President's Message Winter 2016-17
Seventy-five years ago this month, Stefan Zweig, the acclaimed European author, committed suicide along with his wife, Lotte Altmann, in Petropolis, Brazil, where they had taken refuge from the ravages of the Nazi advance in Europe and after a brief, unhappy exile in Ossining, N.Y.
From his 1941 memoir, The World of Yesterday, and letters to friends, Zweig emerges as a victim of despair, a man whose dream of a borderless, inter-ethnic Europe was shattered by conquest and extermination. His quest for revival in the multicultural Brazilian tropics, described in his 1942 classic, Brazil: Land of the Future, succumbed to an overriding fear that Nazism would follow the Reich’s surveillance submarines across the Atlantic and pursue his dream to his mountain retreat.
Zweig’s dilemma and its tragic end have been contemporized by a number of analysts in light of Donald J. Trump’s startling victory in last Fall’s presidential election, most notably by George Prochnik in a riveting article in the February 6 issue of The New Yorker, “When It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism, According to Stefan Zweig”.
In his memoir, Prochnik writes, Zweig took notice of the failure of European political elites and the media to take account of the economic discontent that followed Germany’s WWI defeat and post-war humiliation at Versailles, and their dismissal of Hitler as an improbable leader. They believed that the rash of orders initially emitted from the Chancellery would soon settle into bureaucratic regularity under the steady protections of the rule of law and every citizen’s belief that “his liberty and equal rights were secured by the solemnly affirmed constitution”.
It what is now widely cited as the the Reichstag example, Zweig postulated that a brief window existed in which the imposition of despotic rule could be avoided. The burning of the German parliament, within 30 days of Hitler’s election as Chancellor, provided Hitler and his advisors with the opportunity and momentum to outlaw his primary political opposition in the Communist Party and arrest its leaders, impose a state of emergency, curtail civil liberties and mobilize for war, in short, to put an end to the German democratic state.
Prochnik sees parallels in the U.S. polity today, in particular the efforts to pre-empt what is true, and warns that the historic lessons are not be to overlooked. “The excruciating power of Zweig’s memoir,” he writes, “lies in the pain of looking back and seeing that there was a small window in which it was possible to act, and then discovering how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.”
If The World of Yesterday was written to decry the “end of Europe” and provide future generations with the warning signs of catastrophic authoritarianism, Brazil: Land of the Future, was a last-ditch paean to Zweig’s utopian vision of a world in egalitarian harmony, two contrasting visions that he could not reconcile: “the trap of nationalism and the trauma of exile”, in the words of Benjamin Ramm of the BBC on February 22.
Reflecting on the plight of refugees streaming into Austria as Hitler assumed power, Zweig despaired of his own statelessness: “So I belong nowhere now, I am a stranger or at most a guest everywhere.”
As these stunning reminders alert us, Zweig’s dilemmas are to an extent mirrored in our own: the rise of nationalisms; the threats to democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law; the dehumanizing cloud of deportation, separation and a personal sense of statelessness. But Zweig’s despair need not be ours.
As Prochnik concludes, “… even in a culture where misinformation has become omnipresent, where an angry base, supported by disparate, well-heeled interests, feels empowered by the relentless lying of a charismatic leader, the center may still hold.”
The Foundation has given us a strong sense of this center, this core of values and the formal and informal civil organizations and social movements that sustain it. We see them in the Women’s March on Washington, in court filings on behalf of refugees and immigrants, in defense of voting rights and opposition to gerrymandering, in support of the social safety net and equal opportunity, in the struggle against racism and for the rights of women and minorities, in the promotion of human rights, in funding for public broadcasting and the arts, and in the continuing pursuit of quality education for all and at all levels.
The Foundation provided us the opportunity, the resources and the privilege to engage with these activists. We can continue to engage now, with our time, our energy, our on-going commitment, our outreach to colleagues everywhere who are feeling unbound, and with the financial contributions we ourselves can muster. We are, each of us, part of this center—I, for one, am not in exile in Brazil—and we must each do our part to hold it steady and on course.
Let us know what each of you is doing!