The World of Today

Stefan Zweig was dead by the time The World of Yesterday came out. He posted the manuscript to his publisher and the next day he and his wife took their own lives in the Brazilian city of Petropolis.

It was then February 1942, and the Austrian writer, who had counted among his friends Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss, HG Wells, James Joyce, Arturo Toscanini, Maxim Gorky and many other cultural and intellectual behemoths of the first half of the 20th century, felt he ‘belonged nowhere’.

The World of Yesterday is one of the great autobiographies. It is the kind of book that changes you, or at least how you look out of yourself. It is a throbbing lament for a lost world — a lament for two lost worlds, in fact, and a raging indictment of a third. The author was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1881, during what he calls ‘The Golden Age of Security’. Society, he writes, was structured in a way that was ‘built to last’: life was orderly and predictable, and if there was one existence for the rich and a harsher model for the rest, there was nevertheless slow evolution towards fairer rights and the potential for self-advancement. Stability itself was revered: ‘This sense of security was an asset owned by millions, something desirable, an ideal of life held in common by all.’

All of it was swept away by the tragedy of the First World War, in the aftermath of which came the Weimar era: giddy with relief, hedonistic, optimistic and doomed. This second life saw Zweig travel freely across Europe, become a celebrated author and luxuriate in the extraordinary renewal of human creativity that marked the age. He collected fragments of genius: a page from Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbook, Napoleon’s orders to his army at Rivoli, a Bach cantata, a poem by Goethe, scores by Mozart and Schubert, and the furniture from the room in which Beethoven died. It gave physical form to his unshakeable belief in a humane continent that treasured the upper air of peace, progress, culture and co-operation.

Then, in 1933, came Hitler, and the beginning of the end. Zweig’s third and final act saw him flee, like many of his fellow Jews, from the world he had made and loved: his home, his incredible collection, his thousands of books, his friends and family, his sense of how things should be. First to the UK, then, as the Nazis marched westwards, to the US, then on to Petropolis and last, his faith in humanity and its future exploded, into the embrace of oblivion.

Zweig summarises it all in an extraordinary, heartbreaking passage in The World of Yesterday. ‘I was born in the Habsburg Monarchy, but you would look for it in vain on the map today; it has vanished without trace. I grew up in Vienna, an international metropolis for 2,000 years, and had to steal away from it like a thief in the night before it was demoted to the status of a German provincial town. My literary work, in the language in which I wrote it, has been burnt to ashes in the country where my books made millions of readers their friends. So I belong nowhere now, I am a stranger or at most a guest everywhere. Even the true home of my heart’s desire, Europe, is lost to me after twice tearing itself suicidally to pieces in fratricidal wars. Against my will, I have witnessed the most terrible defeat of reason and the most savage triumph of brutality in the chronicles of time.’

There’s a lot going on today, events large and small, that brings me back to Zweig and his disappearing civilisations. It might be the rising number of attacks on immigrants after the Brexit vote or the prospect of border controls between Northern Ireland and the south. It might be the ever-present possibility of Scottish secession. It might be the flight of too many to the margins of politics and the apparent collapse of a moderate, unifying centre. It might be the sense that we are entering an era in which globalisation will be rolled back — the end of comity, where walls will rise and bonds will be broken. It is certainly Putin and Le Pen. And it is without doubt the now very real prospect of President Trump, the consequences of which are as alarming as they are unknowable.

What of Nato, the umbrella under which the West has safely sheltered since 1949, yet for which Trump has expressed such disregard? What of the example America would set to the populists and demagogues currently looming on whichever horizon you look to? What of the White House, the most well-armed cockpit on the planet, in the hands of a grotesque, narcissistic buffoon who seems to know nothing, care less, and be unable to gaffe himself out of the running? What happens when the populists fail, as they always do? What of reason?

Nothing happens in isolation, and each shift begets another. To take one example: Britain’s departure from the EU is not only a major strategic rupture by one of the world’s most powerful countries, but also a philosophical one. It is a radical assertion of nation-state individualism and a proposition to our friends — whether we mean it to be or not — that the established practice of working in large blocs for the sake of combined strength and security might be wrong. This action is not nothing, and will have an echo in the world. Who knows, the EU might in time fall apart as a result. It might deserve to, and bring with it some benefits. But let’s not deny this would carry with it the whisper of old, dark dangers.

The crisis of trust that is defining our times — the thin-skinned offence-taking, the vanishing of the benefit of the doubt, the raging against the machine — threatens to undo us. We know that trusting societies are happier, that their citizens have a more optimistic view of their life chances and are more tolerant of minorities. Cities, regions, and countries with more trusting people tend to have better-working democratic institutions, more open economies, greater economic growth, and less crime and corruption. The opposite must also therefore be the case.

This is not meant as an argument against change, or even against robust challenge to the existing global order. Things must happen and things do; it might all work out just fine. But there is a tension, an underlying thrum of anxiety in the West — can’t you sense it? — that seems to be taking us towards something like a revolution, decision by decision, election by election, bruised Polish face by bruised Polish face: a million small jigsaw pieces slowly revealing a larger picture. We’re going somewhere, even if we’re not sure where, or who’s driving.

As Zweig shows us, civilisation is a more fragile thing than we often care to understand. Every generation in its youthful vigour takes the view that it is the zenith of creation — an improved version on all that has come before, an evolution towards the ideal. Ours takes for granted that it will live in peace and relative economic stability and that this will continue, almost regardless of what decisions are taken, because that is all we have known.

But of course, what seems permanent is only ever transitory. We are evidentially no better than those who preceded us — no one has yet written a finer symphony than Beethoven, or a better cantata than Bach, or come close to the polymathic genius of da Vinci. And if we struggle to match their achievements, what right do we have to insist we will avoid their mistakes?

This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 17, 2016