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Author photo, Stefan Zweig
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

A humanist in exile: Stefan Zweig, 75 years after his death

Nina Wuttke ct
February 22, 2017

One of the best-known German writers of the 20th century, Stefan Zweig, had to flee the Nazi regime and landed in Brazil. On the 75th anniversary of his death, here's a look back at this great humanist's contributions.


Born in 1881 to a middle-class secular Jewish family in Vienna, Stefan Zweig had already begun writing poetry during his high school years. He went on to study German literature, romance languages and philosophy in Vienna and Berlin. Upon finishing his studies, Zweig traveled throughout Europe, Africa and the Americas, making the acquaintance of other authors along the way.

Peace was of vital importance to Zweig. He did not join in the excitement over World War I even as it reached a feverish pace in Europe. Declared unfit for service, he worked in the press and propaganda offices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the "Kriegspressequartier." In 1917, after having been released from military service, Zweig moved to Zürich, where he worked for the Viennese newspaper "Neue Freie Presse," as a correspondent. After the war ended, he returned to Austria and lived in Salzburg until 1933.

The idea of a unified Europe

Zweig wrote numerous pieces of prose, biographies and novellas. He garnered fame after releasing "Decisive Moments in History," ("Sternstunde der Menschheit") in 1927. After his death, he became quite famous for his book, "The Chess Game," ("Schachnovelle"), which describes how a man put into solitary confinement by the Nazi regime teaches himself chess.

The humanitarian idea of a united Europe with a pacifist worldview reflected in his works contradicted the tenets of National Socialism and he was therefore added to a list of authors whose works were to be burned in 1933. In 1935, Zweig was added to the list of forbidden writers.

The road to exile

After police officers searched his home in Austria, the author considered his life to be in danger and made the decision to leave his homeland and go into exile. Initially, he emigrated to London, before briefly living in New York, Paraguay and Argentina. Eventually, Zweig and his second wife, Charlotte, decided to take up residence in Brazil.

Already known in Brazil for his numerous previous visits to the country, Zweig and his wife were welcomed and made their home in Petrópolis. He wrote a monograph titled, "Brazil, Land of the Future." Just before committing suicide in 1942, the writer thanked the "wonderful country of Brazil." In his suicide note, he wrote that he would not have wished to try to start his life anew in any other country. Yet this attempt was unsuccessful.

There's no place like home

Casa Stefan Zweig
Though he felt welcome in Brazil, Zweig ended his life thereImage: Manfred Grietens

In Brazil, Stefan Zweig was well-known and liked. At a congress of writers held in 1936 in Buenos Aires, the author was invited as an honored guest. It was expected that he would distance himself from Germany sharply, but the writer did not see himself as a politician and did not want to speak out against a country and its policies, not even Germany, which he still considered to be something of a cultural homeland.

Although he may have been safe in Brazil, far from the war and the effects it was creating across Europe, the loss of his homeland was tearing him up inside. This feeling of powerlessness - of being unable to change anything about the war or the downfall of Europe - became too much for the author, who felt himself deeply connected to the history and culture of the continent. Suffering from depression and living between the feeling of gratitude for his reception in Brazil and realizing it could never replace his homeland, overwhelmed him.

On February 23, 1942 Stefan Zweig and his wife Charlotte died after taking an overdose of sleeping bills. They were said to be found holding hands in their bed in their house in Petrópolis. Even 75 years after his death, he remains one of the best-known German writers of the 20th century.


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