Book review: The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig

It’s very difficult to review a book that I enjoyed so much. I almost feel a duty to jealously guard Zweig’s legacy, so endeared do I feel to him and his little Austria and his almost peripheral Jewishness.

The book is fantastic. It paints a fascinating picture of intellectual Europe through the Great War and leading up to WW2, constantly overshadowed by the knowledge of the disaster that was to come. Zweig shows us a continent in flux, liberalising, loosening the structures of the old world, while abandoning some of what kept that world stable. It’s a bitter story, made more poignant by the knowledge of his suicide in Rio in 1942 and the fact that, sad and angry as he was, he never even knew of the Holocaust that was starting, nor of the ultimately peaceful Europe that was created over the subsequent decades.

I have included far too many quotes, but (a) I just wanted to keep them recorded together with my little write-up and (b) they show how easily some of his words could be applied to today.

# Liberalising

Zweig grew up in a Vienna that sounds like it would have been familiar to Jane Austen. Your schoolmaster never learned your name, people wore silly Victorian costumes designed to hide your body while emphasising your sex. Interest rates were predictable and didn’t change much from decade to decade. He is delighted to find that, by the time he’s finishing school (around the turn of the century), the city is sexually liberated, men shave their beards, and women dress in functional clothes that display more of their skin. And prostitution slows way down as the market for sex opens up.

What strikes our uninhibited gaze today about those costumes, garments so desperately trying to cover every inch of bare skin and hide the natural figure, is not their moral propriety but its opposite, the way that those fashions, provocative to the point of embarrassment, emphasised the polarity of the sexes. While the modern young man and young woman, both of them tall and slim, both beardless and short-haired, conform to each other in easy comradeship even in their outward appearance, in that earlier epoch the sexes distanced themselves from each other as far as possible.

It’s also a time in which traditional patrons of the arts have lost interest (or their fortunes), and it’s only thanks to the Jewish bourgeoise (Zweig and his family and friends) that the theatre survives at all (his claim isn’t quite this strong, but he certainly points to an elite losing interest - or losing its way).

This description of pre-Great War Europe[1] had me constantly wondering what is progress and universal, and what is cyclical and local. Has school continued to liberalise since 1880 (many later British coming-of-age memoirs would disagree) or was that just a period of liberalisation, followed by (well, Nazism for one, but more on that later) narrowing and contracting and later more cycles of liberalisation. It feels like we’d all be living in free-love communes if was just up ’n up.

It also answered one of my biggest bugbears around descriptions of 19th century life (looking at you, Austen and Balzac). How did everyone always know exactly how much money they had coming in each year, or exactly how much it would cost to finance some new project. I’d generally assumed it was down to some innate sense for Capital that has been lost, but it seems maybe it was just easy because interest rates stayed at 4% for a hundred years.

If you had wealth, you could work out precisely how much interest it would earn you every year, while civil servants and officers were reliably able to consult the calendar and see the year when they would be promoted and the year when they would retire.

# Interlude on the writing

I loved his sweet simple explanations and stories. He’s slightly self-deprecating, but still confident and sensible. He comes across as progressive and thoughtful and open, and I got the feeing I would struggle to find something on which we’d disagree[2] . In fact I became almost suspicious of how much he was making me like him!

But then I discovered that it was translated by the peerless Anthea Bell (translator of Astérix into English) and I was reassured that if Zweig was good enough for her then he’s certainly too good for me. I gushed nerdily when Vercingetorix (Gallic king, source of the “-ix” suffix that Astérix and co share) was mentioned, imagining how Anthea must have laughed to herself.

Her presence also probably partially explained why I loved the turns of phrase so much - it’s a long time since a book has so frequently made me stop to read a passage out loud, or flip back and re-read (out loud, sorry Sarah) an entire sequence of pages.

# Intellectual Europe

A decent chunk of the book is a Moveable Feast-esque jaunt around Europe, except unlike Hemingway and Fitzgerald he doesn’t seem like such an interloper. Prussian Berlin is opening up, but still has rigid class and societal divisions. Belgium is slow and unaware that it’s about to become a war-path to France. Paris is free and gay and nobody cares about class distinctions. Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London paints a slightly different picture!

To love Paris properly, you ought really to have known Berlin first, experiencing the natural servility of Germany with its rigid class differences, painfully clearly delineated, in which the officer’s wife did not talk to the teacher’s wife, who in turn did not speak to the merchant’s lady, who herself did not mix with the labourer’s wife.

In Paris, however, the inheritance of the Revolution was still alive and coursing through the people’s veins; the proletarian worker felt himself as much of a free citizen as his employer, a man with equal rights; the cafe waiter shook hands in a comradely manner with the general in his gold-laced uniform; the industrious, respectable, neat and clean wives of the lower middle classes did not look down their noses at prostitutes who happened to live on the same floor in their building, but passed the time of day with them on the stairs, and their children gave the girls flowers.

He also stops in London and seems almost apologetic about not figuring it out. The best thing he did was get an artwork by Blake (who is one of the few people he places alongside Goethe in genius — did I mention how he idolises Goethe?). He bumps into plenty of intellectual icons. He is awestruck watching Rodin work for an hour, he adores Rilke and his infinite sensitivity. He bumps into James Joyce in Switzerland during the war, later works with Richard Strauss, and in general seems ridiculously well-connected with the rich and famous. He watches Dalí sketch Freud! He never places himself on a level with these icons, rather congratulating himself on the simpler skill of his writing and his ruthlessness in editing.

Like any budding intellectual on a multi-year Eurotrip, he spends plenty of time wondering what the hell he’s doing. This “memoir” shares very little of his personal life, but he does share some useful advice, which resonated with me at my current junction in life (bolding my own):

At the time, understandably enough, I felt like a victim of Fate, since at the very beginning of my career the theatre offered me opportunities I would never have dared to dream of, temptingly holding them out and then cruelly taking them away again at the last minute. But only in youth does coincidence seem the same as fate. Later, we know that the real course of our lives is decided within us; our paths may seem to diverge from our wishes in a confused and pointless way, but in the end the way always leads us to our invisible destination.

# The Great War

It’s very easy to read about Kaiser this, and Franz Ferdinand that, but this is by far the best window into what people were thinking in 1914 (and before) and what people felt about the likelihood and then onset of war. Everyone (including Zweig) was so confident that war couldn’t possibly break out in Europe. How could interest rates go on being 4% forever if war broke out! Interesting to think about our present feeling of how unlikely war seems, hard to tell if there’s a lesson there for us.

We thought railway workers would blow up the tracks rather than let their comrades be loaded into trains to be sent to the front as cannon fodder; we relied on women to refuse to see their children and husbands sacrificed to the idol Moloch; we were convinced that the intellectual and moral power of Europe would assert itself triumphantly at the critical last moment. Our common idealism, the optimism that had come from progress, meant that we failed to see and speak out strongly enough against our common danger.

But he shares a pertinent story about a surge of emotion in a French village when the German Kaiser appeared at the beginning of a film — this is the first time he realises that things are amiss! And there is definitely a lesson for us moderns here.

At the moment when Kaiser Wilhelm appeared in the picture a storm of whistling and stamping broke out entirely spontaneously in the dark hall. Everyone was shouting and whistling, men, women and children all jeering as if they had been personally insulted. For a second the kindly people of Tours, who knew nothing about the world beyond what was in their newspapers, were out of their minds. I was horrified, deeply horrified. For I felt how far the poisoning of minds must have gone, after years and years of hate propaganda, if even here in a small provincial city the guileless citizens and soldiers had been roused to fury against the Kaiser and Germany—such fury that even a brief glimpse on the screen could provoke such an outburst.

Then when War broke out, Zweig expected dark moods, but people (in Austria, and presumably elsewhere) were enthusiastically dancing in the street. They thought it would be a quick trounce, and that their wise leaders were obviously right and obviously the winners. He contrasts this with 1939, when there was a very different response; everyone was grim and had fewer notions about heroism. Except in America! maybe? they were less involved in the Great War, and so you still read stories about sexy GIs going off to the Pacific…

Why did the masses not burn with the same enthusiasm in 1939 as in 1914? Why did they simply obey the call to arms with grave determination, silently, fatalistically? Wasn’t it the same as before, was there not even something higher and more sacred at stake in the war now being fought, which began as a war of ideas and was not just about borders and colonies? The answer is simple—they did not feel the same because the world in 1939 was not as childishly naive and gullible as in 1914.

It is only when Zweig leaves the city that he finds people with a more sensible view of the situation. During the war he goes to the eastern front (Russia) and notes that the peasants there saw it more clearly than the jingoistic urbanites back home. They saw that it was just a crap thing that had happened and that they shared with their poor “enemies” on the other side of the lines.

I had an irresistible feeling that these simple, even primitive men saw the war in a much clearer light than our university professors and writers; they regarded it as a misfortune that had befallen them, there was nothing they could do about it, and anyone else who was the victim of such bad luck was a kind of brother.

Zweig himself was incredibly mobile and connected during the war. He was in Belgium when it started, so he hopped on a train home and saw guns a-moving. Then he trained to Switzerland during the war, and just across the border the Swiss were enjoying luxuries in abundance while starving Austrians and Frenchmen murdered each other. And finally he trained home after the war (crossing paths with the departing Emperor!) and saw what a dump his home had become in four years of war. He’s also able to write to friends all over Europe, publish books and pamphlets[3] .

The absurdity of European wars was made physically evident to me by the close spatial proximity of conditions on the two sides—over there, on the Austrian side of this little border town, its placards and signs still clearly legible with the naked eye, men were being taken out of every little house and hovel, put on trains and sent to the Ukraine and Albania to murder and be murdered; here, five minutes away, men of the same age could sit at ease with their wives outside their ivy-clad doors, smoking their pipes.

# Roaring ‘20s

As soon as the Great War ended, there was a massive rush in art, music, literature, to outdo, out-radical and outperform everyone else. A massive explosion in creativity, including many failed experiments. Zweig is writing with the advantage of twenty years’ hindsight, but he errs to the conservative side, expecting that most of the experiments would soon be discarded. Then, as now, you could either follow the zeitgeist, or you lag your taste by 20-50 years and make it a lot easier to find lastingly good stuff. His sketch below reminds me of Gen Z - possibly how every generation feels about the one that follows it!

Every form of expression, of course including art, tried to be as radical and revolutionary as possible. The new painters declared everything done by Rembrandt, Holbein and Velázquez out of date, and embarked on the wildest of Cubist and Surrealist experiments. In every field, what could be understood was poorly esteemed—melody in music, a good likeness in portraiture, clarity in language. The definite article was omitted, sentence structure reversed, everything was written in abbreviated, telegraphese style, with excitable exclamations—and in addition all literature that was not ‘activist’, meaning based on political theory, was thrown on the garbage heap.

There was also crazy inflation in Austria, followed by much crazier inflation in Germany, and later the Great Depression. Apart from the depressing dullness, and lack of material comforts, Zweig’s descriptions of how Austria came together during this period make me like Austria as much as I like him:

For with the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely.

This was also when he finally decided to stop “practising” and start writing and publishing in earnest, and quite quickly became very famous in Europe. He loved seeing his name, and having people who liked his work, seeing the industry and commerce as his works were printed and shipped out to readers. But he hated the personal fame and wished he’d written under a pseudonym.

In normal circumstances your name means no more than the band on a cigar—a means of recognition, an outward object of little importance that is only loosely linked to the real subject, the Self. But in the case of success that name, so to speak, swells to a larger dimension. It frees itself from the man who bears it and becomes a power, a force, something independent, a commodity, capital. And then, with a violent backlash, it turns in on its bearer as a force that begins to influence, dominate and change him.

# Hitler

The last portion of the book is the sad descent to Nazism. I didn’t take as many notes, as this period (and story) was more familiar to me. His hopes and dreams for a sensible Europe are dashed as soon as Hitler starts rabble-rousing in Bavaria, and Zweig maintains just enough sense of humour to be snarky:

The orderly German nation did not know what to do with its liberty, and was already looking impatiently for someone to take it away again.

The most bizarre part of it all, in his view:

However, the Jews of the twentieth century were not a community any more, nor had they been for a long time. They had no faith in common with each other, they felt their Jewish identity was a burden rather than a source of pride, and they were not aware of having any mission. They lived at several removes from the commandments of the books that had once been sacred to them, and they did not want to speak the old language they used to share.

And so they looked at one another with burning eyes as they fled. Why me? Why you? Why you and I together when I don’t know you, I don’t understand your language, I don’t grasp your way of thinking, when we have nothing in common? Why all of us? No one could answer that question. Even Freud, with the most lucid intellect of the time, to whom I talked a great deal at the time, could see no sense in this nonsense and no way out of it. But perhaps it is the ultimate point of the existence of the Jews that, through their mysterious persistence in living on, they raise Job’s eternal question to God again and again, to keep that question from being quite forgotten.

His life as a Jew becomes more tenuous, and he leaves Austria in 1934, long before most of his Jewish friends and family. He goes first to England, then briefly to New York in 1940, and then to Brazil that same year, where he stays until he and his second wife commit suicide two years later.

[1] go back Perhaps my wokest trait is that I refuse to call it WW1.

[2] go back There were some cryptic comments on homosexuality later in the book, but I’m going to generously assume either that I misinterpreted them, or that he’d easily be talked out of them if he were still around 80 years later.

[3] go back Many of his friends and fellow intellectuals were rabidly pro-war, on both sides of the lines. He published anti-war stuff, to no great effect it seems.