Maybe it’s because of the job I’ve had in recent years, but the escapism I get from novels has become increasingly important to me. This predominance of fiction means the non-fiction books that have shifted my world-view are rarer beasts. But one that stands above others is The World of Yesterday by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig.
It is both a personal memoir and a sweeping history of Europe, from the latter years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, through the horrors of the Great War, to the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War. It is a celebration of human intellect, as well as a reminder of how brutally an individual’s spirit can be crushed by the forces of history and the malignancy of politics.
It was recommended to me early in my tenure as first minister, and the impact it had on me was unexpected. It might have been because I was leading one side of a debate that was dividing my country, while trying to be a first minister for all of it, that a book reminding us of the dangers of untrammelled ideology resonated so strongly.
The book’s messages are even more relevant today. It stands as a warning that, however permanent our security appears, it can disappear in an instant; and that those living amid the winds of change often take too long to realise that they are blowing in a dangerous direction. Zweig submitted this book for publication in 1942, shortly before he and his wife died by suicide. Even without knowing the full extent of the horrors of the war, he had decided that civilisation would never recover.
He was wrong about that. But what he tells us about vigilance should ring loudly in our ears today. The World of Yesterday should be required reading for any aspiring politician.
Nicola Sturgeon is the MSP for Glasgow Southside, and served as first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party from 2014 to 2023
[See also: The Polish revolution]
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State