Few students like history. Too many, too many names end up being the same. Just like crises that lead to wars, which in turn create new crises. And then, it oscillates between revolution and back, which in the end doesn’t produce better people. All this is exhausting in the long run, like an action movie in which shooting lasts for two hours without stopping.
Anyone who is not deterred by this and studies history will face a different kind of disappointment, as many scholars lose themselves in their sources. Her view of the whole was lost in the flood of contradictory details at times. Also, most historians are poor designers. Easily readable works such as “Die Stabilizationmoderne” by Heinz Dieter Kitsteiner, who died very early, are an exception. Unfortunately, the professors who tell history are rarely good storytellers.
It’s worth taking a look beyond science. If you want to explore history away from the hustle and bustle of facts, you can learn a lot about time and its soul or the no-spirit in literature. Sometimes it is fortunate that a writer lets facts speak rather than fiction. Writers become a non-fiction author. And every sudden dry history turns into countless exciting stories.
Yesterday’s World – A European Diary is a stroke of luck. When the book was published in Sweden in the summer of 1942, its author, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, was already dead, and a few months earlier, he and his wife had committed suicide. As Jews, their only option was to flee to England and finally to Brazil, they lost hope for a better future. “We have gone over the list of every conceivable disaster from one end to the other (and not yet on the last page),” Zweig says early in the introduction. He no longer suffers from the Holocaust.
Zweig began his memoirs in 1939. It is not an autobiography. He explains in the first sentence: “I didn’t attach so much importance to myself that I was inclined to tell others the story of my life.” Elsewhere he asserts that he would have liked to write reports of conversations with Gerhart Hauptmann, Arthur Schnitzler and other writers. But “today, those men in my youth who turned my attention to literature seem less important to me than those who took it away from reality.”
This reality required a lot from the author, above all openness and adaptability. Born in Vienna in 1881, he lived during the Habsburg monarchy, which lasted more than 640 years. He witnessed the collapse of this familiar and safe world with the First World War. How the losing war ended with inflation, the global economic crisis, fascism, and finally the Second World War. You know all this from history lessons.
What you don’t know is the lives of small people who somehow had to deal with the consequences of these major events on a daily basis. This was not necessarily related to need and misery. In this way, the post-war inflation in Austria was convenient for the inhabitants of the German frontier: “Bavarians who drink beer calculate from the price list from day to day whether they can drink five, six or ten liters of beer in Salzburg at the same price they did because of the devaluation The crown had to drive a liter home. No more splendid relaxation could be imagined, and so hordes of women and children flocked from nearby Freiläsing and Reichenhall to provide the luxury of drinking as much beer as their stomachs could hold. Zweig knew how to communicate in sculptural images. There are “doctors who praised their prosthetic limbs with such enthusiasm that one almost had to amputate one’s leg to replace one’s healthy leg with such a prosthetic structure.”
He succeeds in such descriptions where historians regularly fail: revealing the zeitgeist. Because while the historian gazes at world politics, at those events that go into the history books, Zweig watches his immediate surroundings. Now, in life, small personal experiences are always the most convincing. “As early as 1897 – decades before Hitler seized power – he saw the proliferation of blind and ruthless attacking storm power and with it the principle of terrorizing a small group. A group that is numerically distant to intimidate a superior majority but a negative humanity ‘leads to success. “The knights had to come out and hit with the sword and fired. But in that tragically weak humanist liberal era, the disgust of every violent riot and bloodshed was so great that the government backed down from German national terror.”
However, at that time, Zweig did not see the long-term consequences. The experiments did not lead to any conclusions: “But we young people, fully immersed in our literary ambitions, have noticed few such serious changes in our homeland. (…) We had not the slightest interest in political and social problems.(…) The masses stood and wrote poems and discussed them.’
This is what should be the formative style of Stefan Zweig’s life. The prototype of the sensitive educated citizen who buys original writings of Mozart, Goethe and Co. for a lot of money is repeatedly discovered in reality. “disturbed (…) by the almost incessant volcanic tremors of our European land,” he should declare, “as an Austrian, as a Jew, as a writer, as a humanist and pacifist, he stands exactly where these tremors had the strongest effect.”
This passivity distinguishes him from those writers who want to appear political. While Bertolt Brecht wants to change the world through his actions, Stefan Zweig is busy enough to try to adapt to the changing world. As a convinced polyglot, friend of artists from France, Belgium, and Italy, among others, he suffers from the fact that even fellow writers, such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rainer Maria Rilke, whom he admires, join the war. in 1914. In a social atmosphere of frenzy in which even Thomas Mann (“War! It was purification and liberation and what we felt and great hope”), he had to move to neutral Switzerland to meet fellow-like pacifists.
During a visit to the nascent Soviet Union, an opponent secretly handed him a letter that said: “Remember that people who talk to you usually do not say what they want to say to you, only what they can tell you. We are all under surveillance and you are no less. The interpreter reports on Every word, your phone has been tapped.” Zweig begins to think: “Was it not the fact that in the midst of such sincere friendliness, such wonderful camaraderie, that I never once had the opportunity to be one-on-one with anyone speaking privately?”
Zweig is such a good observer that he cannot be susceptible to ideologies of any kind. In the annoyances of everyday life, he realizes “the epidemic of our century (…): xenophobia, or at least xenophobia.” “Before 1914,” he says wistfully, “the land belonged to everyone. Everyone went where they wanted and stayed as long as they wanted. (…) You went up and down without being asked or asked, you didn’t have to fill out a single sheet of paper that is required today. (…) All the insults that were once created exclusively for criminals are now inflicted on every passenger before and during the journey.
However, he does not fall into the “everything was better before” trap. In the most amusing passages of this thoroughly amusing book, Zweig describes sexual perversion in Vienna in the late 19th century. In the chapter “Eros Matutinos” he moderately explains the double standards of his fellow human beings, who are enraged by the ankle of a dancer in the theater and at the same time ignore the ubiquitous prostitution. Then you understand why Sigmund Freud is celebrated as liberator.
But the freedom of the branch – alas, alas! A zero-sum game. The freedom gained on the one hand is lost on the other. Women like to take off corsets, and men like to take off the “stand-up collar”, but other restrictions and restrictions take their place. It is precisely in this differentiation and relativism that lies the acquisition of knowledge of the “Memoirs of a European”. The various worlds of yesteryear that Zweig describes are neither white nor black, but light gray at best and dark gray at worst. So the correct reading of our contract. As extremists, fundamentalists, and fanatics gain a hearing once again, it’s a good idea to follow the observations and visions of someone who has portrayed the world as it is — not how it was meant to be.
Stefan Zweig: “Yesterday’s World – European Memories.” S. Fischer Verlag,
704 p. , hardcover, 16 euros.