I finally got around to reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, and I found it to be even better than its reputation.  It’s not just a memoir; it’s also a brilliant example of social science.

While Zweig is aware that the pre-1914 world had many flaws, he mourns the freedoms that had been lost by the early 1940s:

[P]erhaps nothing more graphically illustrates the monstrous relapse the world suffered after the First World War than the restrictions on personal freedom of movement and civil rights.  Before 1914 the earth belonged to the entire human race.  Everyone could go where he wanted and stay there as long as he liked.  No permits or visas were necessary, and I am always enchanted by the amazement of young people when I tell them that before 1914 I travelled to India and America without a passport.  Indeed, I had never set eyes on a passport.  You boarded your means of transport and got off it again, without asking or being asked any questions; you didn’t have to fill in a single one of the hundred forms required today.

If only he could see the TSA!  I like to tell young people that in the 1970s I would travel to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean without any passport.  Or that you could smoke on airplanes.

Today, I find travel to be less immersive because I am always tethered to current events by the internet.  But even in 1942, Zweig observed the way that technology was intruding into our lives:

The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and the second when it happened.

Presumably he’s referring to the effect of radio.

Of course, these observations about travel are of trivial importance when compared to the devastation of the two world wars, which is the focus of Zweig’s memoir.  Here he analyzes the mindset of German nationalists (and not just the Nazis):

But already certain groups were gaining ground in the country, knowing that they would recruit supporters only if they kept assuring defeated Germany that it had not been defeated after all, and all negotiations and concessions were treasonous.

Zweig’s memoir is the best piece of anti-nationalist literature that I have ever read.

Here he describes the way that a cancel culture mob can turn even a writer’s friends against him, even after reaching the pinnacle of artistic success at age 50:

Here was my house, and who could drive me out of it?  There were my friends—could I ever lose them? I thought without fear of death and illness, but not the faintest inkling came into my mind of what still lay ahead of me.  I had no idea that I would be driven out of my own home, a hunted exile who must wander from land to land, over sea after sea, or that my books would be burnt, banned and despised, my name pilloried in Germany like a criminal’s, or that the same friends whose letters and telegrams lay on the table before me would turn pale if they happened to meet me by chance.  I did not know that everything I had achieved by hard work for thirty or forty years could be extinguished without trace . . .

Zweig is quite honest about how he failed to understand the significance of many historical events as they were actually occurring:

It is an iron law of history that those who will be caught up in the great movements determining the course of their own times always fail to recognize them in their early stages.

I found that reading Zweig’s masterpiece helped me to better understand my own times.  But it also put things into perspective.  The losses I’ve experienced are trivial compared to those he faced during the first half of the 20th century.

PS.  Here’s The Economist:

When George Orwell pondered the question of nationalism in the waning days of the second world war, he wrote of its dangers this way: “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakeably certain of being in the right.”

Plus ça change . . .

Happy Easter!