The following article is an updated version of an open letter originally published by PN Review in June 2021. Visit their website for more information.
Open Letter to English Heritage
The application for a blue plaque in Hallam Street, Central London, to commemorate Stefan Zweig’s residence in the city from 1933–1939, was turned down in 2012. English Heritage argued then that the Austrian writer’s ‘London connections did not appear strong enough’ and that his ‘profile has never been as high in Britain as elsewhere.’
Even at the time, this puzzled many. Zweig had been made so well-known to a new generation of English readers, mainly through new translations from the Pushkin Press and Hesperus, that his high profile had become a serious irritant in some quarters. The release of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ also suggests that his reputation is not in decline.
He rented a flat at 11 Portland Place in October 1933 and was there until 1936. Portland Place, we argue, is where the plaque should be. He arrived at a time when his work, like that of other Jewish writers, was being publicly burnt in Germany. It is true he was then less well-known in Britain than on the continent: London offered him the libraries, anonymity and space to think what he wanted.
He came originally to complete a book about another great European humanist who had lived and worked happily in England four centuries earlier, Desiderius Erasmus, the ‘first conscious European’, as Zweig called him. Erasmus’s ‘Praise of Folly’ (1509), dedicated to his close friend Thomas More, was written while he was here and addressed Europe just before the Reformation tore it apart into warring factions.
Zweig’s ‘Erasmus: Triumph and Tragedy’ (1934) in turn sought to counter a ‘moment of mass intoxication’ with hope. His was a shared, secular hope in Europe as a community of peoples created not on any imperial or religious model but ‘through gentle convincing.’ ‘Voluntary adhesion and inner freedom’ were to be its ‘fundamental laws.’
Zweig stayed in the country until 1940 and took British citizenship, writing a novel as well as books about French literature and English, Scottish, Portuguese and Jewish history. His work for PEN continued. He understood himself, in other words, as part of an international, intergenerational, multi-ethnic collective. The long history of European co-operation, he argued, should be taught in schools, as well as that series of wars, who won them and why; about which our children are, to this day, generally better informed.
Zweig’s ‘London connections’ included meeting Bernard Shaw, being chosen to read the eulogy at Sigmund Freud’s funeral, becoming a close friend of his English publisher and also supporting a refugee centre in East London, then crowded with Jewish migrants less fortunate than himself. At a time when the status of refugees has become an acute concern, that this one didn’t know very many people here ought surely not to count against him.
To anyone who grew up in the 1980s, school or university exchanges around Europe seemed to prove that co-operation and tolerance had won in the end. Britain’s withdrawal from the Erasmus exchange programme and the apparently deliberate running down of cultural ties to our immediate neighbours is a matter of concern across the political spectrum.
Zweig spoke up for ‘a panhuman ideal’ knowing full well that it lacked the ‘elementary attraction which a mettlesome encounter with a foe who lives across a frontier, speaks another language, holds another creed, invariably exercises.’ He understood only too well the relative weakness of European identity as a popular force.
Yet he chose 11 Portland Place, at a critical moment in his life and in the history of our continent, as the place to complete his defence of Erasmus and his ‘panhuman ideal’. The undersigned believe that this deserves to be better known and that a blue plaque on or near that address would now be appropriate.
Julian Barnes, novelist
Dame Antonia Byatt, novelist
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator of Germanic Collections, British Library
Sam Coombes, Senior Lecturer in French, Edinburgh
Dame Margaret Drabble, novelist
Jane Draycott, poet, Tutor at Oxford and Lancaster
Lord Alfred Dubs, Labour Life peer
Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator
Adam Freudenheim, managing director, Pushkin Press
Rüdiger Görner, Director of the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations
Lucy Goodison, Editor at Just Press
Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN
Grey Gowrie, poet, formerly Conservative minister
Sir Christopher Hampton, playwright and screenwriter
Sir David Hare, playwright and screenwriter
Michael Hofmann, poet and translator
Mimi Khalvati, poet and translator
Satish Kumar, Emeritus Editor, Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine
Dame Hermione Lee, biographer
Karen Leeder, Professor of modern German literature, Oxford
Charlie Louth, Fellow in German, Queen’s College, Oxford
Arthur MacGregor, formerly Curator at the Ashmolean
Mark Mazower, Professor of History, Columbia
Horatio & Ioana Morpurgo, writers
Sir Michael & Lady Clare Morpurgo, writer & philanthropist
Steven O’Brien, poet, Editor of The London Magazine
George Prochnik, writer
Stephen Romer, poet, translator, Brasenose College, Oxford
Philippe Sands, writer and Professor of Law, University College London
Michael Schmidt, poet, Editor of PN Review
Sir Anthony Seldon, writer and educationalist
Jonathan Simons, Editor of Analog Sea
Timothy Snyder, Professor of History, Yale
Will Stone, poet and translator
Sir Tom Stoppard, playwright and screenwriter
Robert Vilain, Professor of German, Bristol
Michael Zimmermann, Austrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom
Waltraud Dennhardt-Herzog, Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, London
Prof. Arturo Larcati, Director of the Stefan Zweig Centre, Salzburg
Dr Bernhard Fetz, Director of Literary Archives at the Austrian National Library
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