FrontPage magazine: On Disgrace and Honor. Hannah Arendt, Stefan Zweig, and Central European Despair (by Vladimir Tismaneanu and Marius Stan)

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“…those very stringencies sometimes telescope events into dreamlike absurdity.” William T. Vollmann, “Europe Central”

In 1943, when the news started to be confirmed of the Nazis’ implementation of what the ossified bureaucratic language called the “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. Zweig had been a darling of that world, one of its most influential and admired voices. It was a world replete with neuroses, psychological mysteries, splendid pleasures, and no less bewildering anxieties. It was the 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. A universe in which heresies were not only tolerated, but downright encouraged.

Self-banished from this world of which nothing else but its geographic location remained, Stefan Zweig, born in Vienna in November 1881, committed suicide together with his wife in Petropolis, Brazil, in February 1942. He was convinced that Nazism would triumph and that the bourgeois civilization founded on respect for the individual and his liberties, a civilization which he had loved without reservation, was destined to perish. He could not envision being able to live in a world of totalitarian savagery.

Throughout those very same years, Hannah Arendt had started working on issues which led to the writing of her masterpiece, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” including the ramifications and implications of modern anti-Semitism. It was at that time that she outlined the classification of the modern Jewish condition, namely its two alternatives: the pariah and the parvenu. For her and Zweig – with whom she obviously identified to a great extent, just as she had with her favorite, 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, that of a real situation.

In her famous 1963 letter to Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt states 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.

Just like Hannah Arendt, Zweig experienced the tragedy of what the former, in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” called the superfluous populations – those huge masses of refugees unwanted by anyone, uprooted, banished, persecuted, people deprived of state passports, abandoned by the political communities where they had been born, raised, and educated. For the author of “The World of Yesterday,” the situation was simply unbearable. Similarly, in 1943 Hannah Arendt wrote an article about the refugees. Martin Heidegger had once written about Die Heimatlosigkeit des neuzeitlichen Menschen (the stateless condition of the contemporary man). The concept was taken further by some of his students, including Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse. We must emphasize that we are not discussing Heidegger’s proclivities towards National Socialism here, but his philosophical work. The philosopher’s intuition had prefigured the existential – and then the global – condition of the Jew.

The thinker herself had experienced, in a camp in France, the oppression characteristic of this maximally downgraded social status, what Arthur Koestler, himself a paradigmatic refugee, dubbed “the scum of the Earth”. Hannah Arendt reminds the parvenus of the following words written by Balzac: “On ne parvient pas deux fois.” Both categories are removed from under the protective power of the law, but the parvenus hope to somehow get an exemption from the lethal outcome. Pondering on the fate of Zweig, Walter Benjamin[1] (her good friend), and so many other noble spirits in those dark times (“Men in Dark Times”), Hannah Arendt writes the following:

“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.” (Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in The Jewish Writings, Edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman, Schocken Books, 2007, p. 274).

This is the very reason for Hannah Arendt’s unfaltering admiration for Rahel Varnhagen: the courage to be herself, to remain independent, without denying her identity. The essay on Stefan Zweig begins with the description of a dream by Rachel Varnhagen, the famous hostess of one of the great German literary salons in the first half of the 19th century. A dream in which Rahel is in heaven with her close friends Bettina von Arnim and Caroline von Humboldt. The keyword in that dream is disgrace. As Hannah Arendt adds: “Disgrace and honor are political concepts, categories of public life”. (From the essay “Stefan Zweig: Jews in the World of Yesterday”, ibidem, p. 317).

Her great objection concerning Zweig is precisely 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 himself raised with that “coldness of genuine despair.” Foreshadowing not only “The Origins,” but also the explosive “Report on the Banality of Evil” (“Eichmann in Jerusalem”[2]), Hannah 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 safely assume that “There 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, Hannah 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, that same Jewishness which Hannah 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 why Hannah Arendt never hesitated to criticize things that she believed objectionable, yet without ever calling into question, after 1948, the non-negotiable right to existence of the state of Israel, which she saw as a chance for the Jewish people to enter into a genuine modern political contract.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.” Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books in Romanian and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest. This essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.

Notes:

[1] See The Times Literary Supplement for Anthony Phelan’s review (“Uncarnal,” 25 February 2015) of Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’s book Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Belknap Press, 2014.

[2] See also The Times Literary Supplement for Lawrence Douglas’s review (“A very deliberate banality,” 25 February 2015) of Bettina Stangneth’s book Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, Knopf, 2014.

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