Stefan Zweig was a remarkable writer and The World of Yesterday is a most remarkable book. It covers his life – from Vienna near the end of the century to close to his tragic death. If I had to name one book to inform people of the 20th century, this might be it. This book plus Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner explain the rise of Hitler in a way that whole libraries of academic history do not. These two men were there, and they wrote before the horror of the Final Solution became known. The writing of Zweig, even in translation, has amazing grace and power, and shows the fineness of the line between form and substance in the hands of a great writer.
Here are two extracts from a book that I commend as strongly as I can.
On the outbreak of World War I:
Every little post office worker who usually worked from morning to night, Monday to Saturday, sorting letters without a break, every clerk, every cobbler suddenly saw another possibility lying ahead – he could be a hero, the women were already making much of men in uniform; those who were not going to the front specifically bestowed the romantic term of hero in advance of those who were. They acknowledged the unknown power that was raising them above their ordinary lives; even their grieving mothers and anxious wives were ashamed, in these first hours of elation, to show their only too natural feelings. But perhaps there was a deeper more mysterious force at work in this intoxicating frenzy. The great wave broke over humanity so suddenly, with such violence that as it foamed over the surface, it brought up from the depths the dark, unconscious primeval urges and instincts of the human animal – what Freud perceptively described as a rejection of civilisation, a longing to break out of the bourgeois world of laws and their precepts for once and indulge the ancient bloodlust of humanity. And perhaps these dark powers also played their part in the wild intoxication that mingled alcohol with the joy of self-sacrifice, a desire for adventure and sheer credulity, the old magic of the banner and patriotic speeches – an uncanny frenzy that eludes verbal description but is capable of affecting millions, the frenzy that for a moment gave wild and almost irresistible momentum to the worst crime of our time.
Today’s generation, who have seen only the outbreak of the Second World War with their own eyes, may perhaps be wondering: Why didn’t we feel the same?…..The answer is simple – they did not feel the same because the world in 1939 was not as childishly naïve and gullible as in 1914….In 1939, on the other hand, this almost religious faith in the honesty or at least the ability of your own government had disappeared throughout the whole of Europe. Nothing but contempt was felt for diplomacy after the public had watched, bitterly, as it wrecked any chance of a lasting peace at Versailles. At heart, no-one respected any of the statesmen in 1939, and no one entrusted his fate to them with an easy mind. The nations remembered clearly how shamelessly they had been betrayed with promises of disarmament and the abolition of secret diplomatic deals…..the generation of 1939 knew about war. They no longer deceived themselves. They knew that war was barbaric, not romantic.
The war of 1939 had intellectual ideas behind it – it was about freedom and the preservation of moral values, and fighting for ideas makes men hard and determined. In contrast, the war of 1914 was ignorant of the realities; it was still serving a delusion, the dream of a better world, a world that would be just and peaceful. And only delusion, not knowledge, brings happiness. That was why the victims went to the slaughter drunk with rejoicing, crowned with flowers and wearing oak leaves on their helmets, while the streets echoed with cheering and blazed with light, as if it were a festival.
On the rise of Hitler:
But we still did not notice the danger. Those few writers who had really gone to the trouble of reading Hitler’s book, did not look seriously at his program, but laughed at his pompous prose style instead. The great national newspapers, instead of warning us, kept soothing their readers daily by assuring them that National Socialism, which could finance its agitation only with money by heavy industry and by audaciously running up debts, must inevitably collapse tomorrow or the next day. And perhaps the outside world never understood the real reason why Germany underestimated and made light of Hitler and his increasing power in all those years – not only has Germany always been a class conscious country, but within its ideal class hierarchy, it has suffered from a tendency to overrate and idolise the values of higher education. Apart from a few generals, the high offices of state were filled exclusively by men who had been to university. While Lloyd George in Britain, Garibaldi and Mussolini in Italy and Briand in France had risen to their offices from the ranks of the common people, it was unthinkable for the Germans to contemplate a man who, like Hitler, had never even left school with any qualifications let alone attended any university, who had slept rough in mens’ hostels, living a rather shady and still mysterious life at that time, could aspire to the position that had been held by Freiherr von Stein, Bismarck and Prince Bulow. More than anything it was the high value they set on education that led German intellectuals to go on thinking of Hitler as a mere beer hall agitator who could never really be dangerous. By now, however, thanks to those who were invisibly pulling strings for him, he had long ago recruited powerful assistants in many different quarters. Even when he had become Chancellor on that January day 1933, the vast majority, including some who had helped him get to that position, still thought that he was just a stop-gap and that National Socialism would only be a transient episode.
It was now that Hitler’s cynically brilliant technique first revealed itself on a grand scale. He had been making promises to all and sundry for years, and gained important supporters in all the political parties, each of whom thought that he could exploit the mysterious power of this ‘unknown soldier’ for his own ends. But the same technique that Hitler used in international politics, when he swore alliances and the loyalty of Germany on oath to the very powers that he intended to annihilate, utterly triumphed for the first time. He was s such a master of deceit by making promises to all sides that on the day he came to power, there was rejoicing in totally opposite camps….
It is difficult to rid yourself in only a few weeks of thirty or forty years of private belief that the world is a good place. With our rooted ideas of justice we believe in a German, a European, and international conscience, and we were convinced that a certain degree of inhumanity is sure to self-destruct in the face of humane standards. I am trying to be as honest as possible here, so I must admit that in 1933 and 1934 none of us in Germany and Austria would have contemplated the possibility of one hundred part, one thousandth part of what was about to break over us a little later…..
Even the Jews were not anxious and behaved as if Jewish doctors, lawyers, scholars and actors were being deprived of their civil liberties in China instead of just three hours journey away in the same German-speaking part of the world. They took their ease at home and drove around in their cars. And the comforting phrase ‘This can’t last long’ was on everybody’s lips. But I remembered a conversation in Leningrad with my former publisher in Russia. He told me how he had once been a rich man; he told me about the beautiful pictures he had owned; and I had asked him why in that case, he had not, as so many others had done, emigrated as soon as the Revolution had broken out. ‘Oh, well’, he said, ‘whoever would have thought at the time that a republic consisting of workers’ councils and the army would have lasted more than two weeks?’ Here we had the same delusion, arising from the same propensity for self-deception.