Seventy-five years ago, in February 1942, Europe’s most popular author committed suicide in a bungalow in the Brazilian town of Petrópolis, 10,000 km (6,200 miles) from his birthplace in Vienna. In the year before his death, Stefan Zweig completed two contrasting studies – The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European, an elegy for a civilisation now consumed by war, and Brazil: Land of the Future, an optimistic portrait of a new world. The story of these two books, and of the refugee who wrote them, offers a guide to the trap of nationalism and the trauma of exile.

Austria-Hungry provided Zweig with a template of cultural plurality in the face of nationalism

Zweig was born in 1881 into a prosperous and cultured Jewish family in Vienna, capital of the multi-ethnic Habsburg empire, where Austrians, Hungarians, Slavs and Jews, among many others, co-existed. Their ruler was the polyglot Franz-Joseph I, who decreed at the start of his reign in 1867 that “All races of the empire have equal rights, and every race has an inviolable right to the preservation and use of its own nationality and language”.

Franz-Joseph was a stiff-necked autocrat, and his reign should not be romanticised, but it provided Zweig with a template of cultural plurality at a time when Europe was consuming itself in nationalism. His biographer George Prochnik notes that Zweig called for the foundation of an international university, with branches in every major European capital and a rotating exchange programme that would expose young people to other ethnicities and religions.

Zweig began to write The World of Yesterday after leaving Austria in 1934, anticipating the Nazification of his homeland. He completed the first draft in New York in summer 1941, and posted the final version, typed by his second wife Lotte Altmann, to his publisher the day before their joint suicide. By then, the Habsburg empire had “vanished without trace”, he writes, and Vienna was “demoted to the status of a German provincial town”. Zweig became stateless: “So I belong nowhere now, I am a stranger or at the most a guest everywhere”.

Zweig’s memoir is illuminating in its portrait of the disorienting nature of exile. In the cities in which Zweig had been celebrated, his books were now burnt; the golden era of “security and prosperity and comfort” had given way to revolution, economic instability and nationalism, “the ultimate pestilence that has poisoned the flower of our European culture”. Time itself was ruptured: “all the bridges are broken between today, yesterday and the day before yesterday”.

Without a trace

One of Zweig’s greatest anxieties was the loss of his linguistic home. He expressed “a secret and tormenting shame” that Nazi ideology was “conceived and drafted in the German language”. Like the poet Paul Celan, who committed suicide in Paris, Zweig felt that the language of Schiller, Goethe and Rilke had been occupied by Nazism, and irredeemably deformed. After moving to England, he felt “imprisoned in a language, which I cannot use”.

Zweig writes of a time you could visit India and the US without a passport or visa

In The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes the ease of borderless travel prior to 1914 – of visiting India and the US without the need for a passport or visa – a situation inconceivable to the interwar generation. Now he, like all refugees, faced the humiliation of negotiating an unwieldy bureaucracy. Zweig described his intense “Bureauphobia” as immigration officials demanded ever more proof of identity, and he joked to a fellow refugee that his job description was “Formerly writer, now expert in visas”.

As Hitler’s forces spread across Europe, Zweig moved from his lodging in Bath in the UK to Ossining, New York. There he was almost unknown to all but his fellow refugees, who lacked his connections and material comforts, and frequently appealed to his legendary generosity. Zweig never felt at home in the US – he regarded Americanisation as the second destruction of European culture, after World War One – and hoped to return to Brazil, which enchanted him during a lecture tour in 1936.

Brazil: Land of the Future is a lyrical celebration of a nation whose beauty and generosity profoundly impressed Zweig. He was surprised and humbled by the country, and admonished himself for his ignorance and “European arrogance”. Zweig outlines Brazil’s history, economy, culture and geography, but the real insight of the book comes from the perspective he gains about his own continent.

There is no colour-bar, no segregation, no arrogant classification – Zweig

Brazil becomes, in Zweig’s description, everything he would like Europe to be: sensual, intellectual, tranquil and averse to militarism and materialism. (He even claims that Brazilians lack the European passion for sport – a bizarre assertion, even in 1941). Brazil is free of Europe’s “race fanatics”, its “frenzied scenes and mad ecstasies of hero-worship”, its “foolish nationalism and imperialism”, its “suicidal fury”.

In its cadences and colours, Brazil was radically different from Zweig’s repressed image of Habsburg Vienna, but the beauty of its hybrid identity seemed to vindicate his outlook. In Brazil, the descendants of African, Portuguese, German, Italian, Syrian and Japanese immigrants mixed freely: “all these different races live in fullest harmony with each other”. Brazil teaches ‘civilised’ Europe how to be civilised: “Whereas our old world is more than ever ruled by the insane attempt to breed people racially pure, like race-horses and dogs, the Brazilian nation for centuries has been built upon the principle of a free and unsuppressed miscegenation... It is moving to see children of all colours – chocolate, milk, and coffee – come out of their schools arm-in-arm… There is no colour-bar, no segregation, no arrogant classification... for who here would boast of absolute racial purity?”

‘Paradise’

This paean proved hugely popular with the public, and thousands of Brazilians attended Zweig’s lectures, while his daily itinerary was printed in every major newspaper. But the book was lambasted by critics: Prochnik notes that, for three days in a row, Brazil’s leading newspaper published withering reviews, accusing Zweig of ignoring the country’s industrial and modernist innovations.

More controversial was Zweig’s fulsome praise for Brazil’s dictator, Getúlio Vargas. In 1937, Vargas had declared the Estado Novo (New State), inspired by authoritarian rule in Portugal and Italy. Vargas shut down Brazil’s congress and imprisoned left-wing intellectuals, some of whom assumed that Zweig had been paid for his praise, or at least offered a visa. Vargas’ government had curtailed Jewish immigration on racial grounds – but made an exception for Zweig, due to his fame.

This troubling episode reveals Zweig’s political naivety. A pacifist and conciliator by nature, Zweig feared inciting hostility at a crucial moment (Vargas finally sided with the Allies in January 1942). Seeking seclusion, Stefan and Lotte ensconced themselves in the elegant former German settlement of Petrópolis, 40 miles (64 km) outside Rio.

Zweig believed in a world beyond borders, but he became defined by them

“It is Paradise”, wrote Zweig of the lush Alpine landscape, which “seems to be translated from the Austrian into a tropical language”. Zweig sought to forget his old books and friendships, and seek “inner freedom”. But at Carnival in Rio, he learned of Nazi advances in the Middle East and Asia, and a sense of doom descended. Zweig felt he could never be free, or free from fear. “Do you honestly believe that the Nazis will not come here?” he wrote. “Nothing can stop them now.”

Zweig believed in a world beyond borders, but he became defined by them: “My inner crisis consists in that I am not able to identify myself with the me of my passport, the self of exile”. This haunted Zweig (“We are just ghosts – or memories”), and he wrote in his suicide note of being “exhausted by long years of homeless wandering”. Stefan and Lotte shared this resignation: “We have no present and no future… We decided, bound in love, not to leave each other”.

In Petrópolis, I visited Zweig’s bungalow, which now serves as an “active museum”, according to Tristan Strobl, who works there on national service as an Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servant. He showed me an interactive display of all the refugees that came to Brazil between 1933 and 1945, highlighting their contributions. “This period was such a loss for the intellectual life of Europe”, says Tristan, “but for Brazil and the other countries that received these exiles, it was hugely positive”. The darkest decade of the old world brought light to the new.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.