Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, translated by Anthea Bell. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. He was one of them. What more is there to say?” This is Zero Moustafa’s last line in Wes Anderson’s movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, when he talked to the writer about Mr. Gustave, his boss in the old times. It also represents a reflection on how people in 21st century imagined Stefan Zweig’s dream of European solidarity and anti-war spirit during interwar period.
In Zweig’s last work, The World of Yesterday, there are two very moving passages. Both involve Zweig’s train journey back and forth from Swaziland. Before reading the book, I already knew the history of how Swaziland became a neutral country; I was also aware of how the ancient Habsburg Empire collapse. Yet I never really thought too much about what those events meant to the people who lived through those circumstances.
In 1917, Zweig was allowed to go to Swaziland in order to promote his tragedy Jeremiah. He describes the moment when the train enters the neutral zone, and how he can abruptly feel the difference in the air on the other side. As a reader, I follow his steps from the station buffet, into the city that had a post and telegraph office without government surveillance, newspapers in three different languages, young men sitting outside their homes with their wives, and everything the European had once experienced himself. Through this narrative of the daily peaceful life of a border town, I can understand how much the people who lived in the warring states lost.
Another memorable passage is when Zweig decides to go home to Vienna from the Swaziland. He takes the train and crosses the border. When he finishes his border check at the station of Feldkirch, he sees another train. Emperor Karl and Empress Zita are on that train, leaving the emperor’s last remaining territory, which had been dominated by the Habsburg family for hundreds of years. Zweig’s shock is my shock. As he says: “all of us there felt that we were witnessing a tragic moment in history”(308).
Even though I was already very familiar with the causes and process of how the Habsburg Empire collapsed, this scene led me to reflect once again on the First World War’s actual meaning. After a century-long struggle between feudalism and new liberal ideology, old regimes and internationalism eventually disappeared like Emperor Karl’s train. This turning point allowed for the rise of radical nationalism, and the extreme politics on the right and left that came with it.
As someone who studied European history for years, I learned many of the historical factors surrounding the First and Second World Wars — before, after, and in between. We read different published academic research, philosophy debates, personal memories, and all of them worked toward answering the same question: What caused the terrible crimes, such as the genocide that happened in Auschwitz and elsewhere during the Second World War? Some of those works came directly from survivors of the wars, but most were from later scholars, biography and non-fiction writers, TV show or movies producers, and journalists who were able to choose narratives to suit their own perspective of the wars. While the tension in prewar times, violence and chaos of the wars, frustrating and confusing interwar years, and the shocking number of war dead have all been printed in the letters of numerous works, later audiences might still find it difficult to empathize with the shared experience of Europeans at the time. However, as one of the best German writers, Zweig’s biography contributes a first-hand account of the era that allows readers to experience the history.
Reading The World of Yesterday nowadays has an even more significant meaning. Europe has achieved the solidarity that Zweig dreamed of. A European can travel from one country to another without a passport; German and French who live in the border cities drink and sing together; and Europeans help each other get through economic crisis. However, Zweig’s dream may be short-lived. Europeans now face the new challenge of the rise of far-right movements. Border checks are tightening once again.
although there is no reason to believe that Europe will start another destructive war, Zweig’s book reminds us of the signs and indications that once led Europe toward a disaster. Moreover, when Zweig, the son of a rich family and a world-famous writer, lost his passport, he said: “When you lose your native land, you are losing more than a patch of territory within set borders” (439), which makes me want to do more for modern refugees who are suffering a similar fate.