petropolis was converted into a museum to commemorate his exile. In 2017, 75 years after his death, Stefan Zweig was awarded Brazil’s highest honor for foreigners, the Ordem Nacional do Cruzeiro do Sul (National Order of the Southern Cross).

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