As mentioned in a previous post, I have been doing some reading around the causes and consequences of the two world wars, with special reference to Austria. Margaret MacMillan’s Six months that Changed the World describes the Paris peace conference of 1919; for anyone wanting to understand where the modern world came from this is essential reading. I would also recommend Martyn Whittock’s A Brief History of the Third Reich, an accessible account of the effect on ordinary Germans of Hitler’s regime.
Most poignant though, is Stefan Zweig’s book, Die Welt von Gestern--The World of Yesterday. Zweig was one of the most well-known writers of the 1920s and 1930s, translated into many languages and widely read, although not so much in Britain. He was acquainted with many of the great authors and musicians of the period and wrote the libretto for one of Richard Strauss’s operas. A personal friend of Sigmund Freud, he brought Salvador Dali to see the founder of psychoanalysis in his final days in London. But Zweig was an Austrian Jew, and in Hitler’s Reich he was, in modern parlance, cancelled. His books were banned, and burned, and his Austrian citizenship was taken away. He was made stateless.
The World of Yesterday is a memoir of Zweig’s early life in the late nineteenth century until 1940 or thereabouts. It is particularly valuable as a first-hand account of life in Vienna before and immediately after the great war. His description of life for Jews later on under the Nazis was written before the advent of the extermination camps. It is still harrowing enough, like the hateful rule forbidding his eighty-four year old mother from resting on a park bench in Vienna because of her race. Zweig left Austria for England in 1934 anticipating what was coming.
For me though, one aspect of Zweig’s book that quite unexpectedly resonates with today, was his analysis of the nationalist madness in many European countries that accompanied the outbreak of the first war. He wrote:
The most peaceful and the most good-natured [people] were intoxicated with the smell of blood. Friends ... changed overnight into fanatical patriots.
He wrote an article ‘To Friends Abroad’ in which he stated that:
In direct and blunt contrast to the accustomed fanfares of hate ... I would remain loyal to them so that, at the very first opportunity, we might again collaborate in the reconstruction of European culture.
He commented on the power of the word:
In the first [war] the word still had power. It had not yet been done to death by the organization of lies, by “propaganda” ...
Recognize any of this? I too have told ‘friends abroad’, in France, Italy, Holland, Germany, and Austria that in spite of the xenophobia poisoning aspects of life in Britain, a good number of us would like, in the future, to ‘collaborate in the reconstruction of European culture...’ I just hope they didn’t see some of the vicious and shameful anti-German comments on Twitter following the recent football match.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs