It was a universe in which heresies were not only tolerated, but also downright encouraged. 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.
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. 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 ), 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.
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: .
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.
(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.
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.
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.
He had also experienced the tragedy of what Arendt in 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.