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Read Stefan Zweig’s Heartbreaking Letter On The Outbreak of World War I

The Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig has been having a bit of a moment – he’s recently been the subject of a critically acclaimed film (“Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe”) and his experience as a refugee during World War Two has proven especially poignant in our time. Born in Vienna in 1881, Zweig, along with fellow writer Joseph Roth, came to embody the cosmopolitan, fin-de-siècle, lifestyle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the interwar period, as a writer of plays, novels, short stories, criticism, and journalism, he became one of the most popular authors in the world.

Recently, Asymptote, a superb Taipei based literary journal focusing on translation, published a little known piece of writing from Zweig’s oeuvre – “To Friends in Foreign Land.” It’s a masterpiece of rhetoric – full of contradictions, lofty prose, and a subtle, brilliant touch of irony. As translator David Kretz writes, “On September 19, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War One, Stefan Zweig published this letter in the Berliner Tageblatt, then one of the most widely circulating German newspapers…this letter is indispensable to understanding Zweig and his position in those dark times.” The letter is ostensibly a temporary farewell from Zweig to his French, British, and Belgian friends. He writes, “Our friendships are in vain as long as our nations are in arms” – seemingly asserting that nationalism trumps personal relationships in a time of war. Indeed, the letter is rife with “cliché-ridden affirmations of his loyalty to the nationalist German cause.”

But Zweig also intersperses these patriotic outbursts with equally passionate defenses of the virtues of cosmopolitanism and depictions of the brutality and depravity of war. Kretz writes that one interpretation of the piece’s contradictions is “that [Zweig] sought to beguile the censors while carefully and subliminally affirming the cosmopolitan ideal of intellectual European unity for those who had ears to hear it. That is how Zweig portrayed it in his autobiography “The World of Yesterday.” But, Kretz continues, Zweig’s private correspondence paint a more nuanced picture – “the letter is now widely seen as also expressing an agonizing inner conflict between nationalist and cosmopolitan values, between romantic admiration for the allegedly sublime aesthetics of war and pacifist Enlightenment morals.”

The letter is even more masterful when considered in light of this more ambiguous reading. In the last heartbreaking paragraph Zweig writes, “For the sake of those duties, which we will then have to fulfill, do not forsake me—as I shall remain faithful to you, more so than I can show. Farewell, you dear ones, farewell my companions in foreign land, farewell, farewell!”

In a time of resurgent nationalist movements across Europe, the letter serves to illustrate the complexity of identity in a European context – Zweig was at once Austrian, Jewish, European, and Human. All four pulled upon him, and the same forces, of rootedness and globalism, continue to pull today.

You can read the full letter on the Asymptote website, here.

Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at [email protected]

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