74 years ago, on the 22 February 1942 Stefan Zweig, a celebrated Austrian writer and inspiration behind Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, committed suicide. He had been a member of The London Library joining in 1936 after fleeing his home in Salzburg. He gave his occupation on his joining form as “Author” and in 1938 he gifted 90 books to the Library in French, Spanish, German and English. His death in 1942 was widely reported across Europe, not least by a stalwart of the Library’s wartime committee E.M. Forster, who knew Zweig personally through their membership of PEN. Forster said the death of Stefan Zweig “was something I could not ignore” and spoke of him during one of his regular wartime BBC Radio broadcasts:
“Last week there died in Brazil an exiled German author, called Stefan Zweig, about whom I want to talk. Zweig was a man of letters and a novelist and he not only had talent but he was typical of our age and its troubles. He was sensitive and humane, he could see both sides of a question, he had a detailed analytical intelligence, he was cultured and loathed violence. Such a man is bound to have a rough time. He is not the Happy Warrior type because his heart is not in the fight, and he is not the Saint, who can see beyond the fight. He is the humanist who hopes for the continuance of civilisation, and civilisation today is a far from encouraging spectacle….”
Forster marked Zweig’s passing again at the beginning of 1943 in another BBC Radio broadcast: Zweig , Forster said,
“ was a humanist. He belonged to the cosmopolitan European civilisation which is at present broken, he hated fanaticism, he believed in reason, in tolerance and the production of beauty. Being fair minded, he saw that humanism has its dangers; the humanist shirks responsibility, dislikes making decisions, and is sometimes a coward. He notes this in the case of Erasmus, and I think he felt difficulties himself, that the world of 1942 became too much for him, and perhaps that was why, to the grief of his many friends, he committed suicide over in Brazil. Zweig is a great loss. Not only was he an excellent historian and readable novelist, but he stated very clearly and fairly a problem which confronts us all. Do we in these terrible times want to be humanists or fanatics? I have no doubt as to my own wish, I would rather be a humanist with all his faults than a fanatic with all his virtues.”
In a rare archival letter from Zweig to the Librarian Charles Hagberg Wright Zweig mentions meeting with Wright and Julian Cain. Julian Cain was the Librarian of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Arrested by the Vichy government after the Nazi occupation of France Cain survived Buchenwald and returned to his post after the war.
The words Forster used when talking about Zweig: humane, sensitive, intelligent, civilised, tolerant are also present in an essay he published in 1941 in The New Statesman and Nation to commemorate the centenary of the London Library. He wrote:
“In May 1941 the London Library was launched on the swelling tides of Victorian prosperity. It celebrates its centenary today among the rocks. It is unharmed at the moment of writing – not a volume out of action – but the area in which it stands is cloven by the impacts of the imbecile storm. All around it are the signs of the progress of science and the retrogression of man. Buildings are in heaps, the earth is in holes. Safe among the reefs of rubbish, it seems to be something more than a collection of books. It is a symbol of civilisation. It is a reminder of sanity and a promise of sanity to come. Perhaps the Nazis will hit it, and it is an obvious target, for it represents the tolerance and the disinterested erudition which they so detest. But they have missed it so far.”
The London Library Forster said “caters for creatures who are trying to be human. The desire to know more, to feel more and accompanying these but not strangling them, the desire to help others: here briefly is the human aim and the Library exists to further it.”
Forster’s association with the Library spans an astonishing 66 years from the age of 25 until his death. He was a member of the committee during the Second World War and in regular attendance at committee meetings both before and after the bomb that hit the building on 23 February 1944. His wartime article about the Library is as relevant today as it was in 1941. “Knowledge” he said “will perish if we do not stand up for it, and testify. It is never safe, never harvested.”
In the months before his death Zweig wrote his autobiography The World of Yesterday which he said told the story of
“an entire generation of our time…Each one of us, even the smallest and most insignificant, has been shaken in the depths of his being by the almost unceasing volcanic eruptions of our European earth. I know of no pre-eminence that I can claim, in the midst of the multitude, except this: that as an Austrian, a Jew, an author, a humanist and a pacifist, I have always stood at the exact point where these earthquakes were the most violent.
Stefan Zweig’s joining form to the Library and a copy of his astonishing little letter will be on display in the Library’s main Reading Room later this week.
The fascinating story of London and the Blitz will also be featuring at our forthcoming Words In The Square literary celebration in May. On Sunday 8th May, leading historian David Kynaston will chair a session with Lara Feigel (The Love-charm of Bombs;The Bitter Taste of Victory); Juliet Gardiner (The Blitz;Wartime;The Thirties) and Max Hastings (The Secret War; All Hell Let Loose; Armageddon) looking at the Blitz, its impact and its unique hold on our collective memory. Tickets are on sale now and throughout the Words In The Square celebration tours will be available to give visitors the chance to see the inside of the Library and some of its fascinating collections – including the celebrated shrapnel-damaged books that provide such a powerful record of this unique time in the Library’s history.
Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian