The Drama of Prophecy: On Stefan Zweig and ‘Jeremiah’

When in the late summer of 1939 Stefan Zweig drafted his contribution to the 17th international PEN congress in Stockholm, he called history not only a ‘poetess’ but historical episodes ‘God’s workshops’. It was rare for God to feature at all, let alone prominently, in his work. Since the mid-1920s, Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew, had been one of the most prominent representatives of German- language literature worldwide, yet he had felt that he had no choice but to emigrate from Fascist-prone Austria well before the Anschluss. Was Fascism also one of God’s workshops, according to Zweig? Or were these workshops more like laboratories for cruel experiments with humans, and our reactions to them test cases of morality?

In 1938 Zweig intervened on behalf of a different, more humane workshop by writing an appeal in support of the Inter-Aid Committee for Children from Germany. This pamphlet was preceded by a piece on The House of Thousand Fortunes, written for the fiftieth anniversary of the Shelter in London and first published in Buenos Aires. Zweig wrote,‘The Shelter? I had never heard of it, despite residing in London for some time. Never has anyone alerted me to this place, this institution. But the curious thing is that all these Jews coming from the most distant and exotic destinations are fully aware of its existence. In Poland, the Ukraine, Latvia and Bulgaria, from one end of Europe to the other, all the poor Jews know the London Shelter.’ It was rare for Zweig to concern himself with ‘the poor Jews’; thoughts on East European Jewry in the Hapsburg Empire appear with the same frequency as God himself in Zweig’s writing. A rare exception occurred when he saw Galicia in 1915 and described it as the ‘Job amongst the peoples of the world’. But it was mainly through his friendship with Joseph Roth that Zweig gained insight into the reality of poor Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

The essence of Jewish identity was to demonstrate to the world that Jews could transcend it

Was the London Shelter a transit place for Jewish refugees from yet another of God’s workshops? Who was this God in Zweig’s view? Clearly not the master of the largely inactive ‘angel of history’, in Walter Benjamin’s terminology, but the supreme agent of world affairs, a fusion of Yahweh, the Christian God, Allah and Visnu, a divine force who made it hard for people to believe in him.


Zweig’s attitude to religion, and Judaism in particular, was, at best, ambiguous. Even in December 1938, barely a month after the pogroms in the German-Austrian Reich, he felt unable to call for a co-ordinated Jewish response to these atrocities. Instead, he argued in a piece for the Fraye Tribune in Paris, Jews should continue to show restraint.They should even abstain from emphasising their Jewishness, as this would only play into the hands of the Hitlerists and their criminal obsession with grotesque categorisations. It was only in his aforementioned piece in support of Jewish children that Zweig declared that the ‘cruel situation they are in’ could not be accepted and must therefore not be appeased.

However, by then Zweig had entertained, if not cultivated, the notion for two decades that the essence of Jewish identity was to demonstrate to the world that Jews could transcend it.The truth of the matter was that Zweig detested orthodoxy of any kind, and Zionism in particular. But ‘truth’, according to him, resembled an artichoke and consisted of layers that needed to be unpeeled until one reached the essence of the matter. In this particular case, the artichoke’s heart, as it were, was his poetic drama Jeremiah, first staged in Zürich in 1917. It provides us with the essence of Zweig’s conception of Judaism and the meaning of prophecy.In this play, Zweig offers his vision of a non-violent society in which human dignity is expressed by tolerant behaviour. The prophet through whom this vision articulates itself appears dogmatic and operates in a strictly orthodox manner; for he regards himself as a mere mouthpiece of Yaweh. Tolerance, Zweig seems to say, can only be achieved once people have lived through a period of dogmatism.

Zweig’s relationship with his own Jewish identity was fraught and continuously evolving. He responded to the promulgation of the Racial Laws in Nuremberg by rallying a number of eminent Jewish intellectuals—from Siegmund Warburg to Chaim Weizmann and Max Brod—behind a manifesto that called for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, one based on the principle of cohabitation without any traces of Zionist nationalism. (This manifesto was an equivalent to Zweig’s masterly study on Erasmus of Rotterdam, which amounted to a declaration of Humanist culture in the face of Fascist barbarism). Zweig called it ‘a creative solution to the Jewish problem’ and intended it as an address to the international community. He believed that the success of the ‘Palestine project’ lay in its its pacifist character; it would demonstrate to the world that communities could be founded non-violently and on the basis of tolerance. Zweig planned to dicuss this manifesto in Zurich, where, during the First World War, Jeremiah was first performed. Sadly, the project came to nothing. In a letter to Brod he lamented the inability of Jews to agree upon anything, ominously adding that before Jews show some sense of unity,‘I fear the hammer has to hit us even harder’. His comfort was Kafka, whom he called the ‘most sublime’ example of Jewish intellectualism.’

In a 1937 letter to Alfred Wolf, Zweig modified his verdict on Zionism, admitting that it had been one of the most powerful ideologies within Judaism, but he hastened to add that Jews would abandon their real mission in the world, namely to represent universality and transnationalism, if they allowed themselves to be ‘encrusted’ in, or trapped by, nationalistic considerations.
This view was in line with statements by Zweig dating back to the early 1920s. In a letter written in July 1920 he argued against the formation of a Jewish nation—state, declaring that the true vocation of the Jews was to undermine nationalism and stand for homelessness, in the spiritual sense.The idea that they might actually find their roots in a romanticised Palestine he found deeply troubling. (Jewish political idealism soon found its echo in National Socialist ideology, which claimed that Jewish ‘internationalism’ was per se suspicious and resulted in virtual alliances, if not conspiracies, against ‘down to earth’ nations.)

‘Those who prefer to rest have a homeland. But the entire world belongs to those who know how to migrate.’

This takes us to the heart of the matter: Zweig’s Jeremiah. Like his first drama Tersites, written a decade earlier, Jeremiah examines the possibility of peaceful action in a world used to warfare. But this intention is coupled with the attempt to position Judaism as a remedy against the explosiveness of nationalism. In letters written to Martin Buber at that time, Zweig described Judaism as a ‘permanent rebellion against reality’ and, given its transnational dimension, an alternative to national self-determination and nationalist frenzy. Being Jewish meant to him,then,‘absolute freedom to dwell between nations’ and the privilege of regarding the entire world as one’s ‘host’.
Zweig greatly admired Theodor Herzl and, in 1938, praised him for having made Judaism conscious of itself again.According to Zweig, Herzl had turned thousands of eyes staring into the abyss of darkness towards ‘the stellar constellation of real possibilities’. When Herzl’s diaries were published in 1922, Zweig wrote to Romain Rolland that, for the first time, he had begun to understand the sheer immensity of Herzl’s work; he called it the ‘birth of a great idea’ through the ‘magic’ of but one prophetic intellectual. In Herzl, Zweig celebrated the combination of intellect, creative genius, and realism with the magic of a difficult but persuasive prophecy.

Zweig’s prophet Jeremiah is a highly complex character traumatised by his own visions and tortured by his dreams. He seems at odds with reality and even describes himself as a ‘fool at the mercy of my own delusions’.The relationship between Jeremiah and his (nameless) mother is one of the most moving aspects of this poetic drama; her raison d’être is to be the mother of a prophet, even to the point of dreaming her son’s dreams until she realises that they were the most genuine ‘reality’ in his (and her) life. Jeremiah refers to his mother as his ‘lover’ while she believes she is ‘breathing him through her senses’. This is not to suggest an incestuous relationship, but the closest possible spiritual affinity between mother and son, one expressed in physical metaphors.

This said, any form of physical passion is lost on Zweig’s Jeremiah, who regards himself as an instrument of divine pronouncements. He feels a stranger in his own home, which is painful for his mother to observe. In turn ‘she feels how death is growing within’ herself, comparing it to a ‘shadowy clock whose hands are about to complete full circle.’ Ultimately, it is the prophet’s mother who, in her mind, sees the fall of Jerusalem. At this stage her son is not ready to adopt this vision, but he understands that he has to leave the ‘sunken world of his mother’ behind.

Later on, the main problem for the King of Judah and his people is whether someone who appears to be a demented prophet can be taken seriously at all. Jeremiah comes across as an unorthodox prophet who proclaims decidedly dogmatic ideas. He warns of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem as a punishment of the people of Judah, who have set up in the streets of Jerusalem altars ‘to burn incense to Baal.’ Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, attempts to estrange Jeremiah from his rival, the king of Judah, and appoint him court magician. But, eventually, all attention is focused on the prophet’s ‘pure spirit,’ which enables him to lead the people of Judah back to self-enlightenment and prepare them for the inevitable. He asks them not to look back but into the future.‘Those who prefer to rest’, he says, ‘have a homeland. But the entire world belongs to those who know how to migrate.’

The most significant moment in this play is when the people of Jerusalem leave their city and the prophet abandons his elevated position, his very individualism, and loses himself in the vast crowds of emigrating Jews.The way in which Zweig describes this moment (in 1917!) now reads like a premonition or eerie prophecy of what European Jewry was to be subjected to only some two decades later:

‘Their emigration resembled the solemn celebration of an act of sacrifice. None of them pushed forward, none stayed behind; row after row passed by without any hurry and disappeared […] It seemed as if an infinity emerged from darkness and entered the space beyond.’

One hears the murmur of voices knowing that one is that of the prophet Jeremiah, though now he has nothing more to say. They are watched by their enemies, the Chaldéans, with whom they had not engaged in combat. But by succumbing to their destiny, the people of Judah, as some of the Chaldéans remarked, radiate a peculiar strength. These Jews are literally going into the world; this is Zweig’s very message—that by doing so they immunise themselves against the bacteria called ‘nationalism’.

Zweig lived to see religious prophecy turn into ideological rhetoric with lethal consequences.

From Zweig’s point of view, it was no contradiction that only a few months prior to writing Jeremiah, which celebrated the moral victory of emigrating Jews over the soldiers of Babel, he published an essay on The Tower of Babel in which he praised the edifice for the ambition it symbolised—what is humanly possible if all peoples work together towards a common goal. Biblical myth has it that the multitude of languages spoken by those who wanted to stretch themselves to limitlessness ultimately destroyed this ambition. George Steiner famously argued, however, that it is precisely this plurality of linguistic abilities, with its richess of expression, that is the real legacy of this enterprise. In a sense, Zweig suggested something similar. The act of creation, no matter which language it occurs in in, needs to prevail; according to Zweig, it would stimulate peaceful competition. Zweig saw Europe as a Babylonic ruin that was waiting to be restored or rebuilt.

Zweig’s Jeremiah is not only an impressive document of the author’s increasingly pacifist stance in the midst of a world war but also expresses his own struggle with his Jewish identity. It also explores the significance of religious thought in a secular world dominated by power politics, an idea rarely found in Zweig’s œuvre, in which art takes the place of religious belief Kunstreligion was, by and large, the object of his creed, even though testimonies of ‘genuine’ religion, such as Jeremiah’s fate, clearly did strike a chord with Zweig, reminding him of the ancient foundations of Humanism. Ultimately, however, they too belonged to the ‘world of yesterday’ that could only supply relics of all—too—distant traditions. Zweig lived to see religious prophecy turn into ideological rhetoric with lethal consequences. He witnessed Babel in Vienna, London, Paris and New York, hoping eventually for a reconstruction of world society along the lines of what he believed to be the Brazilian model of multicultural cohabitation. Buenos Aires, where he moved in 1941, appeared to him to be the new Babylon. But he committed suicide there the next year; even its distinctly secular vitality was not enough to keep him alive.

Professor Rüdiger Görner is the Director of the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations (AGCR) in the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film at Queen Mary, University of London.

Jewish Book Week 2011: Sunday February 27th, 5pm: Henry Goodman: Stefan Zweig: Words and Music
The readings will be interspersed with live music drawn from Zweig’s vast collection of scores
Royal National Hotel, Bedford Way, London WC1 0DG

You might also like

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.