The World of Yesterday
This is a truly great book of memories by one of the greatest European writers of the 20th century. If I were to recommend one single book to explain to young people what was Europe like between the 1890s and the beginning of the Second World War I would have to choose this one above any book of whatever kind. Zweig is here the citizen witness, staying always away from politics he has always kept his independence of mind, his cherished freedom. Zweig represents the cosmopolitan man, the European intellectual devoid of burocratic attachments and political affinities, ever the independent thinker and tolerant lover of arts and culture. Zweig lets us see his Viena, his Austria and Germany, his Paris and his beloved Europe through his eyes, the eyes of a man that was honest, tolerant, a good soul through and through. His conciseness comes out as usual with all his books, rendering the facts with nothing but the essential amount of commentary, sharing with us his impressions, affections, fears and disappointments gained along the years. This is not a book about Eurpean history, it is about a man who lived and suffered European history in first person: we see the education system in Austria before the end of the 19th century; we attend theaters, operas, we go places, we visit artists and mingle with the literary and musical geniuses. Zweig sometimes admits that the historical events that happened just two streets away from him were known by him only when he read the international papers, the people who were closer only getting the noise and confusion produced by the scene. And that's how we get the news, reading the papers, talking with the porter in the hotel or the shop attendant or people in the street. This way we are not lectured, we are allowed the advantage point of out present time so as to marvel and learn at the errors and misperceptions of the people, at how they are taken in by the governments, the political agitators, the propagandists, and finally by the terrorist mob guided by Hitler himself.
One gains wonderful views of a world so different from our world today that it almost seems hard to believe it ever exited. For instance this part describing his visit to the US:
“After two days of job hunting I had found, in theory, five posts with which I could have earned my living … I had also gained an insight into the country's wonderful freedom … fabulous as it now seems, a contract could be instantly agreed without today's inhibiting intervention of state formalities and trade unions.”
On the delusion caused by nationalism on the individual, trying to explain the elation with which the people in Austria welcomed the war in 1914:
“Every single individual felt his own ego enhanced; he was no longer the isolated human being he had been before, he was a part of the whole, one of the people.”
“Before 1914 the earth belonged to the entire human race. Everyone could go where he wanted and stay there as long as he liked. No permits or visas were necessary.”
Zweig earns our sympathy big time, not only for his truthful and honest way of putting on paper his sincere impressions, but for all that he lost, from his adored collections to his books, his friends and his nation as a cultural heritage. He thought himself a citizen of the world and became an exile, a man without a country; he went from travelling for leisure without passports to wandering from country to country looking for a place that would allow him to stay; he was a cosmopolitan intellectual but in the end what counted to his native Austria was his racial identity: he was a Jew. This man went through so much that I am not at all surprised that he commited suicide shortly after finishing this book, by that time in Brazil. I can only imagine what he would have written if he had lived to know about the holocaust, still a few years away in the knowing. He was a witness to thousands of his fellow-Autrian Jews running away to save their lives or to many who stayed to suffer the ghetto lives, but the concentration camps and the real holocaust was still in the future, he wouldn't know. Imagine how much he could have suffered to see all that, what he could have said and written about it.
One is not to take his comments as hitorically true. They are opinions gathered from what he saw and heard and read as a citizen, one who had a keen interest in everything society and culture had to present to the world, but he is not writing history. This way we can sympathize with him when he mentions so affectionately his friend Freud, such an eminent figure at the time but whom now we see more as a great artist than as a scientist, and whose psychoanalysis has no basis in biology, his studies being more akin to Mesmerism and phrenology. And so some comments are made based on false or partial information, but still appreciated due to his honesty and candidness. Stefan Zweig was above all a great man who loved individual freedom above all.