stefan zweig 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.]

01 September 1939: Tragedy

01 September 1939: Tragedy

It was a strange morning. Silently we stepped back from the radio that had projected a message into the room which would outlast centuries, a message that was destined to change our world totally and the life of every single one of us. A message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us, and perhaps only after years and years a creative significance. It was war again, a war, more terrible and far-reaching than ever before on earth any war had been. Once more an epoch came to an end, once more a new epoch began. Silently we stood in the room that had suddenly become deathly quiet and avoided looking at each other. From outside came the unconcerned twitter of the birds, frivolous in their love and subject to the gentle breeze, and in golden luster the trees swayed as if their leaves, like lips, wished to touch one another tenderly. It was not for ancient Mother Nature to know the cares of her creatures.

Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace. It lay calmly in the noon-day sun and seemed no different to me from other days. People went their accustomed way in their usual manner. There were no signs of hurry, they did not crowd talkatively together. Their behavior had a sabbath-like quality and at a certain moment I asked myself: “Can it be that they don’t know it yet?”

I recalled our old soldiers, weary and in rags, how they had come back from the battlefield, — my beating heart felt the whole past war in the one that was beginning today and which still hid its terror from our eyes. Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!

The sun shone full and strong. Homeward bound I suddenly noticed before me my own shadow as I had seen the shadow of the other war behind the actual one. During all this time it has never budged from me, that irremovable shadow, it hovers over every thought of mine by day and by night; perhaps its dark outline lies on some pages of this book, too. But, after all, shadows themselves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.

From Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu].)