"Brexit" and Stefan Zweig

There is a Stefan Zweig revival underway, and it is timely given the June 23 British referendum on whether to remain within the European Union. If Zweig is unknown to you, here are the essentials:

He was born in Austria in 1881, and in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most translated and popular authors in the world. Zweig was a journalist who also wrote novels, plays, and biographies. As Hitler was coming to power, he fled Europe and ultimately settled in Petropolis, Brazil, where he and his wife committed suicide on February 22, 1942, distraught at what they thought was the irreversible collapse of European civilization.

In 2013, in its prestigious Pleiades edition, the French publisher Gallimard released a two-volume edition of Zweig's collected works totaling more than 4,300 pages. His memoir, "The World of Yesterday," remains in print in several languages and is widely considered one of the best 20th Century autobiographies.

New York Review Books has reprinted several of Zweig's works ("Journey Into the Past," "Confusion," "The Post Office Girl," "Beware of Pity," and "Chess Story") as NYRB Classics, and in 2013, George Prochnik published "The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World," which describes Zweig's final years in Brazil and the 1942 double suicide. Film director Wes Anderson credits Zweig with inspiring his 2014 hit, "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

I have read and enjoyed several of Zweig's works, but what recently captured my attention was a 2016 collection of unpublished essays and lectures edited by Pushkin Press with the title, "Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink." The works range from 1914 ("The Sleepless World," about the gradual slide into world war) to 1941 ("In this Dark Hour," about Hitler and the European war). Also in this splendid collection is a 1934 draft lecture on "The Unification of Europe." Written more than eight decades ago, Zweig's remarks are worth considering as Britain decides its future relationship with Europe.

Well before the work of Jean Monnet and the European Coal and Steel Community - the predecessor of the Common Market and today's European Union - Zweig made a case for a unified Europe, based on "compelling logic:"

All the leading heads of state, intellectuals, artists, and scholars have been convinced for some time now that only a slender allegiance by all states to a superior governing body could relieve current economic difficulties, reduce the propensity for war and eliminate anxieties aroused by the threat of conflict, which are themselves one of the primary causes of the economic crisis. Our sole common task, then, is now to shift our ideas from the sphere of sterile discussion to one of creative action.

Zweig wrote for elite audiences, and he knew that such a union would have to battle the headwinds of the existing nation-state structure - what he described as "many centuries of nationalism's tried and tested formula." He realized that "the sacro-egoism of nationalism will always cut more keenly through to the average man than the sacro-altruism of the European ideal."

Today, the European Union's massive, unwieldy, and often unwelcome bureaucracy in Brussels is sometimes cited as a reason either for not joining or for leaving the EU, and the heart of the current debate remains what Zweig foresaw so many decades ago: whether a supranational body that might infringe upon concepts of state sovereignty would ever become accepted by European citizens. As conceived, the EU clearly won the hearts and minds of Europe's elites. What is at stake now is whether that ideal still appeals to average citizens worried about globalization, immigration, and perceived limits to national sovereignty.

When Zweig wrote this speech (intended for delivery in Paris but never given), Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations had become ineffective, Hitler had been appointed German Chancellor the year before, and the Weimar Republic had collapsed. Zweig realized the inherent fragility of the idea of European unification - "an isolated bloom which blossoms and then fades as quickly without anyone even noticing" -- but at the same time he offered an eloquent, idealistic rationale for its creation:

"Each city and each country will forge links with others, and that competition which so often translates into hostility we would steer into an amicable rivalry of hospitable communal spirit."

In a 1932 essay on "European Thought in Its Historical Development," Zweig identified the "conscious awareness of an isolationist element to the national soul." A mere five years after Zweig's 1934 plea for European unity, Europe once again descended into total war, as nationalism and ethnic hatred triumphed and led to the deaths of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians.

At stake in the "Brexit" decision is more than whether Britain remains in the European Union. At loose once again in the world is a resurgent, hunkered-down nationalism that sees the future as a zero sum game of "us versus them," rather than as a cooperative enterprise in which countries work together to promote economic growth and higher living standards.

The European experiment is by no means perfect: its monetary structure was flawed from the outset, and its execution has, at times, been clumsy and heavy-handed. But the lofty ideals articulated by Zweig in the 1930s remain relevant to this month's decision by the British public. Globalization and technology are driving nations closer. Zweig's early ideals of European union fit perfectly with today's environment that rewards cooperation, collaboration, and community.

Zweig reminds us that "[w]hat ultimately counts are the spiritual values a single nation can offer humanity as a whole." His high-mindedness also led him to see European nations as having "a responsibility to safeguard the spiritual direction of the world." This responsibility also entailed choosing between "nationalism" and "supranationalism." What was at stake for Zweig was nothing less than "the intellectual unity of Europe":

All our differences and our petty jealousies must be put aside in order that we might achieve the single aim of faithfulness towards our past, and of our community-based future.

When Europe went almost totally dark during the bleakest moments of World War II, it was Britain that mustered the courage and the fortitude to oppose aggression, to inspire resistance, and to preserve hope for an entire continent. While there are many important business and economic issues at stake on June 23, there are also at stake the important principles of union articulated by Stefan Zweig. Europe faces another brink, and to paraphrase a former British Prime Minister in a different context, this is no time for Britain to go wobbly.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.