In August 1942, as his beloved European civilization embarked on its second round of self-slaughter in a generation, the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig committed suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil.
The World of Yesterday was one of the last pieces of writing Zweig finished before he died. In it, he looked back across his life, and back to the Vienna of his youth, before the First World War. ‘All the bridges between our today and our yesterday and our yesteryears have been burnt,’ wrote Zweig.
Yet The World of Yesterday provides just such a bridge into the past: a work of strange power, both autobiographical and analytical, a fond account of a world that Zweig knew intimately and an acute commentary on how it failed.
Zweig described the pre-war era as one of confidence and progress: ‘the golden age of security’. He evoked a Vienna in the grip of ‘theatromania’, in which culture rather than brute force stood as the supreme value (after all, political supremacy in the German-speaking world had long passed to Berlin). Like Proust’s madeleine – the first instalment of In Search of Lost Time was published in 1913 – Zweig’s writing provides a senseimpression of this world.
Now, one might be tempted to view the Habsburg Empire in the last years of peace as an anachronism. Zweig was more generous. ‘Nowhere was it easier to be a European’, he wrote, ‘one did not look down upon tolerance as one does today as weakness and softness, but rather praised it as an ethical force’.
The prospect of war stalked this world but, as Zweig put it, after decades of peace, ‘it had become legendary, and distance made it [war] seem romantic and heroic’.