"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 7, 2014

"The World of Yesterday" by Stefan Zweig (Book review)

This year it is 100 years ago that the Great War which would devastate Europe and European culture started. We have seen many new publications which look back at this disaster - one I have read is The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, which borrows its title from the great novel by Hermann Broch - but the best book about this watershed in history and culture is in my view an older one: The World of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern), the autobiography of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Different from most other autobiographies, Zweig did not write about his private or family life, but he wrote a memoir of a country, Austria, and a time irrevocably lost. He wrote the book in desperate times, by the rise of the Nazis chased out of Austria to England, and then having to leave England where at the start of WWII he was no longer welcome as a former Austrian (although he had lost his passport because of his flight), to end up - via the U.S. - in Brazil. Uprooted from his culture and having lost most things he valued, in February 1942 he and his second wife Lotte Altmann committed suicide, dying in each other's arms, just after he had send off the manuscript of The World of Yesterday to a Swedish publisher - making the book a sort of suicide note. The Zweigs, who already had lived through one terrible war and in the interbellum had seen their hopes for a better and peaceful world shattered, were too exhausted to wait for better days.

[Stefan Zweig in 1912 - image Wikipedia]

Indeed, Stefan Zweig was so to speak everything that Hitler and his brutish henchmen hated. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, was well-educated, spoke many languages and was an ardent pan-European. He believed in the need for an international community of artists that would oppose the short-sightedness of politics (Zweig did not see himself as an Austrian Jew, but as a European - his book carries not for nothing the subtitle "Memories of a European"). His novels, stories, plays and carefully researched biographies (Zweig in fact wrote more non-fiction than fiction) had been translated in countless languages and he was one of the most popular authors in the German language. Starting in 1933, these books were forbidden in all European continental countries where Nazis, Fascists or other barbarous rightists had come to power, and they were burned by the thousands. Unfortunately, Zweig was much less known in the Anglophone world (a condition which still persists), so with the persecution by the Nazis, he also lost his authority as an author, all that he had built up during a lifetime.

The autobiography is a lament for the past, written from the perspective of a man who grew up in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who like others of his generation lost his innocence in the Great European War, worked hard for peace and understanding between the citizens of different nations in the interbellum, but finally had to concede defeat to the dark forces of barbarity that made him a stateless fugitive. In fact, Zweig was a pacifist who usually took an a-political stance - until events did not allow such luxury anymore.

Here are some points that struck me when reading The World of Yesterday:
  • In the last decades of the 19th century, up until WWI, people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and other countries of Europe, firmly believed in a stable and peaceful world. They lived in well-ordered societies in which everything and everyone had its place. Their material lives were getting increasingly better, thanks to scientific progress and a flourishing economy. They believed in the stability of banks, of governments, of institutions. There was still - in the main - tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities, especially in the multi-ethnic state that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The outburst of the Great War, into which the politicians of the time entered while sleepwalking, meant the end of this belief. (I was born after WWII, when a similar belief in perpetuity existed under the protection of the Pax Americana - although there was the threat of the Cold War, we in Western-Europe believed that our stable societies, with their great social security systems would last forever - and how wrong we were).
  • Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a vibrant city, where culture was valued above all else. The school system was old-fashioned and fossilized (read Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Torless, 1906) or Hermann Hesse's Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel, 1906) for novels about the strict discipline and senseless root-learning in Austrian and German schools of the same period), but Zweig and his friends stealthily read poetry, plays, philosophy and literature in their class. It was a world full of books, theater performances, music, ideas, and debates about art. The culture of this period in Vienna in the first place rested on the shoulders of cosmopolitan Jews (Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Kraus, Klimt, Mahler, Schoenberg, Korngold, Kreisler, to name a few).
  • Nineteenth century society was a hothouse of sexuality, exactly because sex was negated and hidden (think only of the impossible dresses of the women that left no skin bare, the fact that young women could not go out without a chaperon, the segregated school system, etc). For this reason, the number of prostitutes in Vienna was huge and sexual diseases were rampant. This situation changed after WWI, when there came more equality between the genders, women dressed in modern clothes, could freely meet with friends of both sexes, joined sports clubs, etc. As a result, the hothouse atmosphere was replaced by a more healthy climate and the number of prostitutes dwindled. 
  • Before WWI Zweig traveled to the United States and to India - interestingly, in the period before the war passports, visa etc. were not yet necessary. Borders of countries were invisible lines, which were easy to cross. After WWI, that changed into the ever stricter system that still plagues us today. What a great time when as a world citizen you could travel without papers!
  • During a visit to a provincial movie theater in France in the years just before WWI, Zweig realized the hatred these locals felt towards the German Emperor - the public burst out in spontaneous booing and shouting of imprecations when the German head of state appeared on a newsreel. This deep hatred of neighbors in the same Europe had been caused by indoctrination at school and by an inimical populist press. Zweig now for the first time realized that a war in Europe was possible. 
  • In his book, Zweig describes friendships with many writers and artists, often of other countries - these friendships survived the war, as most of his friends were also pan-Europeanists: Romain-Rolland, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, Verhaeren, Freud, Rodin, James Joyce, Shaw, Gorki, H.G. Wells, Richard Strauss and the German politician Rathenau. 
  • After defeat in the Great War, the Empire which had had a population of more than 50 million, fell apart and only the rump state of Austria remained, with 7 million inhabitants and with Vienna as its "water head" capital of 2 million. But Austria was not allowed to join Germany, and new countries like Hungary didn't want it, so the small country had to survive on its own (something which was difficult in the interbellum - see the later fate of Austria, or of other small states. It was only after WWII, when the European Union was established, that small states could join into a stable and well-ordered system with larger states). 
  • Zweig had been in Switzerland for the last year of the war, and when returning, at the border he watched the train with the last emperor leave Austria. With little food, a housing shortage and run-away inflation, this was a period of privations (caused by the war, when all the men were fighting at the front and normal industrial and agricultural production was halted). That same inflation would soon afterwards also destroy savings accounts in Germany - something which for ordinary citizens was even a worse experience than losing the war. 
  • Between the wars Zweig lived in a small castle on the outskirts of Salzburg, where he found the quiet atmosphere to write his best works. Ironically, from his residence he could almost see the house where Hitler lived in Berchtesgaden, on the other side of the German border. He describes the rise of the Nazis, who utilized the feelings of humiliation left by the loss of WWI among the general population. They operated in gangs that were well-funded, riding in brand-new cars, wearing spotless uniforms and carrying shining weapons. In this form they would execute lightning fast attacks on people they considered as their enemies (often Socialists or Communists), severely beating them up with their cudgels. Thus democracy was intimidated and terrorized away by the violence by these political bullies. Gradually, the ominous signs of Nazi influence were growing.
  • In the interbellum, Zweig had become one of the most celebrated authors of the world. On his fiftieth birthday, his German publisher gave him a voluminous catalog listing all of his publications in various editions and translations. But in 1933 when Hitler had finally come to power, after just two performances, Strauss' opera Die Schweigsame Frau was banned because of the Jewish background of Zweig who wrote the libretto. Not long afterwards, all Zweig's works were banned and burned on huge bonfires with the books of other Jewish authors. From being one of the most widely read authors of both fiction and nonfiction, in only a few months time Zweig went to a stateless nobody.
[Zweig's novella collection Amok, a victim of book burning by the National-socialists in 1933 in Germany - Photo Wikipedia]

In this way, the world that Zweig had once lost, but recovered by hard work, was lost for a second time. Despite the often dramatic contents, and the fact that Zweig committed suicide soon after finishing this book, it is written in a lucid, calm and factual style. Although some readers may regret this, it is not a private account of Zweig's life - it is a "biography" of the times he lived through and only includes personal information where relevant to that purpose. It is a most beautiful book, one of the best accounts of the years before, after and during the Great War, which almost seamlessly fused into that second, even more horrible war. It is book full of the feeling of loss - a loss caused by the stupidity and bestiality of human beings, even in what was then the most civilized part of the world.

The World of Yesterday was translated by Anthea Bell and is available from Univ. of Nebraska Press. The German original is available from Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, as well as from Insel Verlag. The text is also freely available at the German Gutenberg site. English translations of several of Zweig's literary works have been published by New York Review Books.