Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday is less an autobiography more an intensely perceptive historical account of fin-de siècle Europe-up to the start of the Second World War. It may also be the longest suicide note in history.
In the book Zweig describes how Europe went from being a place of high culture where everything seemed secure and safe to a continent torn apart by the Frist World War bringing in its wake the growth of virulent nationalism, mass unemployment, hyper-inflation, the rise of fascism and rabid anti-Semitism. The new Europe which emerged from the morass, as symbolised by Nazism and the numerous other fascist states that swept through Europe in the 1930s, was complete anathema to Zweig, representing, as it did, everything he’d been fighting against both as a writer and an intellectual. Tellingly, the manuscript of The World of Yesterday was posted to Zweig’s publisher the day before Zweig and his second wife committed suicide while in exile from the Nazis in Brazil.
A man for whom personal freedom and the concept of internationalism were paramount The World of Yesterday highlights the absurdity of war, the perniciousness of nationalism, the insidious way the Nazis took power and finally took hold of his homeland, Austria and the feelings of degradation implicit when one becomes a stateless refugee (which thanks to the Nazis was the fate that finally befell Zweig). Once, one of the most popular writers in German-speaking Europe and beyond, Zweig lived to see his books burnt and banned by the Nazis and for him to be a persona non grata in the country of his birth; a country which he saw divvied up after the First World War according to nationality, and then in the run up to the Second World Was saw its German-speaking mutilated rump finally become subsumed by its much stronger German neighbour.
Zweig begins by depicting a turn-of-the-century Austria whose motto was live and let live. As a political regime, Zweig believed the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s guiding principle had been accommodation. In other words to see both sides of the argument and to be prepared to make concessions. He eloquently depicts how at the end of the 19th century the byword of the time was security. Everyone felt safe. Everyone felt certain that the world was becoming slowly and surely a better place to live in. It was also an era which respected age. People would even try to look older than they were! Zweig recounts that when Gustav Mahler was announced as director of the Court Opera at the horrendously young age of 38(!), it caused consternation throughout Vienna that someone so young could be given such responsibility.
Zweig was however a witness to a sea-change in the arts. Previously he’d seen how artists in Austria had to become part of the establishment in order to gain recognition. Then while still a young lad himself he saw young artists such as Rilke make a name for themselves. In some cases these artists were a success even before they were legally considered to be of age in Austria. Zweig also notes that along with these new young artists who were turning perceived ideas on music, painting and literature on their head, there also came shifts in the politics of the country and a desire among the populace at large to see changes in the status quo.
Zweig writes that culture was of utmost importance to Austrians as Austrians had realised they were better off concentrating on the arts as they weren’t very good either at politics or at winning wars. And from the late 19th century until the outbreak of the First World War, Vienna was one of Europe’s cultural capitals, often leading the way in art, music, literature, design and thought. Zweig points out that many of these artists were – like Zweig – Jewish. Men such as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, Peter Altenberg and Max Reinhardt. As assimilated Jews, these artists were interested in creating art that was typically Viennese, typically Austrian. Their talent, enthusiasm and passion often led them to work their way up the cultural ladder and end up as some of Austria’s most important cultural figures. This had two major consequences. The first is that often what people nowadays admire from the heyday of turn-of-the-century Austrian culture is often the work of Jewish writers, painters and musicians; but secondly and far more tragically, the fact that these Jewish artists played such a high-profile role in Austria’s cultural life would be later used as propaganda by anti-Semites as a reason to despise them.
One of the most interesting chapters is how Zweig deconstructs the morality of the time. Turn-of-the-century Vienna was supposedly a highly moral age. The sexes were delineated as much as possible – men looked manly and had moustaches and beards, while women emphasised their femininity by wearing corsets which only resulted in exaggerating their busts. Sex was not openly discussed or even referred to and young women were ideally kept in as much ignorance as possible. Zweig even recalls how one aunt fled from her husband on her wedding night in a state of sheer horror after he had tried to undress her! But Zweig points out that irrespective of the impression a later generation may elicit from the sentimental literature of the time, all that this repression really led to was that people couldn’t stop thinking about sex; and that it was in fact a society which turned a blind eye to insidious double standards.
It was an age where “decent” i.e. moneyed women were so closeted that not only were they not permitted to wear trousers, it would have been considered utterly immoral for a lady to even refer to such a word. It was an age where it was forbidden for young people of different sexes to meet without a chaperone. It was an age where young women were controlled and limited both physically and intellectually by the mores of the society around them. On the other hand, young men were forced to live a double life, outwardly adhering to the prevailing moral code while in secrecy keeping mistresses, or taking advantage of working-class girls on starvation wages or availing themselves of a prostitute at a time where prostitution was rife. With some irony Zweig notes that in this age of supposed morality you couldn’t walk down the streets in Vienna without being accosted by a prostitute; and that it was as easy to buy a woman at any given price range as it was to purchase a packet of cigarettes.
Not surprisingly given his Jewish background and the times he lived in Zweig analyses the situation of the Jews in Europe. He had seen at first-hand how Dr Karl Lueger, one of Vienna’s most popular mayors and after whom a central Vienna street was still named until just a few years ago, used anti-Semitism as a means to distract the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes from the real causes of their worsening economic situation. In Lueger’s adept hands the Jews became a handy bugbear in which to wrap up their fears of the newly emboldened working classes and envy for those economically and socially above them. However, unlike Hitler who greatly admired Lueger, once in power Lueger remained loyal to his Jewish friends and despite all of Lueger’s anti-Semitic pronouncements nothing really seemed to change. After all this was still the age of accommodation.
Fatally, taking their cue from what had occurred under Lueger, many Austrian Jews assumed Hitler’s anti-Semitism was likewise mainly all talk and they had nothing really to worry about. Many were convinced Hitler wouldn’t annex Austria in the first place. A few months before annexation, Zweig had visited Vienna and tried to warn his friends. Sadly none of them believed him, and the old Viennese insouciance he had once loved now made him wince. Zweig, realising they wouldn’t heed his warnings, finally left Austria never to return.
Zweig was also acquainted with the founder of Zionism, Theodor Hertzl. Hertzl had commissioned Zweig to write for the Neue Freie Presse, at the time the Austro-Hungarian equivalent to The Times. As a foreign correspondent, Hertzl had witnessed the public humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus in Paris. He had instinctively known that Dreyfus was innocent and that he had only come under suspicion because he was Jewish.
Hertzl now felt that no matter how well assimilated Jewish people might feel they were, they would never be truly accepted or safe. He felt the only option they had was to create a homeland of their own – a Jewish state. At the time many Austrian Jews, happily ensconced in Austrian society, derided his ideas. Ironically it would be Hitler who would make many Jews finally decide Hertzl was right. At the beginning of the 20th century, as Zweig points out, the assimilated Jews of Austria and Germany had little in common with their more orthodox cousins in the east. They dressed differently; they spoke different languages and they did not all adhere to the same customs and traditions. By now the assimilated Jews in Vienna had for the most part stopped considering themselves as part of a Jewish community per se, but rather saw themselves simply as Austrian subjects. Under Nazism, however, it didn’t matter how assimilated you might or might not be, how orthodox Jewish you were or weren’t, how Jewish or not you felt yourself to be, you were still persecuted by the Nazis. So ironically, it was under Nazism that this sense of community was to re-establish itself among Jews throughout Europe for the first time in centuries.
One ism that was to mar 20th century Europe of course was nationalism. It is perhaps no surprise that Zweig detested nationalism. After all, Zweig had grown up in the multi-national Empire of Austria whose very foundations were eroded by it. Zweig felt that there had been nowhere else in Europe where it had been easier to feel European than in pre-war Vienna; and it was there he learnt at an early age that a sense of community was the ideal closest to his heart.
He wasn’t alone. Many of the leading intellectuals of the day shared his views, and Zweig’s account benefits from the small technicality that he was one of the most popular and well-respected writers and intellectuals of his age. Zweig was friends or at least on nodding terms with most of the other great minds throughout Europe. Guests to his house on the Kapuzinerberg – a mountain which ironically looked across to Germany and the Berchtesgadener Berg where another Austrian, Hitler, would set up a home – included Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, Hofmannsthal, James Joyce, Franz Werfel, Paul Valéry, Arthur Schnitzler, Ravel, Richard Strauβ, Alban Berg and Bartok! And that’s just the writers and composers! He was also acquainted with the likes of Rilke, Freud (who he considered to be the epitome of moral courage), Rodin, Anatole France, Gorky, George Bernard Shaw and Romain Rolland. Zweig felt great admiration for the latter and during WW1 considered him to be the most important man of the time and the moral conscious of Europe. (“Here I saw another heroism, the spiritual, the moral – as if in a living monument.”). For Zweig his “life exemplified how a person can remain free and true to his own convictions even in defiance of the whole world.”
For Zweig the sense of community that art can foster between different peoples was one of the glories of European culture. Zweig was fascinated by the magic of creation. He believed that even the artist doesn’t fully understand the creative process, nor the forces that lead him to create what he does and how exactly he goes about creating. It may go some way to explaining his numerous friendships with so many of the greatest artists of the day. However he came to realise that artists such as himself were limited in what they could achieve, even quoting Rolland at one point. “It can console us individually but it can do nothing against reality.”
In the run up to the Frist World War, Zweig was acquainted with a whole sleuth of young intellectuals, particularly from France who, like him, were adamantly against nationalism and militarism. Intellectuals from Germany, Italy and Russia also pleaded for mutual understanding. Zweig acknowledges that artists, often isolated, failed when – in those innocent times – they truly believed it was enough for them to simply profess the ideals of mutual understanding, internationalism and intellectual brotherhood. Their mistake, he concludes, was to believe that reason would win over the absurdity of war. They had been convinced that the intellectual and moral forces of Europe would help reason win through. Tragically “it was our common idealism, our optimism based on progress led us to misjudge and scorn the common danger.”
He mentions the calls made by some European artists for Europe to unite but admits their ineffectualness. “They of course did not have the slightest effect on the course of the war. But they helped us – and a good many nameless readers. They eased the terrible isolation, the spiritual despair, in which a truly humanistic human being found himself – and today twenty five years later finds himself again, just as powerless against those in power and I fear, even more so.”
When war finally came in 1914 Zweig noticed with amazement however that once reasonable men, men who had previously argued against such a conflict, were now swept up in the general enthusiasm for the war. This included many intellectuals and artists who went on to create work which aimed to show that right was on their side alone and who declared that the only true art was German. Zweig appreciated that propaganda was a weapon of war as necessary as munitions and airplanes. “War does not mesh with reason and feelings of justice. It requires a heightened emotional state; it requires enthusiasm for its own cause and hatred towards the enemy.” And as such a heightened state is not sustainable in the long run, Zweig conceded it had to be constantly drip fed propaganda to whip it back up into a frenzy. However, in going along with this, Zweig felt artists were being untrue to the true mission of an artist which, in his opinion, was to be the guardian and defender of the universal humanity of mankind.
Zweig cites the case of Ernst Lissauer. Lissauer wrote a vitriolic poem against England which captured the popular imagination in Germany of the time. It was finally set to music and there would have hardly been a German alive who didn’t know the words. However as the war dragged on, and enthusiasm for the war waned, Lissauer was made a scapegoat for the jingoistic hysteria that had met the outbreak of the First World War and ironically was forced to leave Germany.
Zweig was of the opinion that there had been no ideological basis behind the great European powers going to war with each other. He felt it was simply down to an excess of energy from the inner dynamism caused by 40 years of peace. Every country believed they were in a position of strength and happily forgot that every other country considered themselves to be in the exact same position. Similarly, every country wanted more and more and coveted what the other had. In addition, the prevailing sense of optimism meant that everyone thought everyone else would pull back from the brink just in time. So countries began to call each other’s bluff. That was until the assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia upped the stakes, and Zweig’s world of security and creative reason was shattered into a thousand pieces.
Zweig was in the unfortunate position of being able to compare and contrast the beginning of the two world wars. In stark contrast to 1939, the First World War had been met with great enthusiasm. He feels it was partly down to the very different atmospheres in which both wars began. At the outbreak of the First World War people were deluded into believing the war would bring about a better, more just and peaceful world, whereas the Second World War was a fight for freedom and moral values. In addition, whereas in 1914 people inherently trusted their leaders and concluded that the war must therefore be just and that they would of course win, by 1939 the people’s belief in the infallibility of their rulers, politicians, and intellectuals had been shattered once and for all. In other words, in 1914 there had existed a childlike, naïve credulity among the populace. By 1939 people had a pretty good idea what war would entail and regarded it with dread.
Perhaps one of the most succinct depictions of the utter absurdity of war is when Zweig crosses the Austrian/Swiss border during the First World War. The two border stations are 5 minutes apart but might as well be two different planets. On one side of the border people are starving while 5 minutes away the station buffet is replete with chocolate, fruit and ham. Items most Austrians could only then fantasise about. On one side there was a country with a censored press and mail service, on the other you were able to send letters and telegraphs to anybody you liked and read newspapers from all around the world. On one side all the men had been packed off to murder or to be murdered while on the other the men were happily sitting with their wives in the station, smoking their pipes.
When Zweig returned to Austria after the First World War, he happened to witness the train taking the Emperor Charles into exile following his abdication. The Emperor’s departure signalled the end of the Hapsburg monarchy, and Zweig now returned to a country that was a mere shadow of its former imperial self. The non-German speaking nations had broken away and all that was left was a mutilated rump. The factories, coal mines and oil fields that had once made Austria rich were now lying in foreign territory. For the first time in history, Zweig notes, independence was fostered on a country that didn’t want it. Most Austrians would have preferred to join their German-speaking cousins or be reunited with their neighbouring states. However the neighbouring states weren’t interested and the last thing the Allies wanted to do was to make Germany bigger. Many Austrians were convinced that the country could not survive in this mutilated form. Given the dire conditions, the fact that there were no revolutions as elsewhere in Europe, Zweig concludes, may have been down to good old Austrian accommodation. In true Austrian style the socialists and the conservatives made concessions to stop Austria from tipping into the abyss and agreed to govern together in spite of their profound differences. However the genuine insecurity felt by some Austrians over a viable future for what was now left of Austria may also go some way to explain the enthusiasm they were to later feel for Hitler and their readiness to become part of a Greater Germany.
Zweig felt that the Allies refusal after the First World War to carry out President Wilson’s peace plan wasted what was, in his opinion, the greatest moral opportunity in history. Wilson had put forward a far-reaching vision for world peace but Zweig believed it was torn to pieces by the short-sighted self-interests of ancient generals and armament companies and the wilfulness of politicians who took a gamble on peace with their secret contracts and deals behind closed doors. In doing so Zweig feels they betrayed everyone who had sacrificed so much for the supposed war to end all wars.
Their decision of course helped to create the conditions which paved the way for a new Europe as epitomized by Nazi Germany; a Europe which Zweig detested and had spent his life as an intellectual fighting against. What is so fascinating about Zweig’s account of this period is how he shows that the seeds of this new Europe – brutal and ruthless – were sown long before they took root. Zweig recalls his student days and the Corps students, German nationalists who wanted Austria to become part of a Greater Germany. They would beat up Slavic and Jewish students at university with impunity, as the Viennese police refused to enter the university to arrest or even stop them as this would have meant infringing an ancient right of students not to be arrested on university grounds! This anecdote deftly exemplifies the ineffectualness of the liberal values of old Europe when faced with the brute force of the new Europe.
And it was the aftermath of the First World War which of course allowed these seeds to flourish as they did. Zweig ably depicts the horrors of hyperinflation both in Austria and later on in Germany. At that time rents in Austria were protected. Thus for 5 to 10 years most Austrians lived rent free as a year’s rent for an average size flat soon cost less than lunch. Such hyperinflation meant that those who had diligently saved for 40 years or invested in war bonds became beggars, while those who had debts saw their debts wiped out. Crucially, Zweig notes that when money becomes worthless so does virtue and morality, as whoever refused to speculate or profiteer, starved.
And in Zweig’s opinion nothing made Germany more ready for Hitler than the years of hyperinflation. This was primarily because instead of blaming those who had led them into war and got them into the situation in the first place, the populace blamed the very people who were trying their best to help Germany get out of the mess they were in. A case in point was the able German politician Walter Rathenau. Zweig was a friend of his and saw him just a week before his assassination by right-wing extremists. Zweig pinpoints his murder as the lynchpin in the unravelling of democracy in Weimar Germany and its eventual lurch towards fascism.
Zweig goes on to describe the horrors of German hyperinflation which followed as a result of Rathenau’s assassination. He explains how a newspaper which cost 50,000 DM in the morning would cost 100,000 DM by the evening. Zweig recalls sending books to his publisher and paying in advance by cheque to cover the publishing of 10,000 copies. By the time the cheque was paid in, it hardly covered the postage of his letter. Tram tickets cost millions. As in Austria, the rich became beggars. Foreign carpetbaggers arrived, taking advantage of being able to buy up rows of houses in central Berlin for as little as a $100. Meanwhile the unemployment lines got longer and longer. As in the days of hyperinflation in Austria, values changed along with the devalued currency. Law and order was treated with contempt, customs and morals were no longer respected and above all Berlin became a city where morally and sexually anything went.
In tandem with this moral morass, political leaders, rulers and intellectuals were now held in scant regard in stark contrast to the unquestioning respect and trust they had enjoyed pre-1914. Consequently, youth now began to be prized above age and experience. Zweig paints a wry picture of older intellectuals desperately trying – and failing – to keep up with the youth. He seems also rather contemptuous of the accompanying disregard for everything that had gone before and the attempts to be ever more radical merely for the sake of being considered as such.
Zweig felt however that underneath all this hedonism and libertine lifestyle that occurred in the interwar years there was also a longing for order, peace, security and a more run-of-the-mill lifestyle. “Nothing proved more disastrous for the German republic than its idealistic attempt to give freedom to its people and even its enemies. Then the German people, a people of order, had no idea what to do with their freedom and already looked on impatiently to those who would take it from them.” Meanwhile in the background the generals and politicians who had manoeuvred Germany into this position in the first place were plotting how to get power back. Like many a German intellectual, these men woefully underestimated Hitler with his low-class origins and lack of a formal education. They pulled the political strings to put him in power, convinced they would be his puppet-master. Some, like Kurt von Schleicher, were soon to pay for their gross miscalculation with their life.
Unlike many others, Zweig had realised early on that the fascists had powerful forces behind the scenes financing them. He noted that in an impoverished Germany the SA would always be dressed in neat uniforms with new cars and weapons. The same was true of the newly recruited and well turned-out Franco henchmen he saw in Spain. Here too these men were well-dressed and well-armed despite the fact that at the time the Spanish treasury was in the hands of the Republicans.
Forced to leave Austria, Zweig lived for some time in Britain. It seems it was a country for which he had a genuine affection but who he felt woefully underestimated Hitler. He found the British people honest and decent and the general atmosphere less intense and vitriolic than in Germany. All in all, it seemed to him a far more civilised place with the average Brit more interested in their gardens or their hobbies than in questions of race and creed. After all, Britain had fortunately been untouched by hyperinflation and the inverse morality it brought in its wake. Zweig watched with horror how, in his opinion, the loyalty, naivety, credulity and good faith of the British allowed them to be manipulated by Hitler. Having seen Hitler’s storm troopers up close, Zweig knew that if they allowed Hitler to annex Austria it would just be the tip of the iceberg to his demands.
Zweig was of course right and he likewise describes with horror the events that took place in this former “city of culture”, once the Nazis marched in; the humiliation, the plunder, the torture, the summary executions, the whole scale confiscation of property. What had once been unthinkable in a European country was now not only permissible but commonplace. And much to Zweig’s chagrin, the world looked on without saying a word.
With Germany and Austria now under the Nazi jackboot, Zweig, who for four decades had been one of the most celebrated writers of the day, now saw his books banned in Germany and throughout Nazi Europe. Of the millions of his books that had been sold in Germany not one copy was readily available. Anyone who had one of his books would have to keep it hidden. As for public libraries, his books could only be found in the “poison cabinet” where those with special permission were allowed to consult them for propaganda purposes. Quoting Grillparzer, Zweig says he was “walking alive behind my own corpse”. Former acquaintances wanted nothing to do with him. Now an émigré, he had not just lost his home, his possessions and his homeland but also a sense of security and ease. After all, everything he had built up over 40 years had been destroyed and now well into middle age he had to start all over again.
As someone who travelled extensively, one of Zweig’s bugbears is the growing restrictions to movement and personal freedom he chartered since 1914. At one point Zweig states: “For me personal freedom was the most important thing on earth.” He recalls that before 1914 the world belonged to everybody and thus you were able to travel without a passport, a visa or any other kind of paperwork. He saw all the increasing border controls as symptomatic of the growing nationalism and xenophobia which took place after WW1. Now the bogeymen were no longer criminals but foreigners.
Zweig had always considered himself to be a citizen of the world. However, he realised travelling was a different matter all-together once you became a stateless refugee. As soon as he swapped his Austrian passport for a British alien registration card he felt he’d immediately dropped down a rung as a human being. As an Austrian citizen, he had been entitled to a passport and by extension had rights. As a refugee, he had to request an alien registration card; a request which at any time could be taken away from him. Equipped with a passport, he was a guest and a gentleman; with an alien registration card he was just another refugee and viewed with suspicion. He recalled a former Russian émigré who had said to him. “Previously a person had only a body and a soul. Today he also needs a passport; otherwise he won’t be treated as a human being.”
Feeling useless and alone, exhausted from his years as an émigré, Zweig had seen his life’s dream of a Europe spiritually and intellectually united in peace shattered. He had seen one of the most cultured countries in the world become synonymous with one of the most evil, intolerant and brutal regimes the world had ever seen. He had seen his life’s work destroyed and banned throughout most of Europe. Perhaps even more crushing for Zweig the Europe that he loved – old Europe, cultured Europe, the birthplace of some of the greatest art the world has ever witnessed – had indeed become The World of Yesterday.