Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

zweig World of Yesterday

I asked for one thing for Christmas, Stefan Zweig’s book The World of Yesterday. Jacques Barzun, in his book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present spoke highly of the Zweig book, and I have wanted to read it ever since reading Barzun. My wife got the Zweig book for me, and I finished it this morning. It is the first book I finished in 2010, and the bar has been set very high for the rest of the year. It is one of the best books I have ever read.

Zweig tells his life story, growing up in an intellectual Jewish milieu in Vienna before World War I, in a golden age of peace and freedom (as only became clear after it was gone), becoming a successful writer and friend of many famous people, the ensuing destruction of European civilization in World War I and its aftermath, and ultimately his flight from Austria to escape the Nazis. He committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. He mailed this book to his publisher the day before he died.

This book now holds a noble place beside Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March and Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear as depictions of the final years of Austria Hungary, and the cosmopolitan, open, secure, lawful and liberal European world order which ended in 1914 and has never returned.

47 thoughts on “Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday”

  1. Stefan makes no mention of Arnold; I assume there was no connection. I have heard of Arnold Zweig, but not read anything. I see he was a German Jew, where Stefan Zweig was from Austria, and that he wrote about his WWI experiences. Which book did you buy?

    The more I read the more convinced I become that the great wrong turn occurred in the Summer of 1914.

  2. Lex,

    “It is one of the best books I have ever read.”

    Coming from you, that’s saying something. And it rated the attention of Jaacque Barzun who has been a scholar almost as long as you and I have been alive.

    Our ages combined, that is.

  3. Thanks for this posting- non academic intellectuals usually have more interesting things to say than the professionals;perhaps they have a better context to place things in than the academic hot-house. I love this blog.
    I didn’t know Arnold was un-related to Stefan. Look up Judenzahhlung-even before the war ended the nastiness was showing.

  4. Peter Drucker has written a fair amount about the old days in Austria, especially in his memoir “Adventures of a Bystander.”

    He observes that people think of prewar Vienna as a very sexually repressed city, and argues that this was not at all the case, except perhaps among those who had recently moved to Vienna from rural areas…that the thing people were *really* inhibited about was not sex, but financial matters.

  5. WW1 was one of the great catastrophes in all of recorded history. The repercussions rippled across the entire world, the resulting political experimentation brought to power some of the worst tyrannies ever seen in history, and, of course, the vindictive resolution cobbled together in 1919 directly led to its delayed conclusion, better known as WW2.

    My grandfather, who rarely offered political opinions other than that FDR was the greatest President ever, once commented when the subject of Pres Wilson and WW1 came up, “Oh, that fool who went over to Europe and got taken for a ride.”

    I firmly believe that future historians will write of the 20th century that it was an unprecedented era of despotism and carnage, and that it all started when the doddering autocracies of Europe decided to load the guns of august and committ ritual suicide.

  6. The cultures like Vienna were doomed by the rise of the nation state, and the subsequent splintering of the world. Europe and Russia today have been cut into tiny, small states as homogeneously as possible. Even today Belgium and the Netherlands can barely hang together, nor can the UK, as people view any sort of representation other than by their exact ilk to be unacceptable.

    The only “melting pot” nations left are those of the US, Canada, Australia, and India. Everywhere else they kicked out the “colonials” (you could have written the same about expelling all the non-Arabs from Egypt and the dissolution of that culture) and are trying to break the world into smaller units. I don’t even know how to summarize Africa; many of the borders make no sense but an atomization of Africa into component units would be amazingly small in terms of most states.

    The only place you see the “melting pot” is in TV commercials and sociology books. The rest of the world is continually hiving off into smaller and smaller units of homogeneous components.

  7. Okay, here’s Drucker, writing about his grandmother and other Viennese of her generation:
    This world of the burgher and his community was small and narrow, short-sighted and stifling. It smelled of drains and drowned in its own gossip. Ideas counted for nothing and new ones were rejected out of hand. There was exploitation in it and greed, and women suffered…it could be petty and rancorous. But the values it had–respect for work and workmanship, and concern by the person for the person, the values that make a community–are precisely the values the twentieth century lacks and needs. Without them it is neither “bourgeois” nor “Socialist”; it is “lumpen proletariat,” like the young lout with the swastika.

  8. Stephan Zweig had been known to readers in USSR for many decades.
    When I grew up (in the area I supposed could be called “in the sticks”- and that was pre-Amazon era) we had one bookcase filled with “translated western literature” – and ours was a modest household. I still can’t find satisfying explanation why Americans are so unfamiliar, en masse, with European literature, why here translation is so rare and why we have no comprehensible system in public libraries..but I digress.

    I remember by heart 7 tomes of Zweig’s “collected works” that I’ve been reading and rereading since I was 11. My mom brought it with her to her new home in Midwest, along with Moliere, and Leskov, and Daudet and Feuchtwanger…

  9. Addendum:
    I just noticed that Zweig’s book was translated by Anthea Bell, whose translation of Sebald’s Austerlitz I just finished reading.

    She’s a terrific translator, and I hope her work on Zweig is as good.

  10. Having read and been fascinated by Zweig’s Chess Story, was quick to buy his novel Beware of Pity, found at a library used-book sale. Gently removed the manila pocket that formerly held the card stamped with the book’s due date, and found it had been pasted over Zweig’s own autograph!

    That moved me to seek more information about him. There is a Stefan Zweig collection at SUNY in Fredonia, and a collection of his music manuscripts, autographed by their famous composers, at the British Library.

    Could not help but speculate about possible parallels between his time in Austria and ours now in the U.S.

  11. Tatyana,

    Most Americans barely know American literature these days; a literate person will know British literature to some extent. Beyond that, it gets extremely spotty. When I was in the university, everybody at least pretended to know Sartre and Camus; today, I think not so much.

    Here’s a question — is there any non-English-speaking fictional writer whose works would be generally familiar to the average literate American reader today? If so, who would it be?

  12. Jim B…the assigned reading tables (for high-school students) at the bookstores always seem to include “All Quiet on the Western Front,” so I guess most literate people have read Remarque…doubt if they’ve read any of his other works, though.

  13. Lexington, can you give us some information on the version you read? I see several available and wondering if you were happy with the one you read or if you thought it could be better.

  14. David, I was thinking of books that a literate person might read for pleasure. There are authors who have a following — Marquez and Kundera come to mind — but are they ones that the majority fo literate people would have read?

  15. “The more I read the more convinced I become that the great wrong turn occurred in the Summer of 1914.”

    I wanted to comment something similar to this. I have read a fair amount of history, but only in the past two years have I read much on WWI and have surprised myself with how much I have to learn (I sign of foolish conceit, I know). But that reading has haunted me and it is is the gnawing feeling that your conclusion is correct. Niall Ferguson in his book “The War of the World” posits that from 1914 to the 1960’s is best viewed as one long war, the consequences of the falling apart of the great European empires. Anyone born between the Danube and the Urals are but the remnants of survivors of massacre after massacre and the amount of apathy, nihilism, and despair that exists in those lands today reflects that.
    The world is a coarse place and we are all lucky to be here.

  16. Chrees, the copy I read was a reprint of an older edition, from 1943, with no identification of the translator. However, the link I provided above is to a new translation published by Pushkin Press, which is supposed to be very good. Tatyana says that the translator is good, so that is a further endorsement. I think that this new translation/edition is your best bet. If I see an inexpensive copy of it at some point I will likely pick it up and read the book again, in a few years.

    Walt, I hope that the USA never goes through anything like what Austria went through. However, we are not in nearly the pickle that the Habsburg empire was in 1914, thank God. No land frontiers with Russia — that helps.

    David, good Drucker quote. I have that book, and have read part of it. I should read the whole thing. Zweig has a different take on the sexual morality of Viennese culture pre-1914. He was a generation older than Drucker, so things may have been a little different.

    Jim, I suppose most people who have any education have heard of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. David is right that All Quiet is commonly assigned in school, since it is an “anti-war” classic. Also, I suppose that Dumas may still have some readers for his Musketeers. And, then there are the Latin Americans, Borges, Marquez. But, generally, most people don’t read books at all, or if they do, they read popular novelists like Stephen King. The small number of people who read literary novels may read some of these foreigners who have a reputation.

    Elambend, Ferguson sounds about right, though I have not read that one by him. The first section of the first volume of Herbert Hoover’s memoirs is the best depiction I know of the old liberal world order, and how free and open it was, and how it was destroyed by World War I. The biography of James Bryce by H.A.L. Fisher is excellent on the outbreak of war, and how it was perceived by a liberal, anti-militarist, German-speaking and Germanophile British intellectual and politician. In brief, even Bryce concluded that the Germans were a threat to civilization itself and had to be stopped. The Germans, in short, were brutal and stupid. We have all been living in the ruins they caused.

    (At this point, Ralf may intervene — we have been going back and forth on this one for years!)

    One of the failings of Zweig’s book is his refusal to blame the Germans for World War I. He presents all the facts — for example, the shock of Germany violating its treaty obligations and invading neutral Belgium, or thwarting Austro-Hungarian efforts to reach a peace deal — but then keeps saying that it is “war” as an abstraction that is the problem.

    I am currently reading Zweig’s Joseph Fouché: The Portrait of a Politician (trans. 1930). It is very good.

  17. Onparkstreet — I will look for the Clive James book.

    Carl, the Habsburgs tried a different approach from the “melting pot” — letting every group keep a lot of its own identity, language, etc. Obviously, this had a lot of problems. Unlike the USA, where every group except one came here on their own initiative, the old Austrian empire was composed of people who had been annexed along with their own land. They kept the thing going very well, especially compared to what came after. If World War I had either been avoided, or kept short, I have no reason to think it would not have continued much as it was, with accommodations being made on an as-needed basis. Alas, the worst happened instead.

  18. The pre-1914 order was liberal, optimistic and globalizing in some ways that have never been seen since, to the general detriment of the world. However, it was a civilization that already had substantial eventually fatal flaws growing within it. Anti-market, anti-free-trade ideologies were capturing the imagination of the young, rising crowd of intellectuals. Ideologies of racism and anti-semitism were growing popular, particularly within the German-speaking world, but also France and elsewhere. And the 19th–century cult of romantic nationalism and the organic theory fo the state was abandoning its earlier phase of belief in electoral republicanism and turning to fascist and corporatist concepts, even if fascism had not yet been synthesized. Marxism and syndicalism had captured substantial parts of the labor movement. Every one of these tendencies was to emerge in a nasty form after the war. Collectively, they created the much worse inter-war world.

    First the pre-1914 world abandoned the things that had made them great. Then they ceased to be great. We inhabit the ruins.

  19. @Lex & Elambend:

    Have either of you read John Steel Gordon’s essay, What the West Lost in the Great War? It posits the same thing as you — it was the First World War that irrevocably changed the West’s cultural development for the worst. He is not the only one to do so; I am reminded of James Bowman’s book, Honor: A History, in which he places the decline of “honor” as an ideal to be aspired to directly at the feet of WWI. Even contemporaries recognized the change, I think. I can’t imagine that Kipling’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, written in 1919, was anything but an expression of Kipling’s desire for the old ways to return. 100 years on, we are still waiting for the Gods of the Copybook Headings to come back.

  20. I just checked out Arnold Zweig on the German Wiki. He was not related to Stefan. He was born in what is now Poland, moved to the Starburger See area in Bavaria, and then north to Berlin to avoid the Nazis. During the war he moved abroad. He returned to Berlin after the war and, as a good socialist, remained in the GDR.

  21. “…we are not in nearly the pickle that the Habsburg empire was in 1914, thank God. No land frontiers with Russia — that helps.”

    Yes. Thanks for the perspective Lex.

    Since 1969, after returning from my two-year Army stint in Germany (was there during the days that Soviet and other Warsaw Pact tanks and troops invaded neighboring Czechoslovakia), have been prone to speculate about such things. Sometimes too much so.

  22. the Germans were a threat to civilization itself… The Germans, in short, were brutal and stupid.

    You say that as if it were a bad thing.

    Seriously though, if the British Expeditionary Force hadn’t gotten into the way, there would have been no Great War, just a repeat of the Franco-Prussian one, with the same result. With France out of the fight, Russia would have backed down. The post-war era wouldn’t have been very much different than the time before 1914, except that Germany wouldn’t have been threatened by a two-front war anymore.

    In what way would this have been worse than what actually happened?

  23. Ralf:

    The Germans had been promoting the idea that they were going to replace Britain as the world’s leading naval power. Defeating France, then Russia, was perceived in Germany and in Britain, as steps toward the main conflict. If Germany had focused on Russia all along, and had allied itself with Britain against Russia around 1900 when that offer was on the table, the world would have been a very different place. By the time Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, it had build a Navy and had already brought Britain into an alliance directed against itself. It had pretty much diplomatically checkmated itself before the first shot was fired. There was zero prospect of Britain sitting out a war between Germany and France, after 1904. The Germans should have known that, and Moltke’s decision not to violate Dutch neutrality suggests that they understood it. But they went to war anyway. You and I could say “it would have been 1870 again” — but the Germans did not talk that way at the time, and the British believed them when they advertised their intention to destroy the British world order and replace Britain.

    Take a look at J.A. Cramb Germany and England (1913), to see what the Germans were saying, and what the English, who were listening, thought they had to do in response.

  24. Lex,

    point is that the British idea was to keep Germany in its place, crammed between France and Russia, and most certainly on the continent. The alliance around 1900 would have been entirely on British terms where Germany would have consented to foregoing any meaningful holdings overseas, for it wouldn’t have had a fleet to protect them if need be.

    People back then were putting it on a bit thick, but Germany was as civilized as any other country and certainly no ‘threat to civilization’. When even the most Germanophile Britons made that claim, the really meant ‘threat to the ‘status quo’. The German plan was no world war, but a somewhat modified status quo where Germany, having gotten to too big for Europe, would have had some freedom of movement.

    As to the the supposedly Germanophile James Bryce I can refer you to The Historian Who Sold Out.

  25. “…Germany was as civilized as any other country …”

    That is not what people thought after Germany violated Belgian neutrality, and committed war crimes there.

    James Bryce was a pacifist and Germanophile. He was a Left Liberal who routinely voted against the Royal Navy budget. He was horrified by these events.

    Stefan Zweig was a pacifist and an Austrian citizen. He was in Belgium in the weeks before the war broke out. He told everyone that there was no way the Germans would invade Belgium. He had been to Germany, spoke German, wrote in German, and believed that Germany would never do anything so unlawful and barbaric.

    You are simply mistaken about what people were thinking at the time, or how they responded to these events.

    I glanced at your article. Current scholarship supports the findings that the Germans committed atrocities in Belgium.

    See this review, for one example. Here is another.

    One of the great myths of the 20th Century is that Germany was a victim in World War I.

  26. Ralf, I will read the article.

    Here are the facts about James Bryce:

    The outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Germany came to Bryce as a great shock. From early youth he had drunk deeply at the wells of German literature and German historical science, counting as one of the happiest recollections of his life those student days in Heidelberg, in that delightful, old, idealistic Germany, which had been so easy and hospitable and intent upon things which minister to the higher needs of man. Then as a young ma he had made his literary reputation by a treatise on German history, which won for him a widening circle of friendship among German students, which he was glad and careful to preserve. Having been brought up in the strong anti-Louis-Napoleonic atmosphere of his generation, and being somewhat defective on the side of the French humanities, he was perhaps inclined to over-rate the specific contributions of the German genius to the literary culture of Europe. Moreover, though he was alive to the dangers of Prussian militarism, he had always hoped and believed that the forces of moderation and good sense which he knew to be widely spread among the German people would prevail against the mania for violence. He was never, therefore, in the company of the alarmists. On the contrary, he believed that despite many conflicting interests, peace between Britain and Germany might be kept and should be kept. The rapid growth of the German Fleet, which alarmed so many of his Liberal colleagues seemed to him to be not disproportionate fo the vast expansion of the German commercial navy.
    The invasion of Belgium brought Bryce into the War. Before, his judgment always inclined to peaceful solutions, had hung in suspense, but the violation of a small and innocent country by a great Power expressly pledged to defend it, was so flagrant a transgression of elementary morality, that he saw no alternative but to fight and to fight to the end. With his immense experience of human history, Bryce knew well enough how complicated is the web of international affairs and how difficult is the task of justly appraising the moral claims of contending nations; but if ever there was a situation in which all the right appeared to be on one side and all the wrong to be on the other, here it was. Germany had signed a treaty and had broken it. Britain had signed the same treaty and must keep it. All his sentiment in favor of the rule of law and the rights of small nations was aroused by this manifest defiance of international right and morality. German militarism disclosed itself to him as the enemy of all that he valued most in European civilization. His mind was clear that the war should continue until the Prussian system was decisively broken.

    H.A.L. Fisher, , pp. 126-27.

    Bryce was a Germanophile. Yet the Germans of 1914 managed to make even their best friends hate them. A remarkable political achievement.

  27. Bryce was a Germanophile. Yet the Germans of 1914 managed to make even their best friends hate them. A remarkable political achievement.

    According to Fisher, that is. In 1915 he was appointed a member of the “Government committee on German outrages”, in other words he took part in the propaganda effort to make the most of the alleged atrocities in favor of the Allied war effort (with the obvious goal to involve the United States in the war)

    With all due respect, Fisher doesn’t look like the most unbiased source to me.

    Please read the article at HNN I linked to, regardless what Fisher writes.

    As to the book by John Horne and Alan Kramer: Their sourcing seems to be somewhat questionable, for they relied on articles by French and Belgian newspapers as well as by the offical French and Belgian government commisions during the war, taking everything at face value.

    Once again, not necessarily the most unbiasd sources.

  28. I should add that, according to what I read is some German reviews this evening, Horne and Kramer dismissed German sources out of hand as fabrications or delusions, in contrast to their unquestioning acceptance of British, Belgian and French sources.

    If you’d like I’ll translate some of the German texts and mail them to you, we can discuss the issue afterwards.

  29. The invasion itself was atrocity enough to turn the tide of most of world public opinion against the Germans. The German atrocities were consistent with their policy, which followed on their difficulties with partisans in 1870-71, to take a hard line with the civilian population.

    We are very hardened to atrocities now.

    In 1914, for Germany to ignore its treaty obligations and attack Belgium was considered a terrible outrage.

    I don’t have any basis to doubt (1) the Germans behaved badly, (2) the Allies made the most of it.

    That is a a risk the Germans decided to run, and a price the Germans decided to pay.

    It is all part of their extraordinary political incompetence.

    They forgot Clausewitz entirely, and tried to divorce war from politics. They paid the price. We all have continued to pay it.

  30. I’ll have to sign off now, but I’ll let you know what I found on the matter in English as well as non-English sources, with references that are verifiable by comparisons with English-language sources.

    I don’t have any basis to doubt (1) the Germans behaved badly, (2) the Allies made the most of it.

    *Some* Germans behaved badly, no doubt, but how many of the really did? There is a cozy little circle of Anglophone and Anglophile historians who keep repeating, without much of a critical examination, each and all reports of ‘German atrocities’ they can find, even if those sources are obviously biased. There is more to it than that.

    As to German behavior, consider another case: The Lusitania, Besides the Zimmermann telegraph the ostensible reason for American entry into the Great War. As it happened, the German embassy placed a warning advertisement in 50 American newspapers, including those in New York. Is that a policy based on callous disregard to human life?

  31. There is a cozy little circle of Anglophone and Anglophile historians who keep repeating, without much of a critical examination …””

    Actually, Ralf, that is 180 degrees wrong.

    During World War I, these atrocities were reported. Then, there was a cozy anti-war, pacifist circle that claimed it was all hogwash, lies to dupe the people into fighting the poor, innocent Germans. THAT is the cozy falsehood that has finally, after many decades, come under critical scrutiny. What the modern, dispassionate findings are showing is that the supposedly “debunked” stories were true. The German Army had official policies of treating civilians with exemplary brutality.

    As to the Lusitania, the newspaper notice did not change the fact that Germany was a signatory to treaties regarding the treatment of merchant shipping. Torpedo attacks were not within the scope of allowed behavior. The Germans knew that and chose to embark on submarine warfare anyway. We are hardened to the idea of the massacre of unarmed ships and their crews, which we learned to treat as normal, rather than an illegal atrocity, from the Germans.

    Ralf, the problem was that the German military and political leadership was unaccountable and behaved very badly, and took insane risks with the fate of their country. At the end, the Kaiser and Ludendorff ran their country into the ground and ran away. Despicable behavior.

    Zweig talks about how up to 1914 most people believed that the political leaders, the Kaiser in both Germany and Austria, knew what they were doing and had the country’s best interests at heart, and deserved loyalty and obedience. The people of both countries were naive and they were betrayed.

  32. During World War I, these atrocities were reported. Then, there was a cozy anti-war, pacifist circle that claimed it was all hogwash, lies to dupe the people into fighting the poor, innocent Germans. THAT is the cozy falsehood that has finally, after many decades, come under critical scrutiny. What the modern, dispassionate findings are showing is that the supposedly “debunked” stories were true. The German Army had official policies of treating civilians with exemplary brutality.

    According to the Allies, that is. The sourcing is kind of dodgy, as I pointed out above; i.e. Belgian, French and British government commissions and papers.

    We have been over this for some years now, off and on. I’ll mail you the material I mentioned in the next days.

  33. Lex, allow me to present a visual aid: illustrations to Zweig by famous and brilliant book graphic and illustrator, Savva Brodsky.
    In this copy of the biographical book on Brodsky there are, among many others, few that he made in 1962 for 7-tome Collected Works by Zweig I linked to earlier. They remain in my memory inseparably from the literature, a continuation of Zweig’s genius.

    They are the first plates in the Illustrations chapter, you can’t miss them
    First one is to novella Leporella; second – to Bushmendel; third – to Terrible secret, and then you’ll find four plates to Mary Stewart. There were, of course, much more included in the volumes.

  34. Thank you Michael, for linking to Dalrymple’s insightful essay about Zweig’s milieu, his psychology, literary artistry and tragic end.

    Here is a link to a more recent essay about Zweig, his former widespread renown as a writer and the new interest in him, from the Spring, 2009 issue of Intelligent Life, a quarterly published by The Economist:

    Julie Kavanagh article about Zweig

    (Hope the tags for the link are ok)

  35. Tatyana, thank you for the pictures. Very good stuff.

    Walt, thank you for the article.

    I just finished Zweig’s Joseph Fouche: Portrait of a Politician (1930), which was very good. I got it at a thrift store for $1 years ago, and have had it sitting here on the shelf. I finally got to it, after I finished The World of Yesterday.

    Obviously, I need to read more by him. But, for now, on to other things … .

  36. You may be interested in Theodore Dalrymple’s essay on Zweig, “A Neglected Genius.”

    Oh, darn. Now I see Greenspan got to it first–I didn’t know it was on the web.


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