Related travel tips:
If you're in the Rio area, see Zweig's last residence.
In Salzburg, you can visit the Stefan Zweig Center.
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
This autobiography chronicles the author’s experience of the death of an “old Europe,” really a continent that had just enjoyed 100 years of progress and relative peace, but one that began imploding with the outbreak of WWI.
Zweig traces his youth and childhood as the son of a Jewish industrialist, one of many such families that had achieved prosperity in an Austria-Hungary that, despite its often authoritarian nature, had recently developed more enlightened policies. Many readers will find it surprising, but he insists that the highest dream for Jewish parents is not for their son to become a doctor or lawyer, but rather an intellectual or artist. “I had [to complete] my university career and to bring home the doctor’s hood.”
He takes advantage of the leisure time that his father’s capitalistic pursuits had made possible, living in Paris and London, travelling extensively through Europe. In Europe, his most important encounters are with the artists and thinkers of his day: writers Romain Rolland, Maksim Gorky and James Joyce; composers Maurice Ravel and Arturo Toscanini; Sigmund Freud and a host of others. (His diligence about making such connections also leads to a major autograph collection, one that was, at best, dispersed after the Nazi occupation of Austria.) He continues these travels right up until the continent’s extraordinarily mild, pleasant summer of 1914. Even the news of the assassination in Sarajevo doesn’t unsettle him. The beautiful weather and his constant meetings with fellow artists and thinkers produce in him such euphoria and sensations of universal brotherhood that he can’t fathom the tragedy ahead.
Within a few months, he’s a war correspondent on the Galician front (today’s northern Slovakia and southern Poland). Travelling to Budapest on a train full of wounded and dying twenty-year-olds, he encounters a priest who has run out of oils for performing last rites. In all his seventy years, he says, “I have never seen such a crime against humanity.”
He departs Austria-Hungary for Switzerland in 1917, amazed at the continued prosperity of that neutral country. But there are spies everywhere. He insists on meeting openly with a French literary friend, so that no one can even entertain the suspicion that he’s discussing something treacherous. He avoids even the friendly gesture of exchanging cigarettes—for fear that it could be interpreted as “trade with the enemy.”
When he returns to Austria at war’s end, he has to change trains in the border town of Feldkirch. By another odd coincidence, the last Austrian emperor, Karl I, is leaving his old realms, exiled. This is one of the most poignant scenes in the book, and Zweig describes it in moving detail.
Zweig details other events in the march into yet another war: hyperinflation, demagoguery, well-organized fascist thuggery in Italy and echoes of the same in the Bavaro-Austrian borderlands. Hitler’s rise to power is accompanied by a curious vignette: the weekend the Reichstag fire broke out, a film Zweig had been working on also opened. The morning after the fire, people on the street stop and look at cinema marquis and movie posters, chuckling at the title Burning Mystery/Secret (Brenendes Geheimnis), knowing something’s fishy.
The memoir ends with Zweig, automatically categorized in Britain as an “enemy alien” despite being a Jewish exile from Nazi-occupied Austria, seeking refuge. He eventually did emigrate to Brazil where he committed suicide in1942, right after sending the manuscript of The World of Yesterday to his publisher.
We can only speculate how he would have perceived Cold War Europe had he maintained hope and lived to see it.