Stefan Zweig on two wars

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.

Terror in Paris V – Surveillance

Murders like those in Paris committed in the name of organisations prompt calls for surveillance of the members of such organisations.  Below is an extract from Terror and the Police State dealing with surveillance in the Paris Terror and elsewhere.



The proposition ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’ has become justly famous since the luminous mind and the graphic pen of George Orwell depicted the totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is an essential part of that sense of entrapment, powerlessness, enclosedeness, inevitability and hopelessness which, together with the prevalence of informers and denouncers, and a feeling of randomness, leaves mere objects of a police state feeling utterly helpless – and that is in large part the object of the exercize – to sterilise the individual. The end condition of unaccommodated man was described in King Lear as follows:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,

They kill us for their sport. (Act 4, Scene 1, 36-37).

We have seen that the Nazi regime did not just threaten those in a minority – this colossal machine rose up and brooded over every single person in the Reich. The threat of arrest and detention, and dismissal and disgrace, hung over everyone except the Leader, and no one knew when it might come or how it might fall. The collective fear within the nation left in a kind of submission or acquiescence those who had not been seduced by the glitter and the lies – and the successes, at home, and across borders.

In Nazi Germany, every group of houses had a ‘Block Warden.’ These were at the bottom of the hierarchy, neither respected nor loved. Every local branch of the Party had an average of eight cells with about fifty households in each. The Blockwart was responsible for what might be called the political supervision of about fifty households. He was in charge of seeing that flags and bunting were put out, and that his people voluntarily attended parades, but he was also an access point for informers, and a source of information in his own right. He was commonly a very minor party functionary, doubtless with the social scars to prove it, and he was concerned with both propaganda and the maintenance of order. Those who had been bombed out or who had issues with ration cards would go to him first, but he was also a reporting post.

Like any good German, he had to report dangerous or suspicious behaviour, and when he did, the suspect could expect a visit from the Gestapo. He was therefore what might be called an ‘officious bystander’, and he was loathed accordingly. In many cases, he was called simply der Braune, ‘the brown one’, after the brownshirt that many of his ilk commonly wore. They were also called Political Leaders, and by 1935, there were perhaps 200,000 of them. Richard Evans makes the remarkable assertion that ‘including their helpers there were almost two million Block Wardens by the beginning of the war.’ They must have been like a sinister and all pervasive Dad’s Army, and since a majority were middle class, they may have been even more unpopular in working class areas.

Professor Evans describes this level of surveillance as follows:

They were often the first port of call for denouncers, and they exercised close surveillance over known dissenters, Jews and those who made contact with them, and ‘politically unreliable’ people, usually former opponents of the Nazis. Known derisively as ‘golden pheasants’ from their brown-gold uniforms with their red collar epaulettes, they were required to report ‘rumour-mongers’ and anyone who failed to conform to the district Party organisation, which would pass on their names and misdemeanours to the Gestapo. Those who fell foul of the Block Wardens could also be denied state benefits and welfare payments. Other branches of the huge Nazi Party apparatus had similar local officials, ranging from welfare service to the Labour Front and the women’s organization, and all of them carried out similar functions of surveillance and control. In factories and work places, officials of the Labour Front, the employers, the foremen and the Nazi Security Service took over the functions of the Block Warden. Those workers who did not toe the line were singled out for discriminatory treatment, denial of promotion, transfer to less congenial duties, or even dismissal. ‘You couldn’t say anything,’ recalled one worker in the Krupp engineering factory later: ‘the foreman was always standing behind you, nobody could risk it.’ The Nazi terror machine reached down even to the smallest units of everyday life and daily work.

During the time of the French Terror, France was hardly a police state, at least in the sense that we understand the term now. But, in and from March 1793, France found itself facing mortal threats from within and without, and to help it to survive those threats, it passed a series of emergency measures, such as the creation of the Committee of Public Safety and the Declaration of Revolutionary Government (in October), that were bona fide emergency measures. Their General Dumouriez was about to defect; the Vendee and Marseilles were about to erupt; they were yet to win their first major victory against monarchist regimes; and they were fairly obviously heading to a showdown between the two completely different points of view on how the revolution might go forward – for constitutional change to make the middle class and property feel secure; or for radical change to make the people at the bottom better off. It was in short, time to take the gloves off, and what we know as surveillance was an essential part of the package, and one that would see those at the bottom – the sans-culottesgiven direct power to control events in the revolution. This would be, for better or worse, people power in action.

On 21 March 1793, the National Convention made a law to set up Surveillance or Watch Committees. The recital said that the Convention considered that ‘at a time when the allied despots threaten the Republic still more by the efforts of their intrigues than by the success of their arms, it is its duty to prevent liberticide plots.’ Propaganda is rarely either pretty or sensible, but every commune, and each section in a larger commune, was to have a committee of twelve citizens elected by ballot – former priests and nobles were excluded. They were to take ‘declarations’ from foreigners in each arrondissement, but their work came to be directed against all suspected persons, French as well as foreign. They came to be known as ‘revolutionary committees’ in the Parisian sections. They might in truth be said to represent a devolution of power, but they were the vehicle in which the sans-culottes might at least feel that they were realising some political ambition.

These people had no small power in a time when being suspect might get you in prison (although the Law of Suspects was not passed until September.) They had a role of general surveillance that was utterly inhibited by forms and equally uninhibited by legality. These committees would be in charge of ‘Civic Certificates’ or ‘Civic Cards’, certificats de civisme. These attested to the patriotism of the bearer, and would be essential to anyone wishing to move around France if they were not to be treated as suspect where they arrived. Every citizen was required to certify before the commune or the committee his place of birth, his means of livelihood, and ‘the performance of his civic duties.’ We have seen a committee like this at work in the extracts from Les Deux Amis. They gave ordinary people the chance to terrify other ordinary people.

These committees look to have had great power, much more power and status than the German ‘Block Wardens’, although their roles had something in common. In parts of Paris there was a concerted effort to spread the sans-culotte zeal into less ardent arrondissements. Anyone with any experience of politics at the most local or grass-roots level will understand the power that bodies like these would possess, not least in a revolutionary state at war.

In September, the Paris Commune set out even broader grounds on which Civic Cards might be refused, some of which might now afford grounds to smile to those who struggle with the concept of patriotism at the best of times – ‘Those who pity the farmers the and greedy merchants against whom the law is obliged to take measures, …those who in assemblies of the people arrest their energy by crafty discourses, turbulent cries and threats, ….those who speak mysteriously of the misfortunes of the Republic, are full of pity for the lot of the people, and are always ready to spread the bad news with an affected grief, ….those who received the republican constitution with indifference and have given credence to false fears concerning its establishment and duration, or ….those who do not attend the meetings of their Sections and who give as excuses that they do not know how to speak or that their occupation prevents them.’ What might fairly be described as the clincher was ‘Those who having done nothing against liberty but have also done nothing for it.’

It is in its way a telling list of demons, but it would have been difficult to have opened your mouth without risking what may even then have been described as political incorrectness. What we do know is that the more insecure a regime is, the more it wants to know everything that you do and the more that it worries about anything you do that is somehow different. It is for that reason hostile to any reasonable conception of personal freedom. You could not afford to deviate, or even to be seen to combine, since, as Saint Just said, ‘Any faction is criminal, since it tends to divide the citizens.’

Terror and the Police State – extract


Here is the beginning of the book Terror and the Police State.  I have put out some extracts before and others will follow, but the Preface seems to have relevance to the present discussion.  The case of Bob is real and continuing.  That vigilance is a cost of freedom might be a cliché, but it is hard to avoid.

Read on in the Preface above.