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The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
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The World of Yesterday

by Stefan Zweig

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,049358,030 (4.39)55
  1. 20
    The Last Days by Guillaume Sorel (rvdm61)
  2. 10
    Bekentenissen van een burger by Sándor Márai (Rigour)
  3. 00
    Oostende, de zomer van 1936 by Mark Schaevers (gust)
  4. 00
    A Princess in Berlin by Arthur R. G. Solmssen (alv)
    alv: Another portrait of the time, it dwells as well on the figure of Walther Rathenau.
  5. 00
    Arrow In The Blue: The First Volume Of An Autobiography, 1905-31 by Arthur Koestler (longway)
  6. 00
    Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig by Oliver Matuschek (rrmmff2000)
    rrmmff2000: Three Lives, the original title of The World of Yesterday, fills in some of the gaps that Zweig did not write about, particularly his family life and WW2.
  7. 00
    A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (gust)
  8. 00
    The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel (gust)
    gust: Beide boeken handelen voor een stuk over het leven van de joden in Praag.
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Stefan Zweig’s autobiography is a wonderful, engaging read, a vivid look at life, art, culture and society in various European cities leading up to World War II. Zweig does tend to namedrop, but he is as passionate and enthusiastic about his lesser-known friends as he is about some of the people who would go on to be the best-known thinkers and writers of the day. There isn’t as much about his personal life and works – for example, he mentions his marriage to his second wife as an aside and does not talk much about his first wife either. He doesn’t spend much time on his influences and processes for his novels, stories, and nonfiction works either. Instead, it’s about the people, cultural movements, and milieu of the period from the late 19th century up to World War II, although eventually the tumult of wars, inflation, and creeping repression becomes the main topic.

The opening of his first chapter is marvelous, describing “The World of Security” from his youth. Everyone believed the Austrian government was solid and stable, people had turned from the barbarism of the past, and science and technology would continue to improve ordinary people’s lives. Everything was well-ordered and in its place, everything would continue to get better. Zweig’s very subjective view is from a contented segment of the population - wealthy, cultured Jewish families. He frequently makes notes from the present, and there is some dismay at the naivety of those days, but a bit of nostalgia also. He is more critical of the education and sexual mores of late 19th/early 20th century Vienna – he unhappily recalls the cold, uninspiring schools from his childhood and the hypocrisy of a Vienna rife with prostitution and pornography but firmly upholding the ban on young people learning about sex.

Zweig, along with his fellow schoolmates, did find passion and meaning in art and literature – they were always reading and into whatever was new or different. He mentions that most of the group drifted off to normal lives later on – and that other classes had different obsessions, sports being the other one he recalled – but he gained a solid cultural background from his own studies, while learning nothing much at school. An early celebrity spotting was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who he met as a young man. University wasn’t much different – Zweig decided to take the opportunity to pursue his interests and get into new social circles, while procrastinating on his writing and then doing it all as the deadline approached. He traveled to Berlin and hung out with bohemians – which gave rise to an interesting comment about his work –

“Perhaps the very fact that I came from a solidly established background, and felt to some extent that this ‘security’ complex weighted me down, made me more likely to be fascinated by those who almost recklessly squandered their lives, their time, their money, their health and reputation – passionate monomaniacs obsessed by aimless existence for its own sake – and perhaps readers may notice this preference of mine for intense, intemperate characters in my novels and novellas.”

He also started writing short pieces and poetry. In celebrity meetings, Zweig mentions his encounters with Theodor Herzl. After taking his degree, the author commenced a period of traveling and meeting new people. His descriptions of the cities are very lively, as are his portraits of his friends. This part could feel a bit like “And then I met X….then I met Y…..then I met Z”, but the writing makes it interesting. He discusses meeting Romain Rolland, Rainer Maria Rilke, and other well-known artists, but also has lots of praise for his lesser-known friends Emile Verhaeren and Leon Balzagette. He visited Paris, London, Spain, Italy, and Belgium and went even further afield, to America and India. Besides his travels and friends, Zweig’s descriptions of his hobby collecting autographs and manuscripts are interesting. His start as a playwright at first appeared auspicious, but then began to seem cursed, as various people connected to his play died.

From his POV, all of Vienna was in denial about WWI until it happened. He forthrightly admits his cowardice and describes how he took a safe library job during the war. However, although many writers beat the nationalist drum and churned out propaganda, Zweig couldn’t forget his friends and knowledge of other countries and banded together with other artists to try to promote cross country communication. Many were on board with nationalism, so it ended up being mainly Zweig and a few friends exchanging letters and writing anti-xenophobic articles, although he notes that Romain Rolland did a lot of humane work. Zweig’s contribution was the play Jeremiah. Its anti-war sentiment and criticism of unchecked power became appealing towards the end of the war, when the population had lost their enthusiasm for hatred. Jeremiah was a huge success and Zweig’s popularity increased. Austria after the war had massive inflation and privation, and the author’s unhappy account of those years is very compelling. Zweig, it seems, hibernated at his house in Salzburg to eke out the post-war years. However, after that, he had a period of happiness, security, and fame.

He continued to write, travel and meet with his friends. Zweig describes a couple trips to the Soviet Union and Italy. While he had many positive impressions of both places and became fast friends with Gorky, he also saw evidence of repression and growing fascism. In the Soviet Union, he gave away all his supplies – which were lacking there – and an anonymous note describing how he was under surveillance set him on alert. In Italy, he tried to help a woman whose husband had been imprisoned, with moderately positive results. His life in Salzburg was peaceful and happy. One change was the influx of society as the town became a cultural center with a prestigious festival. In this section, he also talks a little about his writing style – there are some amusing quotes about his dislike of anything long-winded.

Zweig’s story could be seen as a rise and fall – if so, the pinnacle would be his 50th birthday, where he surveys his past hurdles and successes, and wonders if his life will continue on in the same contented fashion – with a slight note of dissatisfaction. He remembers his wish for some more excitement, but is not prepared for the darkness that upends his life and Europe. While he occasionally focuses on the political upheavals earlier in the book, in the final chapters, it is the main subject. At first, the author’s circle saw Hitler only as an unimportant rabble-rouser, who would likely sink without a trace any day now. But his influence soon became apparent, and Zweig’s books were banned, along with other Jewish authors.

Zweig describes his intellectually stimulating collaboration with Richard Strauss, the great German composer, when he worked as the librettist of Die schweigsame Frau. The Nazis wanted Strauss on their side but didn’t like Zweig’s name on his works. There’s a long section describing the conflict, and Zweig seems to have written this part with a half-smile, recalling how he discomfited Hitler. He sat at home in Salzburg while Strauss and others battled it out. The premiere was a success, but then the whole run of performances was canceled. Things continued to go downhill, but the event that caused Zweig to leave Austria forever seems comparatively small – his house was searched by the local police. However, that was an affront unimaginable in previous times, and the author was obviously correct in his foresight.

He went to England and monitored the events there, despairing at Chamberlain’s appeasement and not even celebrating when Britain declared war in 1939, as he knew he would be seen as foreign and suspect. Unsurprisingly, Zweig’s writing becomes more hopeless and unhappy towards the end – in his final visit to Vienna, he notes

“But everyone I spoke to in Vienna genuinely appeared not to have a care in the world. They invited each other to parties where evening dress was de rigueur, never guessing that they would soon be wearing the convict garb of the concentration camps; they crowded into the shops to do Christmas shopping for their attractive homes, with no idea that a few months later those home would be confiscated and looted. For the first time I was distressed by the eternally light-hearted attitude of old Vienna, which I always used to love so much – I suppose I will dream of it all my life…”

He ends with his plan to leave England and a down note –

“And I knew that yet again all the past was over, all achievements were as nothing – our own native Europe, for which we had lived, was destroyed, and the destruction would last long after our own lives. Something else was beginning, a new time, and who knew how many hells and purgatories we still had to go through to reach it?”

Zweig’s death is probably as famous as his life – he and his wife escaped the ravages of Europe, but committed suicide together in 1942. But his autobiography stands as impressive memorial to the times in which he lived. ( )
4 vote DieFledermaus | Aug 25, 2015 |
I have been struggling to write this review. I have a draft that keeps growing, with more quotes, more of my analysis, more words -- but as I write more, I worry that I am getting further away from Stefan Zweig, further away from this beautiful, sad, angry, insightful, anguished text.

So am I scrapping all those words, and starting over.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) wrote The World of Yesterday in desperate times. The unconventional memoir is a cri de coeur from Zweig, who stood for everything Hitler most hated and feared. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, well-educated, speaker of many languages, famous both in his native Austria and throughout the West from the many translations of his novels, stories, and other writings, Zweig believed passionately in the vital need for an international community of artists. He had escaped from his home in Austria, driven out by the oppression and hatred of the Nazis. Shaken, exhausted, anguished, he wrote the book not to discuss his two marriages, or to focus on his personal relationships and feelings. Instead, Zweig wrote a memoir of a place, Austria, and a time gone by. In every word, he is grieving for his lost homeland, and even more for an unrealized ideal.

Written from the perspective of a man who grew up in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who lost his innocence in World War I, and believed for a brief time that Europeans had learned their lesson and had put an end to future wars, The World of Yesterday is a lament, a work honoring a dead and buried past, and a suicide note. One day after his second wife mailed the manuscript to Zweig's publisher, the two took poison and died in each other's arms in Brazil, too exhausted to wait for better days that they feared wold never come.


Stefan Zweig and his brother Alfred in Vienna, c. 1900

Stefan Zweig was once one of the best known writers in the German language. His works were widely translated and popular across Europe. Zweig was prolific, engaged in the arts every way he could be. He wrote not only short stories and novels, but also works of non-fiction (including immense, carefully researched biographies of Balzac and Mary Stuart), plays, and libretti. He also worked as a translator, which may have helped him to foster relationships with writers from across Europe. His travels provided him with rich experiences in his younger years, and enabled hm to forge lasting friendships with many writers and artists, In the end, though, he loved having a home in Austria. He was brought up in the rich cultural life of Vienna before World War. As an adolescent he was caught up in a flurry of adoration for Hoffmansthal, and he later forged a friendship with Rilke. He watched Rodin work in his studio, and he admired and respected Freud. His early writings were published by Theodor Herzl, among others.

Zweig was a lifelong pacifist, who was apolitical at heart. His orientation to the world around him was influenced by his commitment to the ideal of Europe as a cultural community, where artists from many countries would support and draw inspiration from each other, create a shared international culture, and guard diligently against intolerance and war. He valued creativity and freedom of expression. He was notoriously hard on himself and modest, despite his eventual fame. He spent his money building up a valuable library and collecting autographs and manuscripts that captured moments of creativity from Europe's greatest artists. (This library was later destroyed by the Nazis.) He traveled, he wrote, he corresponded with friends, he was inspired and driven to do his best by their example.


Bookplate from Stefan Zweig’s library

Zweig was shaken to his core by the onset of World War I, which broke apart his safe, insulated world. He managed to continue to correspond with some friends in France and Italy, but he was worried about the censors. A trip to Switzerland to meet with other artists committed to pacifism was complicated by the ubiquity of government spies, alert to the possibility of treason. After the war was over, Zweig worried about losing old friendships until he was greeted affectionately by old friends during a trip to Italy. Zweig describes his friendships with writers such as Romain Rolland and Rilke. He opens a window into his world, full of books, ideas, music, ideals, friends, debates, art of all kinds.


Stefan Zweig and his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz (née Burger)-- married 1920, divorced 1938 but remained in contact

Zweig also provides chilling descriptions of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Zweig's memoir is particularly insightful in conveying the experiences of a renowned writer, at the top of his popularity, when he became a focus for the brutal hatred of the Nazis. Any readers concerned about the consequences of censorship for a free society should read Zweig's account of this period.


Stefan Zweig and his second wife, Lotte Altmann (his secretary) -- married 1939, committed suicide together in Brazil in 1942

The World of Yesterday is a devastating book, but it is also illuminating. Zweig's perspective, looking back to his earlier years in the last decades of peace in Europe, transported me back to a vibrant Vienna, where culture was valued above all else. He also warns about the ways in which complacency helped to lead to World War I, as Europeans were living their lives with blind trust in their governments. His insights on the cultural conditions that lead to the rise to totalitarianism extend to his discussion of the rise of Hitler. Throughout, Zweig provides details and anecdotes from his experiences to add color to his more analytical passages. He writes with passion, warmth, modesty, anger, and anguish.


Stefan Zweig

Today, we live in a world where, in spite of globalization, strife, hatred, greed, and ignorance are barriers to the kind of internationalism that Zweig dreamed of. When faced with economic downturns, some nations look to cuts in funding for the arts as a partial solution. Parents and special interest groups sometimes call for the censorship of books, music, films, and art that pose threats to their professed values. I fear that Zweig would not be surprised by the lasting relevance of The World of Yesterday in the early 21st century. Reading it is one way to continue his quest, to turn back hatred and intolerance, one line at a time.

I want to give Zweig the last word by quoting a passage in which he is reflecting on the day when Germany invaded Poland, when Zweig was living in exile in England:

"For was a more absurd situation imaginable than for a man in a strange land to be compulsorily aligned – solely on the ground of a faded birth certificate – with a Germany that had long ago expelled him because his race and ideas branded him as anti-German and to which, as an Austrian, he had never belonged. By a stroke of a pen the meaning of a whole life had been transformed into a paradox; I wrote, I still thought in the German language, but my every thought and wish belonged to the countries which stood in arms for the freedom of the world. Every other loyalty, all that was past and gone, was torn and destroyed and I knew that after this war everything would have to take a fresh start. For my most cherished aim to which I had devoted all the power of my conviction for forty years, the peaceful union of Europe, had been defiled. What I had feared more than my own death, the war of all against all, now had become unleashed for the second time. And one who had toiled heart and soul all his life for human and spiritual unity found himself, in this hour which like no other demanded inviolable unity, thanks to this precipitate singling out, superfluous and alone as never before in his life.... I knew what war meant, and as I looked at the well-filled, tidy shops I had an abrupt vision of those of 1918, cleared-out and empty, seemingly staring at one with wide-open eyes. As in a waking dream I saw the long queues of careworn women before the food shops, the mothers in mourning, the wounded, the cripples, the whole nightmare of another day returned spectrally in the shining noonday light. I recalled our old soldiers, weary and in rags, how they had come back from the battlefield, – my beating heart felt the whole past war in the one that was beginning today and which still hid its terror from our eyes. Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!" ( )
2 vote KrisR | Mar 30, 2013 |
A wonderful memoir but unlike most memoirs it is less the story of the author than the memoir of a time and place, that being Vienna during Zweig lifetime. At that time it was a most cultivated city and Zweig, a very rich Jew, says he experienced no antisemtism. The day he submitted this book for publication he killed himself. ( )
  SigmundFraud | Mar 20, 2013 |
I was reminded that I owned this book when I read a New Yorker article about Zweig several months ago. I’ve read a number of Zweig’s fictional works (short stories, novels ) and I’m also fascinated by early twentieth century Vienna, so I was eager to read the book.
Stefan Zweig came of age at the turn of the 19th century in Imperial Vienna during a golden period that helped to define twentieth century art, music, literature and science -- in fact, that set the stage for cultural and intellectual life in the 20th century. Though this book is an autobiography, it is also his elegy for this lost era. Zweig was born into a solidly middle class Jewish, Viennese family and describes a time full of stability, intellectual curiosity and promise. Though deeply attached to Vienna and Viennese life, Zweig also considered himself a citizen of Europe and describes his time traveling and living throughout the continent and the UK. Along the way, he encounters many of the great and creative minds of the time.
He witnesses the first chink in his solid and promising world with the events leading up to and then the outbreak of the First World War. The slaughter that takes place during WWI cannot but help to influence Zweig's attitude toward conflict, national pride and continental unity. He becomes an active pacifist though despite his pacifism and horror of the war, he writes mournfully about the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire and describes that break-up as an amputation. Nevertheless, he clings to his hope that this post-war world can be mended. Indeed, despite hints as to what is to come, he finds success, renown and personal stability and happiness durng the 1920’s.
Sadly, with the rise of Nazism in Germany and the annexation of Austria, he becomes a firsthand witness to the death of this hope and the loss of his place in the world.
I found this book fascinating because it provided an insider's view of a time and place that were both molded by great minds and that molded them. ( )
  plt | Dec 6, 2012 |
The World of Yesterday was for me a very boring reading, stuffed with tediously (for style and insight) details of his friends' lifes and pages that boast Zweig's own importance and greatness. Even if Zweig was a biographer, he forgot in his autobiography the history, as if he was living in a separate world: there is almost no mention of the fall of the Empire and only few words about the Anschluss. The last part, the exile, is the best one because I can at least feel his hopelessness and despair. ( )
  Luisali | Nov 16, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stefan Zweigprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bell, AntheaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gleichmann, GabiAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hagerup, AndersTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hagerup, IngerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heerikhuizen, F.W. vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Toorn, Willem vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zohn, HarryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Let's withdraw
And meet the time as it seeks us."
Shakespeare: Cymbeline

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When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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