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This item is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Letter to the Editor
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 moved into 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 that 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’ ‘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 a 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 oration 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,

   yours faithfully,

   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 David Hare, playwright
   Michael Hofmann, poet and translator
   Mimi Khalvati, poet and translator
   Satish Kumar, Emeritus Editor, Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine
   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 Morpurgo, writer
   Sir Michael & Lady Clare Morpurgo, writer & philanthropist
   Steven O’Brien, poet, Editor of The London Magazine
   Stephen Romer, poet, translator, Brasenose College, Oxford
   Michael Schmidt, literary historian, 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
   Robert Vilain, Professor of German, Bristol

This item is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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