On July 3, 1936, Stefan Lux, a Jewish journalist and poet, entered the assembly hall of The League of Nations in Geneva, while it was in session, and shot himself. It later became clear, both because of statements that he made in the hours before he died, and from letters he left behind, that Lux had decided to kill himself in order to call attention to the “criminal” and “morally insane” regime then in power in Germany.
The following day, the Geneva correspondent of The New York Times, based on a briefing by League of Nations officials, reported that Lux had elected to kill himself publicly so as “to draw attention to the plight of the Jews in Germany.” In fact, none of Lux’s final statements mentioned the Jews or his being one of them, but rather emphasized the danger that Nazi Germany posed to humanity in general, and Lux’s certainty that without decisive action by the League and by Great Britain, the world was destined to face another international war.
Stefan Lux was born into a Jewish family in Malaka, Hungary, on November 4, 1888. He attained a law degree in Budapest, but decided not to practice. Instead he returned to school to study drama in Vienna, and then moved to Berlin to work as an actor. Under the name “Peter Sturmbusch,” he also began writing poetry.
Lux served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, and was seriously wounded twice. After the war, he moved to Berlin, where his plan was to produce films that would counteract the negative stereotypes given to Jews by society. His first film, called “Justice,” had the misfortune of being scheduled to premier at the same time as the Kapp Putsch, a 1920 attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Weimar government. The coup attempt failed, but the movie premiere was canceled, and the film was never shown.
Lux later worked as a journalist for a radical German weekly. After the Nazis’ rise to power, in January 1933, he fled with his wife and young son to Czechoslovakia, where, because of his birthplace, he held citizenship.
Very little information was available over the years in English about Lux and his suicide. Not only was his hope of inciting the world to take action in 1936 ignored, but he was largely forgotten. In 2001, Betty Sargent, an American who worked as a journalist in Geneva in the period shortly after Lux’s death, and who later was an editor at the Georgia Review, wrote a long article for that journal about him. A large part of her essay was taken up with an English translation of the letter Lux asked to be delivered to British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden at the time of his suicide.
On the morning of July 3, 1936, The League of Nations was discussing the recent annexation of Ethiopia to Italy. Shortly after the Spanish delegate finished speaking, Lux, who had placed himself in the photographers’ section, next to the speaker’s rostrum, stood up, yelled out the words, “C’est le dernier coup” (“This is the last blow”), and then shot himself in the chest. While people attended to him and waited for him to be removed to a hospital, Lux was heard to say the words “Avenol” and “my briefcase.” Joseph Avenol was the secretary-general of the League of Nations secretariat, and it turned out that Lux’s briefcase contained sealed letters intended for him and for British Foreign Minister Eden, King George V, as well as several journalists.
The New York Times report (the paper had not been a recipient of one of Lux’s letters) connected Lux’s action to a meeting of the Geneva Conference on the Legal Status of Refugees from Germany taking place in Geneva at the same time. The newspaper suggested that, “This is the nearest approach to a reason connecting Lux’s state of mind with the present Assembly meeting.”
But that allowed readers to view Lux’s desperate shooting of himself to his Jewishness, and thus to classify his act as a Jewish one. In his letter to Eden, whom he addressed as “Sir Eden,” however, Lux implored the British foreign secretary to “Settle the Italian-Abyssinian Problem quickly … establish unreserved peace with Italy, and win back, thus, the country to unreserved cooperation to solve the most burning problem of Europe… which is Germany.”
“Believe me, Sir Eden,” Lux continued, “One more year – perhaps only six months – and you’ll be facing ruins, ruins in the truest and most literal sense of the word: smoldering ruins even in your own country.
“… I do not whisper, Sir Eden, I shout it out: In Germany, you are dealing with criminals. … mentally and psychologically inferior, petty criminals and thugs, marked almost without exception with signs of moral insanity; most of them, in addition, have criminal records or a dark past that shines from the light.”
Urging Eden to organize not only his own country but also France and the USSR, as well as the Little Entente from World War I (Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia), Lux assured him that with “such a front … you will be able to coerce the criminals still today, for they, like all criminals, are cowardly and retreat in the face of decisive energy and strong willpower.
“And you will not only save the world, Sir Eden, but you will also in one fell stroke reestablish your great country in the dominant position which it has held from time immemorial, but which, as you know, Sir Eden, is in great jeopardy today.”
Lux’s letter never made it to Anthony Eden; it was returned by the British consul in Geneva to The League of Nations. Lux was buried three days later in Veyrier Jewish cemetery, outside Geneva, in the presence of his wife and 6-year-old son, who came from Prague. The chief rabbi of Geneva spoke at the funeral, as did Lux’s friend, the journalist Robert Dell, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, who tried to convince his editor to publish Lux’s letter to Eden, of which he had a copy. His editor chose not to do so.
Responding to reports that Lux was acting to publicize the fate of Germany’s Jews, Dell said that none of the letters left behind by his friend “mention the Jewish question”; rather Lux “speaks of the danger which menaces the world and civilization.”
Betty Sargent concluded her 2001 article about Stefan Lux, by then long-forgotten by most of the world, by quoting from two poems he wrote in German in the early 1930s. In one of them, which perhaps reveals something of the reasoning and sense of destiny that stood behind his dramatic act, Lux wrote the following:
“On any account, do not die / of small sins! / Prefer to look once towards the Sun / and go blind because of it!"