Of Honor and Despair in Dark Times
Hannah Arendt on Stefan Zweig
Motto: “those very stringencies sometimes telescope events into dreamlike absurdity.”
–William T. Vollmann, Europe Central
In 1943, with confirmation of the Nazis’ implementation of what the ossified bureaucratic language called Endlösung (the final solution) — the extermination of all European Jews — Hannah Arendt published an essay in the émigré journal Aufbau (printed in New York) on Stefan Zweig and the bygone world of yesterday, namely the world of dreams and illusions of German culture’s bourgeois cosmopolitanism. As one of its most influential and admired voices, Zweig had been a darling of that world: a world replete with neuroses, psychological mysteries, splendid pleasures, and bewildering anxieties; a world of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Kraus, of Robert Musil and Franz Kafka, of Elias Canetti and Alma Mahler. It was a universe in which heresies were not only tolerated, but also downright encouraged.
Zweig was born in Vienna in November 1881. He was convinced that Nazism would triumph and that the bourgeois civilization founded on respect for individuals and their liberties, a civilization that he had loved without reservation, was destined to perish. Zweig could not envision being able to live in a world of totalitarian savagery. He had also experienced the tragedy of what Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism would call the superfluous populations — those huge masses of refugees unwanted by anyone; uprooted, banished, persecuted people deprived of state passports and abandoned by the political communities where they had been born, raised, and educated. For the author of “The World of Yesterday,” however, that situation was simply unbearable. In February 1942, self-banished from the then-present world in which nothing but the former world’s geographic location remained, Zweig committed suicide with his wife in Petropolis, Brazil.
Throughout those very same years, Arendt had started working on issues that led to the writing of her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism and included the ramifications and implications of modern anti-Semitism. At that time, she had also outlined the classification of the modern Jewish condition, namely its two alternatives: the pariah and the parvenu. For her and Zweig — with whom she identified to a great extent, just as she had with her favorite author, Rahel Varnhagen (“my closest friend, though she has been dead for some hundred years”) — asserting their pariah status, becoming aware of it and embracing it, was essential. Not as a religious option, but as a political acknowledgement, in the profound sense of the word, of a real situation.
In 1943, Arendt had also written an article about refugees. Die Heimatlosigkeit des neuzeitlichen Menschen (the stateless condition of the contemporary man), the concept about which Martin Heidegger had once written, was taken further by Arendt and other of Heidegger’s students including Hans Jonas and Herbert Marcuse. We must emphasize that we are not here discussing Heidegger’s proclivities toward National Socialism, but his philosophical work. Thus, we find how his intuition had prefigured the existential — and then the global — condition of the Jew.
In her famous 1963 letter to Gershom Scholem, Arendt stated as clearly as possible:
“I am myself Jewish — therefore an undisputable and undeniable fact. Yet this fact does not compel me in line with reflex solidarities, with supposedly inevitable alignments. My honor is an individual one, not that of a group. But in order to save my honor, I will oppose the dishonoring of a people only because they are that people.”
The thinker had experienced in a camp in France the oppression characteristic of this maximally downgraded social status, what the paradigmatic refugee Arthur Koestler dubbed “the scum of the Earth.” Arendt further reminds the parvenus of the following words written by Balzac: On ne parvient pas deux fois. Both categories, pariah and parvenu, had been removed from under the protective power of the law, but the parvenus hope somehow to obtain an exemption from the lethal outcome. Pondering the fate of Zweig, of her good friend Walter Benjamin, and of so many other noble spirits in those dark times, Arendt wrote the following in “We Refugees”:
“Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of ‘indecency,’ get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of gentiles.”
This also articulates the very reason for Arendt’s unfaltering admiration of Varnhagen: the courage to be herself, to remain independent without denying her identity. Arendt’s essay on Zweig begins with the description by Varnhagen, the famous hostess of one of the great German literary salons in the first half of the nineteenth century, of a dream in which Varnhagen is in heaven with her close friends Bettina von Arnim and Caroline von Humboldt. The keyword in that dream is disgrace. As Arendt adds, “Disgrace and honor are political concepts, categories of public life.”
Arendt’s great objection concerning Zweig was the hesitation to define himself as a political subject: “Not one of his reactions during all this period was the result of political convictions; they were all dictated by his hypersensitivity to social humiliation.” Zweig spent his life consumed between “the pleasure of fame and the curse of humiliation,” issues that he raised with that “coldness of genuine despair.” Foreshadowing not only The Origins of Totalitarianism, but also the explosive “Report on the Banality of Evil” (Eichmann in Jerusalem), Arendt deems fleeing from politics a cause of the failure to foresee the disaster that followed: “Had the Jews of Western and Central European countries displayed even a modicum of concern for the political realities of their times, they would have had reason enough not to feel secure.” In this regard — although he was a citizen of the world, or perhaps even because of it — one can assume that “[t]here is no better document of the Jewish situation in this period than the opening chapters of Zweig’s book.”
At the end of this disturbing essay, Arendt quotes from one of Zweig’s last articles. Once more, the writer puts himself forward as an example of European consciousness — that of a Europe torn, mutilated, maimed — but argues strongly that yesterday cannot be separated from today “as if a man had been hurled down from a great height as the result of a violent blow.” This is the way in which Zweig came to discover, and especially embrace, the same Jewishness that Arendt considered a matter of course, a factual truth:
“Since he had wanted all his life to live in peace with the political and social standards of his time, he was unable to fight against a world in whose eyes it was and is a disgrace to be a Jew…For honor never will be won by the cult of success or fame, by cultivation of one’s own self, nor even by personal dignity. From the ‘disgrace’ of being a Jew there is but one escape — to fight for the honor of the Jewish people as a whole.”
This is the main reason Arendt never hesitated to criticize things she believed objectionable. Yet after 1948, she did so without ever calling into question the non-negotiable right of existence of the state of Israel, which she saw as a chance for the Jewish people to enter into a genuine modern political contract.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Frontpage Mag