” And, oddly, one lived the war in one’s mind more intensively than at home in a country at war, because here the problem became objective, and so to speak, wholly detached from any national interest in victory or defeat. The war was soon, no longer from a political standpoint, but rather as a European matter, as a horribleand mighty happening which was not merely to change some boundary lines on the map but the form and future of our world. ” (XI: In the Heart of Europe, p.274)
Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, published a year after his suicide in Brazil in 1942, is not a conventional one, for it is a mirror of an age rather than of a life. Once the most popular writer in the world in terms of translations, this volume, however, is not intended as Zweig’s literary testament, but a skillful momento of an era as seen through the eyes of one of its outstanding citizens. Zweig is far too shy and modest a man to draw attention to himself, let alone to write the story of his life. But he feels obliged to record and capture the golden age that was no more as Europe turned into madness and barbarism. It is through The World of Yesterday that w appreciate the full measure of a man in the lost era before the First World War.
It was too painful for me to cast another glance at the beautiful country which had fallen prey to gruesome devastation through foreign guilt; Europe seemed to me doomed to die by its own madness; Europe, our sacred home, cradle and Parthenon of our occidental civilization. (XVI: The Agony of Peace, p.398)
This memoir reinforces the point that his art is often self-effacing and certainly not self-revelatory. It also reveals much about the genteel world that made him. Therefore, it’s more than an autobiography; it’s a long lament for a lost world, a testament to the (diminishing) values of decency, toleration, humanism, and artistic and cultural endeavor—since his expulsion from the paradise of the “world of security,” the Austro-Hungarian empire, although he was realist enough to see that the world in which he grew up was in many ways a fool’s paradise, “naught but a castle of dreams.”
The outbreak of the First World War shatters forever this world in which Zweig had been insulated by affluence, culture, and a sure sense of style against remote conflicts and conflagrations. Now he finds himself encroached by global clashes and cataclysms, aghast at the war’s power to break ties and corrode loyalties. Despite being a brave and outspoken pacifist during WWI, advocating against mass litany of hatred and dreadful hysteria, he is too exhausted to live after the rise of Hitler and in the wake of the Second World War. Not only was Hitler’s seizure of power beyond the comprehension of even the ample minds, it also represents the absolute, nightmarish opposite of every value Zweig believed in and held dear. Zweig’s sense of acuity presents the details as if they become available for the first time. He depicts how a power that loves violence and stands in need of it and to which all those concepts to which we held and for which we lived—peace, humanity, conciliation—seemed infirmities of a bygone day. The book is a prominent portrait of the turn-of-the-century Vienna and European culture prior to World War I.
454 pp. Bison Book. (1964) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]