By Benjamin Ramm
Seventy-five years ago, in February 1942, Europe’s most popular author committed suicide in a bungalow in the Brazilian town of Petrópolis, 10,000 km (6,200 miles) from his birthplace in Vienna. In the year before his death, Stefan Zweig completed two contrasting studies – The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European, an elegy for a civilisation now consumed by war, and Brazil: Land of the Future, an optimistic portrait of a new world. The story of these two books, and of the refugee who wrote them, offers a guide to the trap of nationalism and the trauma of exile.
Austria-Hungry provided Zweig with a template of cultural plurality in the face of nationalism
Zweig was born in 1881 into a prosperous and cultured Jewish family in Vienna, capital of the multi-ethnic Habsburg empire, where Austrians, Hungarians, Slavs and Jews, among many others, co-existed. Their ruler was the polyglot Franz-Joseph I, who decreed at the start of his reign in 1867 that “All races of the empire have equal rights, and every race has an inviolable right to the preservation and use of its own nationality and language”.
Franz-Joseph was a stiff-necked autocrat, and his reign should not be romanticised, but it provided Zweig with a template of cultural plurality at a time when Europe was consuming itself in nationalism. His biographer George Prochnik notes that Zweig called for the foundation of an international university, with branches in every major European capital and a rotating exchange programme that would expose young people to other ethnicities and religions.