Jewish Chess: Stefan Zweig’s Novella in the Context of Racial Polemic

Thursday, 4th February 2016, Green Room, Gonville & Caius College, 5.30-6.30pm

Prof. Konstanze Fliedl (University of Vienna)

Sponsored by the Cambridge DAAD German Research Hub

The climax of Schachnovelle (1942) has for a long time been identified as the confrontation of vulgar and greedy chess champion Czentovic and highbred and noble Dr. B., who as a prisoner of the Gestapo has learned how to play chess as a way to survive. When the attention of interpreters shifted to his backstory as the main focus of the text, questions arose about why Zweig had introduced this character as a Habsburgian Catholic rather than as a Jew. In order to sharpen the ideological antagonism between the figures, Czentovic has even been seen as a covert portrait of Hitler. In contrast, this paper sought to argue the historical relevance of the novella with regard to its key symbol, the chess game. Repeatedly mentioning the actual world champion, Alexander Alekhine,  the text subtly invites readers to associate a series of articles Alekhine had written in 1941 about “Arian and Jewish Chess”, claiming that Jews could only play a cowardly defensive game whereas the  ‘Arian’ strategy would aim at winning by heroically sacrificing chessmen. This discourse, however, had had a long tradition, starting during the First World War; the Austrian chess writer Franz Gutmayer had then published various books on “Kampfschach”, recoding the meaning of the game from an enlightened exercise to an aggressive simulation of military tactics and furthermore berating Jewish players as decadent and  ‘greedy swines’. While Zweig’s novella discreetly suggests these contexts, it avoids the ‘Arian-Jewish’ opposition in order not to reproduce racial stereotypes. By defining the game as “belonging to all times and all peoples”, it literally plays against inhumane polemics.