A review of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

The World of Yesterday
By Stefan Zweig
Translated by Anthea Bell
Cover illustration by David Pearson
Pushkin Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781906548674

Stefan Zweig killed himself in the same year, 1942, that this memoir was published. The book is a leave-taking and you can read it for clues to his state of mind and to his view of the age he was living through: a war where the Nazis were at their rapacious zenith. He writes as an exile:

I grew up in Vienna, an international metropolis for two thousand years, and had to steal away from it like a thief in the night before it was demoted to the status of a provincial German town… Even the true home of my heart’s desire, Europe, is lost to me after twice tearing itself suicidally to pieces in fratricidal wars.

One feels slightly ashamed to quibble that Vienna was precious even to the Nazis, in Hitler’s phrase: Die Perle des Reiches (the pearl in the Reich), but one accepts his point. It had become Eichmann’s city. Later, the judgement of his contemporaries is that ‘never has a generation fallen from such intellectual heights as ours to such moral depths.’ There is no doubt, then, that the book is coloured by the author’s state of mind yet it is by no means unhinged. Zweig has, on the contrary, a clear sighted vision of his age and a well founded despair.

For much of the book, Zweig brings all his formidable talents as a writer to evoke the Europe which he had lost. There is a fierce intelligence, a passionate humanity, a reverence for art at play here. He is in a sense a revenant, for his first readers no less than for us too, in that he embodies that lost Europe. We are given vivid, indelible portraits of Rilke, Rodin, Freud, Herzl, Hoffmanstahl, Rathenau, Joyce, Richard Strauss… These are some of those whom Zweig met and knew, sometimes worked and collaborated with. We learn that one of his passions lay in collecting first drafts, autograph manuscripts of writers and artists and composers (Leonardo, Mozart and Beethoven among them) and he conveys the excitement of this well. He revered genius. His approach to writing – he placed brevity above all else – is set out in some detail, and he tells us that it arose from his weakness as a reader: a tendency to skip superfluous passages (as he saw them) in even classic works of literature, to get on with the story. An account of runaway inflation in 1920s Germany has the quality of an absurdist nightmare. And there is much else, about art and culture and events and people he once knew.

However, the most telling chapters of the book are those that relate to World War One, the ordeal of war and its aftermath: the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire (a tragedy for Lipizzaners too). Zweig was a pacifist and played a role in the formation of the Red Cross, but he was helpless (as were all) to stop the carnage. The prospect of going through that all over again – the realisation that the world was a madhouse still, as he revisited his experiences of the Great War while writing this book in the 1940s – maybe that was the tipping point. The translator, Anthea Bell, speculates that ‘Zweig’s underlying reason [for his suicide] may have been a sense that whether the war was won or lost, the world of civilised culture in which he had lived and worked was gone forever.’

There are many wonderful and heartfelt passages in the book, none more so than this description of Jewish refugees in London:

They were like a company of ghosts. But what shook me most was the thought that these fifty tormented people represented only a tiny advance guard of the vast, scattered army of five, eight, perhaps as many as ten million Jews already setting out in their wake, millions of people who had been robbed and then crushed in the war, waiting for donations from charities, for permission from the authorities, for money to travel, a gigantic crowd, cruelly expelled and fleeing in panic from the forest fire started by Hitler, thronging the railway stations on all European borders, an entire disenfranchised nation forbidden to be a nation, but a nation all the same, wanting nothing so much after two thousand years as not to be made to go on wandering, to find quiet, peaceful ground on which they could venture to rest their feet.

We are told that Zweig never learnt – and anyway could not have known – of the Holocaust but, even so, these words are prescient. We do know that he saw the violence with which Hitler rose to power, the implementation of the Nuremberg laws, the horrors that erupted in Vienna in March 1938 (which were like ‘a nightmare painting of Hieronymus Bosch’, according to Carl Zuckmayer), Kristallnacht and all the rest. He had a clear-sighted sense of what would come. And note too, at the very end of the passage, the desire for quietus.