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Die Welt von Gestern by Stefan Zweig Tom Send a noteboard - 31/05/2011 07:02:22 PM
I picked up Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) on the advice of Greg (chorabliss) as well as following the general interest that I have had in the “Second Thirty Years’ War”, the roughly thirty years from 1914-1945 that saw two wars and an interlude of unstable peace. This book was Zweig’s last. Days after sending the book to his publisher, he and his wife committed suicide. The year was 1942, and the struggle against Hitler was at a low point.

I wish that Zweig had lived to see the war’s end, and the feeling of profound sorrow over his suicide punctuated my reading of Die Welt von Gestern, a book that is half autobiography and half portrait of a lost time. He lamented the fall of Paris and expressed doubt that it could ever be restored, and yet if he had not killed himself, he could have seen the film reels of the Allied liberation of Paris in 1944 and rejoiced. He was a humanist and believer in a unified Europe, and had he remained he might have seen the first steps to the European Union.

Despite these regrets, the book was a lively one that was mostly engaging. At times he did linger on points of cultural history that are likely irrelevant to the modern reader, but for the most part the book was a fast-paced read. It helped me to better appreciate the high culture that encompassed Europe at the end of the Nineteenth Century and beginning of the Twentieth, a culture that would be destroyed by Europe’s wars from 1914 to 1945. Zweig was right when he felt that some aspects of the society that he grew up in would never return. Classical music fell into obscurity, never to rise again. The age of the novel was, for all intents and purposes, over (or at least it would be as soon as those living authors who still lived in that mindset died). The drive for self-education that had gripped all classes was to be replaced, at least in the West, by diversion and apathy. In the East this would only happen with the fall of communism in the late 1980s. Moreover, Zweig’s home nation, Austria, was torn to shreds in the nationalist movement that gripped Europe in the early part of the Twentieth Century.

However, in a spiritual sense, much of what Zweig believed and stood for came to pass following the defeat of Nazi Germany. Europe did become more united, and a humanist trend did end up prevailing. People of all backgrounds who appreciate the culture Zweig would recognize as such can find venues throughout the continent, and Zweig’s pacifist instincts would be happy to know that Europe has been without wars since 1945, with the exception of the wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

It is worth noting that Die Welt von Gestern did unwittingly remind me of the flaws in the tolerance and acceptance of postwar Europe, one that is today leading to tension. Zweig was a secular Jew and perhaps opposed nationalism partially for this reason. He saw the effects of anti-Semitism and grew up in a society that had quietly condoned anti-Jewish remarks on a regular basis. While hardly anyone anticipated or seriously talked about violent action against the Jews, the rhetoric was everywhere. Zweig felt, therefore, that he should oppose petty nationalism and support pan-Europeanism. His opposition to nationalism was part of a broader movement that led to the accepting policies of postwar Europe. The resulting influx of immigrants from North Africa and the Near East changed the demographics of Europe, and many of these immigrants do not share the ideological consensus that has developed in Europe over the millennia. The Jews of Europe (like Zweig) may have been seen as “outsiders”, but they were really fellow travellers in the development of Europe, having been there since Roman times. They lived alongside their Christian counterparts and contributed to philosophy, literature, poetry, music, drama and the sciences in a profoundly “European” way. By contrast, many of the newer immigrants are from traditional societies in Africa and Asia, and their ideas regarding religion, democracy, human rights, family rights, science, ethics, economics and the law are often at odds with common European perceptions. Perhaps I am wrong, but I feel that Zweig would not approve of the “open door” policies that have led to these demographic shifts.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that Zweig ends up painting a not unsympathetic picture of Mussolini. Yes, he considers him something of a buffoon and disapproves of his heavy-handed methods, but on the other hand Mussolini was a fan of Zweig’s books and did a personal favor for him when Zweig wrote to ask for the release of a jailed dissident. I feel that at some point I will have to read more about Fascist Italy.

I encourage anyone interested in the cultural history of Europe to read Die Welt von Gestern. It makes for interesting reading in a variety of ways. As a concluding aside, I am considering scrapping my lists for my 2011 challenge and simply counting that I should read 10 books in French and 10 in German. Trying to make myself read particular books is not really helping to motivate me.
Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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Die Welt von Gestern by Stefan Zweig - 31/05/2011 07:02:22 PM 7481 Views
I have wanted to read this book for a long time. - 02/06/2011 01:05:06 PM 1354 Views

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