Emotionalism and the World of Yesterday: A review of Stefan Zweig

Upon opening the memoir of this great European, one expects to get a glimpse of a world different to the one we know. One expects an account of a time completely forgone, together with its allure and its troubles, and that the pages of this book are filled with reveries of the days bygone, dreams of apparently disparate places altogether.

Agreeably, Zweig begins in doubtful wonder. He offers a regretful sigh to the innocence of the past, the naiveté that claimed even the greatest of men. He forgives and aches. “I cannot help smiling. How Lilliputian all those anxieties were, how serene that time! The generation of my parents and grandparents was better off, they lived their lives from one end to the other quietly in a straight, clear line,” he writes as he remembers the time of antecedents to the greatest horror in world history, a time of great empires and small worries, embodied best in his birthplace – the now-ancient Austro-Hungarian empire.

But his own life took many turns, swivelling and undulating along its many vicissitudes. “I have risen and fallen so often, that I sometimes feel as if I had lived not just one but several completely different lives.”

Akin to his life, the pages of this book are separated into distinct chapters of themes and colours. They reflect different times, worries, and troubles; being almost separate lives entirely. And those pages, full of anxiousness and incomprehensible tension, ring familiar with the present day.

In the early chapters of the book, Zweig writes nostalgically, remembering a beloved continent drunk with the force of enlightenment, lulled into a dream of steady and approaching prosperity. He described a period where wealth grew perpetually and uninterruptedly. It was a period of unprecedented cultural and political stability, along with progress so ardent it was praised as unstoppable.

Zweig captures the backdrop of the sudden fall of modern civilization into a deep chasm of collectivist ideology that drove the continent to incredible destruction.

For most, late 19th century Vienna was a bustling, cultural hub. A cosmopolitan city of two million that made artistic expression its crown jewel. Zweig, by his own pen, fawns over its impressive cultural trove.

The Vienna of the early 1900s attracted the most prominent of later political actors.  Cafes and beer houses were open to Stalin, Trotsky, Tito, and Hitler who famously might have shared those spaces around 1913. But Zweig lists countless other inhabitants. Many purer souls. Some remain known to this day while others have fallen out of memory. These forgotten few were nonetheless of utmost prominence in his time, and would be worth rediscovering to  the modern reader. It’s fascinating to entertain the notion that so many great minds lived and gathered in that one city, in that very grave hour of history.

What then drove those minds to let this beloved continent fall into an abyss from which cries of reason and liberalism were drowned out by notions of collectivism?

Aptly named, it is emotionalism that Zweig uses to describe the frenzy tearing at the fabric of European civilization; pushed over the precipice gently by naïveté and foolishness of a generation of Europeans that lost the battle of ideas to a devil disguised as a saviour of the working class. It was sometimes dressed in rags of communism, and at other times in dark uniforms of fascism.

Chronologically, he carries the reader from that careless, nonchalant time, with bitter hints of an eminently ominous future. He brings us through the period between the wars and the eve of Hitler’s rise. As did the times, the book also grows darker and more sombre. As one nears the end of Zweig’s last work, the shadow stretched before the writer’s feet feels heavy within his words. “Perhaps its dark outline also lies over the pages of this book,” wondered Stefan Zweig even then, almost portending his own death by suicide.

Yet even in darkness “every shadow is also the child of light.” The light that those last few words leave behind are perhaps the beacon of hope that Zweig himself could not  yet see. But this beacon shines clearly for us who can, knowing that the darkness of both communism and Nazism have been overcome by liberty, and now fight the darkness once again.

It is with definite resolution that we should take Zweig’s words as a cautionary tale for tomorrow whenever we forget reason, lean away from liberty, and take lightly the brittle world we live in.

If then you find there is a need of reminding yourself or others of the importance of liberty, take World of Yesterday, one of the most reminiscent dedications to peace and a succinct abjuration of war, and read it or give it to those who might need it.

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