It took me ages to finish this book. Not because I had troubles reading it, the language in this is in fact incredibly fluid, I would even say that German prose hardly gets better than this. It took me so long because the dawning realisation that people don’t change, they don’t ever change, is a lot to bear. The sheer relatability of this upset me to the core and it should reach so many more people.
The World of Yesterday is the memoir of Stefan Zweig, one of the most prolific Austrian writers of the early 20th century. It roughly spans the time from the turn of the century to 1940, Zweig finished it in 1942 and sent it to his publisher the day before he and his wife committed suicide in their Brazilian exile. This time bracket alone should tell you what you’re dealing with, the late stages of the Habsburg Empire, WWI, the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazis and WWII at its peak destructiveness in Europe.
Zweig doesn’t really describe his own life throughout this, but the world around him. The world views, the art and science, what drove society. There’s barely a mention of his family or wives, no real biographical data, but he describes the circles he moves in, the cities he goes to and in that creates an image of those insane times.
Except that nothing seems insane about these times, especially not compared to today. Zweig writes from a privileged position (at least in the first few decades of his life), the son of a wealthy, secular Jewish family he’s highly educated, allowed to try himself out at different studies before he becomes successful with his writings. He’s part of Europe’s intelligentsia even before WWI breaks out, travels internationally and meets everyone who is important at that time, art, literature, science and politics (he namedrops a lot, it’s rather funny, but there’s everyone in there, seriously). And the conflicts these people have, the arguments, the in-fighting, the ideas that slowly become more extremist, the sudden slip of control over banalities, the national and generational traumas, they could come straight out of today’s headlines and thinkpieces.
People who used to be pacifists support war over perceived insults and injustices and vice versa, people who glowingly supported their nation grow disillusioned VERY quickly over the senseless violence. If anyone of you ever wondered how the Nazis – idiots really, none of them were particularly great thinkers nor strategists – could become so powerful so fast, read the chapters that deal with the interwar period and what the fall of the Empires paired with the Great Depression did to century old social structures and how the bloody stumps of those structures made easy pickings for loud barkers with simple solutions. And see how international friendships and a well-connected intelligentsia could do nothing but watch.
Zweig has very open-minded and modern ideas about racial conflicts, Jewish identity (yes, even though he never saw the end of the war), women’s rights and sexuality, he despises the rigidity and religiously motivated purity of the years under the Kaiser. In fact, the bit when he describes the change of this mindset to the very body-positive* and pragmatic attitude towards sex that engulfed the generation that eventually would become the Nazis with their athletic body cult, was one of those moments that made it the clearest to me that it really all comes in waves. There are others even more chilling ones too, but wow did that passage emphasise once again that individualism is an illusion and we’ll always be a part of societies that change very slowly and usually rather meander in trodden paths.
There’s some controversy about him in modern research, one researcher suspects he was a flasher, who exposed himself to young girls, I’ve read the passages in his diaries and I honestly couldn’t say if those suspicions are founded or not. And while open to homosexuality and not judging any of his acquaintances who were gay personally, he still casually calls it a perversion (then again, I’ve seen self-proclaimed leftist do the same on twitter in the year 2021 of our lord Beyonce, so yeah).
Despite these two eh points, I can only recommend this. Well, recommend it with the warning to approach it in the right mindset. Because it will fuck with you. The fact that this is written from a contemporary pov, not looking back and with no clearing horizon in sight, really hammers it home how real and like us people back then were. There’s no real change, yes some attitudes and moral ideas get new furnishings and some legal changes happen. But people stay the same frightful, gullible, hopeful, zealous, idealistic, hedonistic, prejudiced and curious creatures they always were.
*only if you were an able-bodied “Aryan” of course