biographies Archive

Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday” (Book of the Week)

Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday” (Book of the Week)

Some autobiographies manage to go beyond the subject’s own life and capture the very essence of an entire epoch. I consider The World of Yesterday (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu]) at the top of any list of such autobiographies. I have certainly never read another that made me feel so connected to the times in which the author lived.

Given the turmoil which the world saw during the span of Stefan Zweig’s life (1881-1942), we can say that he witnessed not just one but a handful of epochs. His generation “was loaded down with a burden of fate as was hardly any other in the course of history,” enduring as it did both World Wars. Zweig and his wife chose to no longer endure their fate as stateless, homeless refugees after he finished this book; they ended their lives together in Brazil in 1942 after sending off the manuscript to the publishers in New York.

Zweig was born into what he calls the “World of Security”, the late Habsburg era during which one could theoretically plan out one’s life in the finest of detail. Each knew his position in that society. Families had budgets, incomes were pre-determined, everything was insured, risks were frowned upon. School — a topic to which he devotes an entire chapter — consisted of curricula so finely tuned that instructors could get through a year without learning the names of their students; they merely needed to repeat what they had done the previous year, and the year before that … with such consistency that they could do it with their heads down, practically avoiding the faces of individual pupils.

Events would later prove just how fragile the security and confidence of that era were. The trauma of the First World War, followed by massive inflation and the unsteady inter-war years, and then the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of war in 1939 … Zweig experienced all of this, and, at the risk of sounding elitist, he did so not just as any ordinary person, but as an “international” intellectual with close friends in many of those countries which, ostensibly, would become “enemies”. His pan-European outlook, which permeates the book, provides a perspective on the events of that time which is quite different than, say, the perspective of a statesman or a general.

Most importantly, Zweig pens his memoir as the same able storyteller who told so many other excellent stories, such as Beware of Pity, Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Invisible Collection, to name just the few that I have read.

Given that I present a “Book of the Week” each week, I’ve got to be careful to not get into the habit of saying the following: You really must read this book. Please indulge me as I say it this week, because if there is any one book that I would recommend which covers the period from a personal perspective, it would be this one. I’ll let The New Republic have the last word:

It is not so much a memoir of a life as it is the memento of an age, and the author seems, in his own phrase, to be the narrator at an illustrated lecture. The illustrations are provided by time, but his choice is brilliant and the narration is evocative. [From the back cover of the University of Nebraska Press edition of the book.]

Peter Hoffmann, “Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944″ (Book of the Week)

Peter Hoffmann, “Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944″ (Book of the Week)

The title of the book suggests it is a history of the entire Stauffenberg family, but I would say this is slightly overstated. You cannot read Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944 (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [german]) without coming away thinking the book was primarily about Claus von Stauffenberg. And that’s no complaint, for Claus von Stauffenberg is clearly the Stauffenberg about whom we want to read.

If, a few years ago, you did not know who Claus von Stauffenberg was, you most likely found out thanks to Tom Cruise. If you saw the film Valkyrie, you know Claus von Stauffenberg was a member of the military resistance against the National Socialist regime and that he attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. That’s indeed the extent of most people’s knowledge of Stauffenberg: a pity, because his character is much richer than just that.

The assassination attempt was indeed the limit of my own knowledge of Stauffenberg prior to reading Hoffmann’s book. The most important aspect of Stauffenberg’s life of which I had been entirely ignorant was his and his brothers’ very close association with the German poet, Stefan George. Claus Stauffenberg’s brother, Berthold, was one of the two persons named by George as executors of his estate; Berthold appointed Claus as his successor in that role. Hoffmann dedicates a whole chapter and much of another to describing the Stauffenbergs’ closeness to George and continues on occasion throughout the book to allude to “The Master’s” influence on Claus. Given the the brothers’ roles as executors and the fact that Claus often took time — including during the war — to look after business concerning George’s estate, it appears that Hoffmann is not overstating this influence.

As Hoffmann continues to weave Stefan George and his influence throughout the remainder of the history, he moulds the character of Claus Stauffenberg as an aristocratic officer striving to fulfill the heroic deed which was expected of him by his membership in what George called the “Secret Germany.” According to Hoffmann’s story, it was not unusual for Stauffenberg to cite George’s poems when convincing others of the need to remove Hitler by force. When one Stauffenberg friend expressed distaste over the idea of murdering Hitler, Stauffenberg reminded her that “tens of thousands of Jews are being killed most cruelly.” He explained that the officers had to choose between “action or inaction”:

He believed that God had assigned a mission to him and he had devoted himself to it entirely. His inner calling gave him the certainty that was so convincing to others. [197]

He then quoted a George poem to this friend:

If ever this nation from her cowardly slackness
Remembers her election, her mission:

Then in the morning breeze a true emblem will flutter
The royal standard and bow itself in greeting
To the Noble – the Heroes!

[198]

Hoffmann, to his credit, does not shy away from the fact that the romantic, aristocratic Stauffenberg also supported the Nazi regime until at least 1938 and only gradually turned to resistance thereafter. (“Supported” may be saying too much: he approved of the leadership principle [F├╝hrerprinzip], re-armament and what he perceived as the renewed importance of the officer corps; but he was much too aristocratic to get his hands dirty with party politics, particularly of the “brown” sort.) He came to resist later than some other prominent officers such as Ludwig Beck, who had already resigned his commission before the start of war, and also later than other aristocrats such as Helmuth James, Count von Moltke.

I haven’t researched criticisms (if any) of Hoffmann’s books on Stauffenberg. I would imagine that if any exist then one point of dispute might be the centrality of Stefan George in the Stauffenberg biography; another might be that Hoffmann simply romanticizes his subject too much. I’m not saying that this is the case; I’m merely saying that as I read the book I had the feeling that if it could be claimed that it diverts from a “scholarly” historical approach, then it probably would be in these two ways.

Personally, I was not bothered at all. I enjoyed this book immensely and very much appreciated getting to know this fascinating historical character in such depth.

(Image credit: I found the lead image for this article at Wikimedia Commons. The photo is credited to Adam Carr and is said to be in the public domain. The image shows a plaque on the wall of the inner courtyard at the “Bendlerblock”, formerly Army headquarters in Berlin, today the home of the German Resistance Memorial Center. Stauffenberg and others were shot in this courtyard on the evening of the 20th of July 1944. The plaque, translated, reads, “Here died for Germany on 20 July 1944:” and lists the officers in the resistance who were killed that night, Stauffenberg among them.)

We have several other Books of the Week.