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August 27, 2005

The World of Yesterday

Stefan Zweig -0803252242

I was introduced to this book in rereading my copy of A Jacques Barzun Reader. Therein was a brief chapter on Zweig, mentioning his final book—an autobiography of sorts written just before he committed suicide in Brazil in 1942--published posthumously.

Having never heard of Zweig, the information about him, his life and works, was quite interesting. The book is his reflection of life in Europe, lovingly described as the fullness of advanced civilization in what was left of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: at that time consisting of little more than Austria. An empire severely compromised, but a civilization at its pinnacle.

His reflections make one aware of the richness of Europe (especially Vienna and Paris) during the decades prior to WWI, its marginalization between the world wars, and its total destruction by the Nazis. Indeed his forced exile from Vienna to Paris, thence to London, and finally to Brazil was the reason for his decision to end it all.

In commenting on Europe of the 30’s he observes that it’s “so bright horizon” was lost and “will not [for decades] be what it was before the First World War.” Unfortunately it still isn’t!

A Jew born into a successful mercantile family, he was amongst the privileged, left out of only a few activities because of his “heritage,” but left out of nothing that mattered to him personally. He was noted primarily as a biographer with sensitivity to the psychology of people. He was nevertheless productive as a poet, novelist, dramatist, and a writer of lyrics for operas—most famously for Wagner. Indeed, his observations of Wagner tend to refute the received wisdom that Wagner was a supporter of Hitler and the Nazis. He apparently was not, and was eventually sacked by Hitler when he refused to omit lyrics written for his last Opera by Zweig himself. (Hitler having by then forbidden all such activities by Jews.)

Zweig was friends with virtually all of the cognoscenti of the era, including such personages as Sigmund Freud. He makes quite a point of the fact that “the arts” in Vienna were supported almost exclusively by the Jewish community, and that much of the commerce depended upon that community as well. For centuries this had been a place wherein discrimination was unknown. Jews had become Austrian (and French, and German, and Lithuanian, etc.) completely unaffected by their association with the historic prejudice attached to Jews as a race, interacting and intermarrying with Gentiles on an equal basis, which lead to total confusion by the activities of Hitler’s “philosophy” (if that it be.)

At one point he describes his myriad encounters with Jews escaping from the continent, temporarily congregating in England, searching for places to immigrate. Anywhere where they would be accepted—even Mars, were it possible. He poignantly describes these folks as disenfranchised citizens of many countries who considered themselves to be such. They spoke different languages, practiced different customs, enjoyed different things, and had nothing in common but their Jewishness, and even that was strained by the fact that many were only partly Jews--some only had traces of that “heritage.” Yet they were uniformly despised and evicted from their homelands, and few places were anxious to accept them as immigrants because they were poor, having been dispossessed by the State of Germany—and perhaps by virtue of reinvigorated anti-Semitism.

He makes clear how full life can be in the tolerant society that was. He also delves into the attitudes which drive such a civilization to destruction when led by agendized and evil fanatics.

Thruout he uses himself as a foil. In that sense it is not truly an autobiography. He describes his many contacts with well known people, not as a name dropper, but as a communicator of the history and passions of the time.

This is a very good read, especially for people interested in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and about a truly advanced and tolerant civilization which was, and might be again if only we can contain the hatred and bigotry of the evil fanatics in our midst.

It also emphasizes the need for conviction on the part of those who can undertake such pre-emptory activities, as he discusses in some detail the Chamberlain era of “peace in our time.” This review of the attitudes and actions of the British and French in the 1930’s is a relevant discussion now in this decade of similarly sadistic madness which is fundamentalist, totalitarian Islam.

Posted by respeto at August 27, 2005 3:24 PM