Stefan Zweig: The World of Yesterday

Stefan Zweig (November 28, 1881 – February 22, 1942) 

Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna into a Jewish family. He grew up in an atmosphere of enthusiasm for literature, art and music and he was writing and publishing poetry while still a student at the University of Vienna.

During the years before the First World War Zweig traveled in Europe, America, India and Africa, writing, collecting, and meeting with most of the eminent figures in the arts. His friends included Freud, Romain Rolland, Maxim Gorky, Thomas Mann and the group of European intellectuals, who after the war, were committed to building a new international order.

During the 1920s and 30s his reputation grew and as well as biographies of Marie Antoinette, Joseph Fouche, Erasmus and Mary Queen of Scots he wrote short stories and the remarkable novel Beware of Pity.

In 1934, as the Nazis' power grew in Germany, Zweig left Austria for England, where he became a British citizen in 1940. He took his own life in Petropolis, Brazil, in 1942.

The following is an excerpt from his autobiography The World of Yesterday.


I have never attached so much importance to my own person that I would have been tempted to tell others the story of my life. Much had to occur, infinitely more events, catastrophes, and trials than are usually allotted to a single generation had to come to pass, before I found the courage to begin a book in which I was the principal person or, better still, the pivotal point. Nothing is further from my thought than to take so prominent a place unless it be in the role of a narrator at an illustrated lecture. Time gives the picture; I merely speak the words which accompany them. Actually, it is not so much the course of my destiny that I relate, but that of an entire generation, the generation of our time, which was loaded down with the burden of fate as was hardly any other in the course of history. Each one of us, even the smallest and the most insignificant, has been shaken in the depths of his being by the almost unceasing volcanic eruptions of our European earth. I know of no pre-eminence that I can claim, in the midst of the multitude, except this: that as an Austrian, a Jew, an author, a humanist, and a pacifist, I have always stood at the exact point where these earthquakes were the most violent. Three times they have overthrown my house and my existence, severed me from the past and all that was, and hurled me with dramatic force into the void, into the "I know not whither" which I know so well. But I do not regret this. The homeless man becomes free in a new sense; and only he who has lost all ties need have no arriere-pensee. And so I hope  at least to be able to fulfil one of the chief conditions of any fair portrayal of an era; namely, honesty and impartiality.

For truly I have been detached, as rarely anyone has in the past, from all roots and from the very earth that nurtures them. I was born in 1881 in a great and mighty empire, in the monarchy of the Habsburgs. But do not look for it on the map; it has been swept away without trace. I grew up in Vienna, the two-thousand-year-old supernational metropolis, and was forced to leave it like a criminal before it was degraded to a German provincial city. My literary work, in the language in which I wrote it, was burned to ashes in the same land where my books made friends of millions of readers. A so I belong nowhere, and everywhere am a stranger, a guest at best. Europe, the homeland of my heart's choice, is lost to me, since it has torn itself apart suicidally a second time in a war of brother against brother. Against my will I have witnessed the most terrible defeat of reason and the wildest triumph of brutality in the chronicle of the ages. Never - and I say this without pride, but rather with shame - has any generation experienced such a moral retrogression from such a spiritual height as our generation has. In the short interval between the time when my beard began to sprout and now, when it is beginning to turn grey, in this half-century more radical changes and transformations have taken place than in ten generations of mankind; and each of us feels: it is almost too much! My today and each of my yesterdays, my rises and falls, are so diverse that I sometimes feel as if I had lived not one, but several existences, each one different from the others. For it often happens that when I carelessly speak of "my life," I am forced to ask, "which life?" - the one before the World War, the one between the first and the second, or the life of today? Or I find myself saying "my house," and at first I do not know which or my former homes I mean, the one in Bath or the one in Salzburg, or my parental house in Vienna. Or I say "among our people," and then I must acknowledge with dismay that for a long time past I have not belonged to the people of my country any more than I belong to the English or the Americans. To the former I am no longer organically bound; to the latter I have never become wholly linked. My feeling is that the world in which I grew up, and the world of today, and the world between the two, are entirely separate worlds. Whenever, in conversation with younger friends, I relate some episode of the time before the first war, I notice from their astonished questions how much that is still obvious reality to me has already become historical and incomprehensible to them. And some secret instinct tells me that they are right. All the bridges between our today and our yesterday and our yesteryear have been burnt. 

I myself cannot help but wonder at the profusion and variety which we have compressed into a single, though highly uncomfortable and dangerous, existence, and the more when I compare it with the manner of living of my ancestors. My father, my grandfather, what did they see? Each of them lived his life in uniformity. A single life from beginning to end, without ascent, without decline, without disturbance or danger, a life of slight anxieties, hardly noticeable transitions. In even rhythm, leisurely and quietly, the wave of time bore them from the cradle to the grave. They lived in the same country, in the same city, and nearly always in the same house. What took place in the world only occurred in the newspapers and never knocked at their door. In their time some war happened somewhere but, measured by the dimensions of today, it was only a little war. It took place far beyond the border, one did not hear the cannon, and after six months it died down, forgotten, a dry page of history, and the old accustomed life began anew. But in our lives there was no repetition; nothing of the past survived, nothing came back. It was reserved for s to participate in full in that which history formerly distributed , sparingly and from time to time, to a single country, to a single century. At most, one generation had gone through a revolution, another experienced a putsch, the third a war, the fourth a famine, the fifth national bankruptcy; and many blessed countries, blessed generations, bore none of these. But we, who are sixty today and who, de jure, still have a space of time before us, what have we not seen, not suffered, not lived through? We have ploughed through the catalogue of every conceivable catastrophe back and forth, and we have not yet come to the last page. I myself was a contemporary of the two greatest wars of mankind, and even passed through each one of them on a different front, the one on the German, the other on the anti-German. Before the war I knew the highest degree and form of individual freedom, and later its lowest in hundreds of years; I have been celebrated and despised, free and unfree, rich and poor. All the livid seeds of the Apocalypse have stormed through my life - revolutions and famine, inflation and terror, epidemics and emigration. I have seen the great mass ideologies grow and spread before my eyes - Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia, and above all else the arch-plague nationalism which has poisoned the flower of European culture. I was forced to be a defenceless, helpless witness of  the most inconceivable decline of humanity into a barbarism which we had believed long since forgotten, with its deliberate and programmatic dogma of anti-humanitarianism. It was reserved for us, after centuries, again to see wars without declarations of war, concentration camps, persecution, mass robbery, bombing attacks on helpless cities, all bestialities unknown to the last fifty generations, things which future generations, it is hoped, will not allow to happen. But paradoxically, in the same era when our world fell back morally a thousand years, I have seen that same mankind lift itself, in technical and intellectual matters, to unheard-of deeds, surpassing the achievements of a million years with a single beat of its wings. It has accomplished  the conquest of the air by the aeroplane, the transmission of the human word in a second around the globe, and with the conquest of space, the splitting of the atom, the conquest of the most insidious diseases, the almost daily realization of the impossible of yesterday. Not until our time has mankind as a whole behaved so infernally.

To give witness of this time, dramatic life of ours, filled with the unexpected, seems to me a duty;  for, I repeat, everyone was a witness of this gigantic transformation, everyone was forced to be a witness. There was no escape for our generation, no standing aside as in times past. Thanks to our new organization of simultancity we were constantly drawn into our time. When bombs laid waste the houses of Shanghai, we knew of it in our rooms in Europe before the wounded were carried out of their homes. What occurred thousands of miles over the sea leaped bodily before our eyes in pictures. There was no protection, no security against being constantly made aware of things and being drawn into them. There was no country to which one could flee, no quiet which one could purchase; always and everywhere the hand of fate seized us and dragged us back into its insatiable play. Constantly men had to subordinate themselves to the demands of the State, to become the prey of the most stupid politics, to adapt themselves to the most fantastic changes. Always the individual was chained to the common lot, no matter how bitterly he objected; he was carried along irresistibly. Whoever went through the period or, rather, was hunted and driven through it - we knew but few breathing spells - experienced more history than any of his ancestors. And today we again stand at a turning point, an end and a new beginning. It is not without deliberation that I make this retrospect of my life end with a definite date. For that day of September 1939 wrote the final flourish to the epoch which formed and educated us who are in our sixties. But if we with our evidence can transmit out of the decaying structure only one grain of truth to the next generation, we shall not have laboured entirely in vain.

I am aware of the unfavourable circumstances, characteristic though they are of our time, in which I am trying to shape my reminiscences. I write them in the midst of war, in a foreign country, and without the least aids to my memory. None of my books, none of my notes, no friends' letters are at hand in my hotel room. Nowhere can I seek information, for in the whole world the mails from country to country have been disrupted or hampered by censorship. We live cut off from one another as we did a hundred years ago, before steamships, railroads, planes and mails were invented. I have nothing more of my past with me than what I have retained in my mind. All else at this moment is unobtainable or lost. But the good art of not pining over that which is lost has been thoroughly learned by our generation, and it is quite possible that the loss of documentation and detail may actually be an advantage for my book. For I look upon our memory not as an element which accidentally retains or forgets, but rather as a consciously organizing and wisely exclusionary power. All that one forgets of one's life was long since predestined by an inner instinct to be forgotten. Only that which wills to preserve itself has the right to be preserved for others. So choose and speak for me, ye memories, and at least give some reflection of my life before it sinks into the dark!