With the Great War passed, Austria fatally diminished, and the postwar inflationary period finally behind him, Stefan Zweig is in the prime of his professional life, and in his memoir, he’s ready for a spate of industrial-strength name dropping. Forever preoccupied with a comfortable, respected, bourgeois existence of art, writing, music and punditry, during the 1920s he thoroughly insulates himself from the approaching storm clouds.
Granted, there are hints of bad times around the corner. A trip to Italy provides a glimpse of Mussolini’s black-shirted thugs in action, amazing Zweig by their mobility and skilled training. Later, two weeks in the fledgling Soviet Union impress him, so determined are the workers there, ostensibly forging a new society, but with the providential assistance of a surreptitious note belatedly passed to him on the penultimate night abroad, he departs with the realization that it’s all just a Potemkin village under rapid construction by a looming Stalin.
Everywhere he travels, Zweig is enamored of the kindness and nobility of ordinary, simple folk, evidently never seeing in the hearts of the masses an innate, vocational ability to drop their pitchforks at a whistle’s notice and man the concentration camp guard tower – as many were about to do, and with pure glee. As could be seen even then, the period after the end of World War I was filled with societal trauma on a massive scale, which contributed mightily to another global war to address unfinished business. Zweig sees these things, but doesn’t. Even after the fact, he isn’t quite able to put them into perspective.
This, then, is my major annoyance with The World of Yesteryear. Looking back from the vantage point of his own exile and disabling, demeaning statelessness, he can see only that numerous others also ignored the earning warning signs of Hitlerism, while at the same time generally exempting himself from responsibility – as though to say, well, after all, I was so very busy rubbing elbows with the creative classes that I never bothered to exercise my voting franchise or take part in any way, so why are they coming after me? I was busy with art and the finer things in life. How could I have known?
Perhaps by opening the window, wetting a finger and raising it to the fetid air, but almost nothing Zweig sensed or saw was permitted to stand in the way of his own meteoric, glittering writing career. If he was prescient on the down-low while others donned blindfolds, might there not have been the chance of him taking some sort of action to mobilize his numerous loyal readers across the planet in the interest of sounding a warning? Of showing a semblance of a pulse?
At last, somewhat alerted by the muddled fate of his operatic exercise with the scheming composer Richard Strauss during the dawning days of Chancellor Hitler (Zweig pens the libretto and sees the piece performed in spite of his Jewishness, which by this point is virtually outlawed), he makes half-hearted preparations to leave Austria, and finally does, although frequent visits back occur throughout the 1930s as the Anschluss draws ever nearer. Does it ever dawn on Zweig that his own dilettantish artistic tendencies might have dulled his antennae? I think not.
I won’t dispute that in the book’s waning pages, a degree of elegiac reflection often emerges, arguably redeeming the whole exercise. Zweig writes movingly of a dying Sigmund Freud, elderly, pain-ridden and stranded in exile in London, but still plumbing mankind’s inner depths. Without a passport or a country, Zweig exists by the courtesy of his hosts in England, America and later Brazil, and describes the disorienting sensation of statelessness with accuracy and pathos.
Still, throughout, he seems only periodically to grasp that the pain and displacement being suffered by vast swaths of humanity surely outweigh his own surprisingly detached annoyance at a productive routine and successful career unfairly and tragically disrupted. Zweig is curiously narcissistic, and the self-centeredness mars an otherwise insightful tome.