The World of Yesterday – Memoirs of a European – Stefan Zweig: and its relevance to Project Hate 2019.
A friend recently gave me a copy of Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday – Memoirs of a European, first published in 1942. The manuscript was completed by this acclaimed Jewish writer and posted to his publisher the day before he and his wife took their own lives.
The tragic end of Zweig’s life was a mirror image of the end of the civilised world in which he and so many of his compatriots had grown up and flourished in early twentieth century Vienna.
I was introduced to Zweig’s autobiography after I had told my friend about my interest in Franz Werfel, a Jewish Austrian novelist and playwriter who was a contemporary and acquaintance of Zweig. In 1933 Werfel had written The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – a brilliant novel based on the Armenian genocide of 1915. Like Zweig his books were burnt and banned by Hitler’s National Socialists.
What happened to Zweig and Werfel – to their work and to millions of other Jews and minorities – is especially relevant today in the context of Project Hate 2019 – which we see manifesting itself globally.
Zweig’s masterful autobiography charts the rise of visceral hatred; how scapegoating and xenophobia, cultivated by populist leaders, can rapidly morph into the hecatombs of the concentration camps. As the history of the twentieth century graphically demonstrates, the hatred of difference invariably begins with anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews, but it never ends there.
If you doubt how quickly a relatively civilised and humane society, and a seemingly permanent golden age, can be ruthlessly and swiftly destroyed, then read Zweig.
And consider that beyond the ugly spectre of Anti-Semitism appearing in main stream British politics, in 2019, for the first time since 1945, there are Nazis in the Reichstag; Austria has a coalition government which includes a party whose first leader was as an officer in the SS; Italy has a governing party which is home to fascist throwbacks; while some “yellow vests” in France mighty more appropriately wear black shirts after recently being involved in anti-Semitic abuse of the French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut; while the far right is capturing seats from Sweden to Spain. And watch with anxiety the coming elections to the European Parliament.
Project Hate can also be seen in the Anti-Semitic memes which accompany digital Nazism – even the live streaming of mass murders courtesy of multi-media outlets. Other shades of viral hatred – from anti-Semitism to homophobia and overt racism – readily and effortlessly morph from virtual reality into violence.
In his autobiography Zweig wrote that:
“Man was separated by man on the grounds of absurd theories of blood, race and origins” – and so it is again today. For three years running vicious attacks against Jews in the U.K. have reached new highs.
“The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and the second when it happened.”
And that was 1945. Now it is live streamed and in every living room and on every mobile device within seconds – including pre- arranged broadcast of mass shootings: St. Bartholomew’s Eve Massacres courtesy of Facebook and Google.
The use of social media to spread violent ideologies had a tragic outcome on March 15th with the horrific deaths of nearly 50 Muslims gathered for Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand. But we also saw the same hatred of difference at work in the Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 Jewish worshippers were gunned down; and in Lahore where 75 Christians were murdered as they gathered to celebrate Easter; and deaths, day after day in Northern Nigeria, following the genocide of Christians and Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.
And what can we learn from Zweig about our response to such phenomena and events?
In a presentiment of what lay ahead he wrote that “Europe in its state of derangement had passed its own death sentence” and yet the elites kept turning a blind eye, hoping that the problem would simply go away – leading him to remark: “We are none of us very proud of our political blindness at that time and we are horrified to see where it has brought us.”
Zweig saw how, in the face of indifference and the desire for a quiet life, the thin veneer that separates civilised values from mob rule very quickly cracked. He describes how university professors were forced to scrub streets with their bare hands; devout Jews humiliated in their synagogues; apartments broken into and jewels torn out of the ears of trembling women.
He says, “one man had succeeded in deadening every idea of what is just and right by the constant attrition of excess “Hitler’s most diabolical triumph.” In 1938 the conscience of the world kept quiet “or murmured just a little before forgetting and forgiving.”
On meeting groups of fleeing refugees, Zweig says” They (the Jews) were told don’t live here with us but no one told them where they were to live.”
He concludes his remarkable account of those tortured years be saying
“I knew like the patriarch Lot, in the Bible, that all behind me was dust and ashes, the past transformed into a pillar of bitter salt.”
The haunting question remains: can we do better in our own generation?