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Remembering The World of Yesterday

Why a book on the twilight of the Habsburg empire is being read again in a time of pandemic, closed borders and empty European cities.

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The World of Yesterday, the 1942 memoir by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, resonates powerfully in an age of closed-down cities and rising borders:

I feel that the world in which I grew up and the world of today, not to mention the world in between them, are drawing further and further apart and becoming entirely different places.

There are doubtless plenty of people who, even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, travelled relatively little or not at all, kept to themselves, lived amid nature rather than in built-up areas and relied on telecommunications for their contact with the rest of humanity. For them, the disruptions of the pandemic may feel relatively minor.

But then there are those of us who choose to live in cities for the variety and rush of life there, who enjoy meeting other people from different backgrounds, who relish that sense of possibility that comes on stepping off a train or plane in a different city, a different country. It is a life for which the continent of Europe, with its varied jumble of cities, cultures and countries in close proximity, is particularly well suited. For us, the constraints of the past year – the empty streets, the closed cafés and concert halls, the restrictions on international travel – have been onerous.

It is now more than a year since the virus started spreading, a point by which many had hoped it would all be over. Yet even as vaccines are administered, new and more transmissible variants are emerging. In much of Europe, lockdowns imposed in the autumn now look likely to run well into the spring. The British government is contemplating tougher border controls to prevent the import of variants that may be resistant to the vaccines now being rolled out. Many Continental countries have stopped arrivals from British airports; some 1.3 million overseas nationals left the UK for their countries of origin in the year to last September; and there is talk of borders going up even within the “borderless” Schengen zone.

Whisper it softly, but it is an open question as to whether the old ways will ever entirely return. Vaccine roll-outs in the world’s poorer countries are proceeding extremely slowly; the risk of new vaccine-resistant variants of Covid-19 will require some precautions to endure long after the rich world has been largely vaccinated. International travel may remain more fraught and less spontaneous than before. Cities may lose some of their charm, and many of the attractions that have shut – restaurants, galleries and clubs – will never reopen. Deforestation and species loss mean another pandemic, perhaps more severe than the current one, is inevitable.

[see also: Postcards from Planet Covid]

There is, then, much of the old, cosmopolitan normality to mourn. Coming to terms with its loss will be very difficult for some. They – we – might find solace in the work of a writer who knew this feeling well and documented it in terms that might remind us of our own era.

Stefan Zweig was born in imperial Vienna in 1881. He spent a charmed European youth shuttling about a continent that was unaware of the civilisational disaster awaiting it. He lived through the calamity of the First World War, the turbulent inter-war period and spent the last years of his life in exile in England, the US and finally Brazil. There, he finished his memoir Die Welt von Gestern (“The World of Yesterday”) before his death in 1942.

The first half of the book wistfully recounts the cultural life of Europe’s great cities in the largely serene and complacent pre-war years, an ode to civilised and cosmopolitan urban life. The second half recounts Zweig’s horror at the First World War and the build-up to the Second World War, concluding with its outbreak. Available in English in a vivid translation by the late Anthea Bell (who, among other works, also translated WG Sebald’s Austerlitz), The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European had a resurgence in popularity around the middle of the last decade as politicos, particularly on the Continent, turned to it as a guide to living in their own era of rising populism, extremism and fragmentation.

Yet it is in the present pandemic moment, in a Europe of empty cities and border controls, that the book feels most pertinent.

Of particularly obvious relevance to our own age is Zweig’s nostalgia for the easy- going urban life of the before times. Zweig is the urbanophile’s urbanophile. Long before the sociologists and economists of recent times – Edward Glaeser, Benjamin Barber, Richard Florida – documented the genius of the metropolis, Zweig had captured it perfectly. Cities, he understood, work as places of encounter; the coming together of many different sorts of people to create a characteristic whole that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Of the old Habsburg capital he recalls a pervasive love of music and theatre: “Anyone who lived in Vienna absorbed a sense of rhythm as if it were in the air.” He identifies the pinnacle of its conviviality as the Viennese coffee house. “It is really a sort of democratic club,” he wrote, “and anyone can join it for the price of a cheap cup of coffee. Every guest, in return for that small expenditure, can sit there for hours on end, talking, writing, playing cards, receiving post…”

Zweig understood cities as a “chemical reaction” (his term), giving each one something like a distinct smell. In the Vienna of his childhood, the “curious nostrils” of the author and his schoolfriends “sniffed at anything and everything”. “Nowhere… did you feel so strongly,” he writes of being a young man in Paris, “with all your senses aroused, that your own youth was as one with the atmosphere around you.” In febrile Berlin, he detects the whiff of danger from the “passionate monomaniacs” he encounters in bars and cafés.

Zweig understood the key ingredient in that chemical reaction to be the variety of people in those cities. He recalls of a café on Berlin’s Nollendorfplatz the crowd of “writers and architects, snobs and journalists”, of “Russian students and ash-blonde Scandinavian girls… strong-boned Westphalians, unsophisticated Bavarians, Silesian Jews, all mingling freely in fervent discussion”. Their main business, he writes, was “getting to know each other”. Zweig himself did plenty of getting to know people, his peregrinations bringing him across the paths of the Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl, the Weimar-era liberal Walther Rathenau and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, WB Yeats, Luigi Pirandello and Romain Rolland – to name a few. His plaintive ode to serendipitous meetings in free and open cities is one that echoes, too, from the shuttered windows of our own era’s locked-down metropolises.

***

A straight line connects Zweig’s urbanity to his internationalism. A proud citizen of the world, he felt strongly that the appropriate relations of peoples from different countries should be measured not in borders and national divisions, but in spaces at or between tables in a coffee house. He abhorred any “hatred between country and country, nation and nation, the occupants of one table and those of another”. His last memory of pre-war Europe was of multinational crowds on a Belgian beach in that final carefree summer of 1914. He sees the absurdity of the war on crossing the Rhine from Austria into Switzerland at Buchs, wondering: were fish on the right bank of the river at war and those on the left bank neutral? And he sees the most thorough repudiation of the war at a gathering of French and German writers in a café in peaceful Geneva: “We happy few, we band of brothers… a tiny handful of those millions upon millions were not only sitting peacefully at the same table but were doing so in a conscious, even impassioned, spirit of fraternity.”

It is from The World of Yesterday that one of Zweig’s most quoted lines comes: “A man used to have only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport too, or he won’t be treated as a man.” The line is, in fact, not Zweig’s own, but that of a Russian exile he is quoting. But it is true that he saw passports or the need for any bureaucratic formalities on criss-crossing Europe and the world as fundamentally uncivilised. Rubber stamps were “a brand”; border questionings and searches “demeaning”. He would doubtless have found today’s talk of vaccine passports, quarantine hotels and travel corridors similarly dismal, however humane their intention.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not be the same as the war and collapse of Zweig’s time (though he did write about the Spanish flu of 1918 or, as he called it, the Weltseuche, or “world plague”). But Zweig’s portrayal of an old world of busy cities and easy international travel and exchange, glimpsed from a new and darker era, bears more than a few recognisable notes.

[see also: Why the West failed to contain Covid-19]

Perhaps the greatest of these is the sense of looking back on a “before time” from an “after time”. Many of the most moving lines of the book speak of that “radiant summer” of 1914, in which “the world offered itself like a delicious fruit”: the innocent assumption that life would continue as before; the plans for coming months and years made, but subsequently dashed; the sepia-tinted nostalgia through which the before time would later, irresistibly, be regarded. Zweig’s lines in that final part of the first half of The World of Yesterday capture a feeling that will be familiar to many who, today, look back on photos or plans from late 2019 and early 2020 wistfully.

And then: the sense of a slide into something frightening and unfamiliar. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused little panic in Vienna at first (“later that evening musicians played in the cafés again”), but events became gradually more alarming as the weeks went by: “The bad news kept on coming; more and more of it.” People coped when the calamity came and also in its aftermath: “We got used to the chaos and adapted to it… The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability…” But they also emerged changed: “The nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch.” Perhaps a similar intensity will take hold in our own time if and when the current restrictions are lifted.

***

The World of Yesterday concludes with Zweig hurrying to leave his exile in the UK for a more far-flung one in the US, haunted by the memories of the past “like a ghost in the radiant midday light”. In 1942, the day after he sent his finished book to his publisher from the small mountain town near Rio de Janeiro where he lived, both he and his wife took their own lives.

And yet, despite this, the book delivers two positive messages. The first is that there is strength to be found in adversity (“Had a time of trial not always been a gain to society and to individuals?”). With particular poignancy, given the horrors of the time, he identifies this closely with the richness and resilience of Jewish culture.

The second is that darkness never lasts forever. Even as Zweig watched, thousands of miles away from Europe, as the continent fell into barbarism and violence and his dreams of international fraternity and urban civilisation sank below the blood and bombs, he maintained hope that the wheels of history would one day turn again and a better day would come. “Every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.” Our time, too, will change; a normality (not the same as before, but some new sort) will take hold; the world of tomorrow will come. 

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

He co-hosts the weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.

This article appears in the 27 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost