Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: "Die Welt von Gestern" ("The World of Yesterday") by Stefan Zweig

Die Welt von Gestern (1942)
(The World of Yesterday)
Stefan Zweig (1881-1942)

304 pages

And I have often come to recall the words an exiled Russian said to me some years back: ‘In earlier times a person had only a body and a soul. These days he also requires in addition a passport, otherwise he won’t be treated as a person. (285)
This poignant yet trenchant statement toward the end of Stefan Zweig’s book The World of Yesterday captures in brief the profound cultural and societal changes that occurred during the first few decades of the twentieth century. In Europe in particular, a social order that had largely dominated the continent for centuries --- while undergoing at most gradual change -- disintegrated suddenly and nearly completely in the crucible of World War I. Previously stable cultural foundations upon which people had relied for generations gave way to new norms and political structures so fundamentally different that the youth of the post-war world could scarcely imagine or understand the lives and times of their parents and grand-parents.

Zweig looks back over this period in his book, recalling the dramatic transformations experienced by European society. Part history, part autobiography, the book can perhaps best be characterized as a cultural biography of Western and Central Europe from the 1880’s to the start of World War II. For much of his life Zweig traveled extensively in Europe, seeking out distinguished literary and cultural figures in Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. His visits to these cities and his relationships with the writers and thinkers with whom he met form the framework of the book, and through his recollections of them he gives a sense of the world as it was before WWI, and as it became in the war’s aftermath. He also makes clear how much his own thinking and writing were impacted and ultimately re-directed by the shocking destructiveness and senselessness of the war, and the disastrous economic consequences experienced during the post-war years.

The World of Yesterday generally seems to be characterized as an autobiography, but I find that categorization uncompelling. It is true that Zweig tells stories of his family, his schooling, his travels and his experiences, through which the reader certainly learns about the author himself. But rather than being focused on his own life, these descriptions seem intended to provide a structure to a narrative focused on illuminating the cultural, social and political environment of the world of his youth, that is, before WWI, and the significant and wide-ranging changes that occurred as a result of that war. So, for example, Zweig briefly mentions his parents early in the book --- but in the context of the differing histories of his father and mother, using them to shed light on the differences between the Jewish educated elite of the cities (his mother’s family) and those of the smaller provincial towns (his father’s), how these groups interacted with one another, and the Jewish impact on society in Austria and Vienna. Of his first wife, of 18 years, there is only one reference, in passing, in the context of a story he tells about helping an Italian friend in trouble with the Mussolini regime; his second wife he only mentions because they happen to be at the marriage registration office in England at the moment reports come in that Nazi Germany has invaded Poland, and so has effectively gone to war with Britain. Remove these two references and a reader would assume --- viewing this book as an autobiography --- that Zweig remained a bachelor his entire life.

Whether autobiography or history, what does come through clearly in the text is that Zweig’s view is, perhaps not surprisingly, colored by and weighted toward his upper-middle class background. Even given such a bias, however, a reader’s understanding of this period in our history benefits from his keen observations and insights.

The book is divided almost exactly into two halves, and it is relevant to wonder if Zweig’s intent for the scope of his narrative changed over the course of the writing, which he apparently started in 1934 and completed in 1942. The first half of the book truly deals with the world of yesterday of the title, a pre-WWI cultural order already, from Zweig’s point of view in the 1930’s, seemingly a part of the distant past. It is only speculation, but it may be that by the late 1930’s, as the start of the Second World War became inevitable and Zweig recognized the impact of the changes wrought by the earlier world war on the path toward this new conflict, that he carried his story forward into the new, post-WWI age to describe more deeply the war’s impact.

Zweig opens with the following line: “If I try to find a succinct phrase to describe the time before the First World War during which I grew up, I am hopefully the most succinct if I say: it was the golden age of security and certainty.”(11)   He spends the first half of the book recalling this period of security experienced by his parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and reflecting on his own experiences and recollections as a youth at school and out on the town with friends. Looking back to the Vienna of his youth, he recalls the wonderful arts scene, including music, theater and literature, which drew his and his fellow students’ attention away from their schoolwork. At the same time, he decries the very conservative, patriarchal society that existed, in which men must nearly be turning gray before achieving a position of any influence, and women have little to strive for beyond housework and protecting their reputation.

Having describe the Vienna in which he grew up, Zweig broadens his story to a more European focus. From his university days onward, Zweig traveled extensively, and spent seemingly as much time abroad as in Austria. Though he made it as far as the United States and India, most of his travels were to the major cities of Europe, where, having earned an early name for himself in Vienna as a writer, he turned the connections his success offered him into opportunities to be introduced to leading European writers and thinkers of the day. His recollections of the cities he visited, and the cultural luminaries he came to know, make up a significant part of the first half of the book, and form the lens through which Zweig describes European culture of this period.

I have read commentaries on the book that chastise Zweig for prideful namedropping and a dissembling disingenuousness on this account.  Such a criticism is not completely without merit. To give but one example that such critics might likely cite, Zweig recalls a meeting with Theodor Herzel, who was editor of an apparently well-known literary revue magazine of the time; Zweig handed over a prose piece which Herzel read on the spot and accepted immediately for publication. “It was,” Zweig comments, “as if Napoleon stopped on the battlefield to pin the Knight’s Cross of the Legion of Honor on a young Sargent.”(81) In one sentence Zweig manages to highlight the importance of Herzel as a cultural figure, the success Zweig’s own writing enjoyed, and what could be taken as a disingenuous surprise at that success. At this and other moments in the book Zweig can be argued to have ventured into the grey area between recollection and self-congratulation, though on the whole I found that his references to the literary and cultural figures he met enhanced the historical insights of his recollections.

At almost exactly the halfway point in the book Zweig concludes his description of the pre-WWI period with the observation: “Then, on June 28, 1914, the shot in Sarajevo was fired, and the world of security and creative rationality in which we were born, raised and at home was, in one single instant, smashed like a hollow, clay container into a thousand pieces.”(152) Clearly, such an observation can only be made in hindsight, but Zweig describes in the second half of his book how WWI lead to the destruction of the old European order, and how the peace agreements eventually imposed on the losers, and the economic problems that followed, led to social and political developments that propelled Europe into a second world war only a generation after the first.

He notes that the cultural and governing structures discredited by WWI left a gaping vacuum after the war, not least in what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where, as he takes the train back home after having spent the last months of the war in Switzerland, he is witness to the last Hapsburg emperor on a train into exile, having abdicated his throne. Zweig’s homeland becomes a “mutilated torso” (e.g., 198), consisting of the tiny, newly created Austria; he notes that there, as throughout Europe, the absence of established structures led to wide-ranging political and social experimentation.
An entirely new youth no longer believed their parents, their politicians, their teachers; every order, every proclamation of government was read with a mistrusting eye. Suddenly the post-war generation brutally emancipated itself from all that had been taken for granted and turned its back on every tradition, determined to take their fate into their own hands, leaving behind all of the old ways of doing things and switch with one lurch toward the future. (210)

Generally he finds many positive aspects of the resulting changes, such as newfound freedoms in social mobility and personal behavior. He notes, however, that with this period of experimentation came also the dangers of excess, as the old norms governing behavior that had guarded the “golden age of security and certainty”(11) suddenly held little constraining weight; charismatic leaders found willing followers among impetuous youth, forming gangs that clashed for recognition and power, and in Germany, Austria and elsewhere easily intimidated governments that had little perceived authority.

Another feature of the inter-war period that Zweig recalls with particular sympathy --- no doubt because it eventually impacted him so directly --- was the sudden, dramatic increase in people leaving their former homelands. This occurred in part as an outcome of the negotiated settlements at Versailles, which realized the idea of self-governance by ethnic groups, offering newfound enfranchisement to many, especially in central and south-eastern Europe. The creation of these new, small, ethnically coherent states, however, had the unexpected consequence of initiating massive flows of people who found themselves on the wrong side of the borders drawn to establish the new national groupings. Coming at a time of spreading economic collapse, these often poor and unskilled refugees, suddenly found themselves unwanted minorities in their homeland, but also not welcome in the new nation created for their fellows. The other driver of refugees was of more violent origin: the new political experimentation mixed with a wave of economic collapse to breed brutal, nationalist regimes. In Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and other countries, ethnic cleansing and political oppression created further surges of suddenly stateless refugees --- which Zweig as a Jew experienced first-hand in his flight from his Austrian homeland.

Zweig also comments on how the events of WWI and the post-war period irrevocably transformed his work as a writer. His experiences during the war, the post-war chaos and the rise of fascism left him feeling that his earlier work lacked importance and weight; he now turned his focus to: “Promote with greater emphasis and broader impact the idea that had over the past years become the principle one of his life: for the spiritual unification of Europe.”(228)  He describes in the book how, through his experiences, he developed a strong sense of the critical importance of connections and organizations that could function beyond the borders of individual countries or even small groups of countries, to counteract what he saw as the destructive tendencies of nationalist, partisan feeling. His regret that President Wilson’s proposed League of Nations failed to get off the ground after WWI, and his despair at the rise of violent, populist leaders whose brutal governments led the descent into the second world war form a central theme of the second half of his book.

Considering the book as a whole, an intriguing question for readers concerns Zweig’s psychological and emotional view of the pre-WWI period, and whether he felt that the changes that resulted from the war were on balance positive or negative. In that sense, the title can potentially be misleading: The World of Yesterday has a bit of a nostalgic ring to it, perhaps ever so slightly pre-disposing a reader opening the book for the first time to the opinion that Zweig is looking back longingly to the time of his youth, before WWI shattered that world so completely. From his descriptions in the early part of the book it seems clear that Zweig did enjoy a relatively carefree youth. As a member of the educated elite, he benefited from the privileges that accompanied that standing, able to attend the best schools, travel extensively, find comfortable work, and write. Though he also had a productive and relatively comfortable stretch of years immediately after WWI, by the early 1930’s he could feel the cultural storm that was brewing in central Europe, led by the nationalist and Fascist groups that were gaining political influence in Austria, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, and their battles with both the cultural elite and communist groups in many of these countries. As the fascist groups gained strength, he was driven from his homeland, and his life deteriorated quickly and from his perspective irreversibly, as he spent the last 10 years up to his death a stateless exile in England, the United States and finally Brazil.

Given all of these facts, however, it would be an over-simplification to understand his book as a longing to return to a previous, happier time. As Zweig makes clear, the world of yesterday, that is, of the late 1880’s up through WWI, did provide a relatively stable and safe society, but in exchange for an order and expectation that tightly constrained behavior and opportunities for everyone based on their place in the society. Workers, farmers, women --- even the elite --- each had their defined place and roles, strict expectations on how they could behave and what they could expect to do in their lives.

Zweig several times acknowledges the distance between the cultural state of the world in which he wrote the book, in the 1930’s, and that of his youth; in the early part of the book he describes for the reader life in Vienna in particular and Europe in general in the years before WWI as “a world without haste. The rhythm of the new speeds had not yet transferred from the machines --- from the car, the telephone, the radio, the airplane --- to people; time and age had a different measure.” (27) He recalls the impact this slower “rhythm” of the world had on day-to-day life, in thoughts that have surely crossed the minds of many today when the world seems too hectic: “How Lilliputian were all of those worries, how still those times! They did a better job of it, that generation of my parents and grandparents, they lived quietly, living their lives straight and clear from one end to the other.”(28)

A reader would, however, be too rash in their judgment, if they declared these words a clear indication of Zweig’s longing for the world of his youth, for he continues, in the very next sentence:
And yet, I don’t know whether I am jealous of them for that. How distant they lay in their stupor from all of the truth, the bitterness, from the vagaries and powers of fate, how they missed out on all of those crises and problems that crush the heart but at the same time magnificently expand it. How little did they understand, muddling through their lives in security and possession and sense of comfort, that life can also be excess and suspense, continuously surprising and uplifting from all sides; how little did they realize, in their touching liberalism and optimism, that every day that dawns outside their window can shatter our lives. Even in their darkest nights they were not able to imagine in their dreams how dangerous mankind can be, but also not realize how much strength mankind has to be able to live through dangers and withstand ordeals. We, hunted though all the rapids of life, we, ripped out by the roots from our erstwhile lives, we, forever beginning anew wherever on earth we are driven to, … we, for whom comfort is a legend and security a childish dream --- we have felt the suspense from one end of the earth to the other and felt the impact of the continuously new in every fiber of our beings. Every hour of our lives was connected with the fate of the world. Suffering and passionate, we have lived far beyond our little existence, outward into time and history, while they limited themselves within their own lives. Every one of us, therefore, even the least of our kind, knows today a thousand times more about reality than the wisest of our ancestors. But nothing was given us as a gift; we have paid the price for it fully and completely.  (28-29)

Thus emerges a conflicted and ambiguous comparison of the world of his youth to that he experienced over the two decades after WWI. A reader can question whether and how Zweig’s views on this comparison may have evolved over the years from 1934 to 1942 as he wrote the book. Did he come to the work in 1934, having just begun a self-imposed exile from his Austrian homeland, with a view of the new freedoms available since end of WWI as a largely a positive development, even if they came at a stiff price? Or, did he begin the work with a nostalgia for the carefree days of his youth, when his future seemed relatively clear and accessible, and then, as his years in exile dragged on and his beloved Austria became ever more definitively inaccessible, did he find the need to create a more positive view of the existence and cultural order to which he was now bound?

Though one may ponder Zweig’s motivations for writing the book, such questions in no way diminish the fascinating window he provides into this period of dramatic cultural, social and political change, particularly in Europe. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 1800’s, Zweig witnessed many of these changes first hand. The Vienna of his youth was a cultural and political center of Europe, with a stable and powerful monarchy that had endured for centuries, and seemed destined to rule into the future. With the onset of WWI, Zweig observed in growing horror the destructive senselessness of the conflict, and, as the war concluded, witnessed the shocking downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its emperor abdicating and its lands split into many smaller countries, leaving the “mutilated torso” of his Austria. During the post-war years Zweig watched nervously as fascist groups first agitated for power and then assumed it throughout Central Europe. Disheartened that these groups would undermine the peace and cooperation among nations that he dedicated the latter part of his life to supporting, he also saw their impact on the lives of individuals, he himself fleeing Austria in 1934 as a part of a growing wave of refugees from all around Europe.

In 1942 Zweig committed suicide in Brazil --- an exiled and stateless Jew far from his Austrian homeland --- apparently just a day after sending his publisher the completed manuscript for this book. Thus, he died at what might be considered the darkest point in the 20th century, with Nazi forces apparently unchallengeable and his own dream for cooperative international institutions, such as the future United Nations and the European community, seemingly in the realm of unimaginable fantasy.

Other reviews / information:

Read quotes from this book

Compare the quote that leads off this review with a similar sentiment in a recent book by Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (follow the link for my review).
Maybe we refuse to acknowledge our common origins because racism causes amnesia, or because we find it unbelievable that in those days long past the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passport required.(2)

The book is in the public domain, and the edition I have is from the publishing house Renovamen Verlag; as you can see from the cover shot, and can find described in on-line reviews, this is a very stripped down edition of the book. (One reviewer suggests that this was simply printed directly from the Gutenberg Project text.) There is no table of contents, no index, no variety in the format and the chapter headings barely set apart from the text. There are barely any margins, and so it is simply 304 pages full of straight text, with no variation except being broken (thankfully) into paragraphs.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

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