Monday, July 06, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Twelfth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

Three decades have passed since my first visit to Vienna, and in many respects that “first time” feeling still lingers. I think about it regularly, and perhaps the aura owes to the ultimate success of the Viennese in reinventing their city (and country) for success in the modern world following a string of catastrophes that began when Franz Ferdinand’s death in 1914 was seized upon as an excuse to go to war.

Bad, bad idea.

Today’s world seems far more complicated than the pre-internet Reagan era, and yet by all accounts the Austrian capital still ladles out pre-World War I history as a staple of the tourist trade. Nostalgia usually sells fairly well anywhere, but arguably Vienna has an advantage in the person of Stefan Zweig, an otherwise forgotten historical figure who has enjoyed an amazing renaissance 70 years after his death.

As a case in point, director Wes Anderson’s 2014 film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was inspired by Zweig’s life and writings. The movie depicts an imaginary version of a pre-WWI epoch previously articulated by Zweig, who felt a distinctively Viennese nostalgic yearning for something that may or may not have existed, and wrote about it only a few years after the period in question.

Before I leave Vienna in 1985, trundling onto a train at Westbahnhof bound for Salzburg, it’s worth a brief survey of Zweig. Three decades ago, I was barely aware he existed. Now, in spite of a few misgivings about his writing style, it’s hard to make sense of it all without his first-hand testimony.


Stefan Zweig’s name seldom appears in lists of important 20th-century writers, and yet between the two world wars, he was prolific, and a veritable monolith of the written word. He wrote poetry, plays, fiction, biographies and newspaper commentaries, which were translated into numerous languages and sold all across the planet.

Today Zweig is remembered primarily for his strange end. Displaced and disoriented by the conflagration of anti-Semitism unleashed by Nazi Germany, he fled Europe and wandered from place to place, eventually settling in Brazil. There, in 1942, in a famously documented final act, Zweig and his wife committed suicide together.

Among Zweig’s final achievements was to complete his autobiography, which he originally intended to call “Three Lives,” in reference to the three distinct periods in his life: Birth and youth to the commencement of World War I; from war’s end through the advent of the Anschluss (Austria’s forced absorption into Nazi Germany); and finally, exile.

The proposed title is chilling in light of Zweig’s sad demise, for apparently he was not able to envision a fourth life. Given the eventual choice of “The World of Yesterday” as the book’s title, one might reasonably inquire: Yesterday according to which of Zweig’s lives?

The “yesterday” of most relevance to me is the one prior to World War I. How did a continent seemingly so progressive and at peace with itself erupt into such a bloodletting?

Zweig is right there on the scene at 33 years of age in the summer of 1914. His explanation of the events leading to war isn’t unusual: Societal dynamism constrained by top-heavy monarchies, leading to what can only be described as boredom on the part of those ignorant of war’s true costs.

When pent-up demand for action (any sort of action would work) was released by inbred dunderheads scheming at the top of the societal pyramid, disaster was the result.

There is an undoubtedly elegiac tone to Zweig’s pre-war ruminations. He lovingly documents the seemingly settled, hierarchical, perennially ordered nature of Viennese society (though easier to enjoy nearer its top than its bottom), exalting the abundant theatrical and musical scenes, which fascinated ordinary citizens then much as sports do now.

Zweig dwells on favorite cafés, newspapers and stage luminaries. Life passes. Change seems unlikely.

The writer’s own background is conspicuously missing the usual rise from hardscrabble poverty by sheer force of will. In fact, it emerges that he is fairly well off from the very start, and a pattern is established: The world is a rosy place for bright young men, and bright young men are far too busy reaping their effortless opportunities to be very much concerned with messy everyday disagreements. Zweig’s is a halcyon life, and this wouldn’t necessarily be noteworthy if not for one small point.

He is Jewish.

Jewish -- though not ardently so in any duty-bound sense of religious ritual; nonetheless, identifiably Jewish in pre-war Vienna, and pre-war Vienna is famed as the place where modern anti-Semitism gets its (non)-intellectual bearings. Two decades hence, this will lead to the gates of Auschwitz.

In fact, none other than Adolf Hitler, who spends his Vienna period as an underemployed, angry and starving artist, lives in a miserable flophouse not far from Zweig’s cultured block, and takes his formative ideological cues from the stridently anti-Semitic Viennese mayor, Karl Lueger.

What’s more, while the multi-ethnic and polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire functions with charm and aplomb at the heap’s top, working class Vienna is by most contemporary accounts a seething reflection of the empire’s considerable intramural tensions.

Zweig apparently notices little of it. Rather, in his view the citizenry is united in respect for the elderly emperor Franz Joseph, and even Lueger isn’t always such a bad chap, after all. Vienna’s relative smallness means that pastoral picnics or woodland strolls await at the end of the tram line.

Is everyone happy in his or her place? It seems so to Zweig, who emerges as the effortless prodigy, forever insulated from the unseemly. School is a lark, and everything he touches turns to gold. He churns out flawless copy, and everyone wants some of it. He writes plays and coyly hints at their presumed existence, and immediately there come offers to stage them come from directors at renowned theaters.

Thus, Zweig embarks upon a lifetime of happenstance brushes with the famous and powerful. Zweig eerily presages “Zelig”, title character of Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary, by means of always being where someone famous is about to stumble past and ask for a cigarette, or directions to the loo.

In 1914, all is well. Then, all of it crumbles.


The onset of World War I provides a wrenching transition in Stefan Zweig’s comfortable, predictable Viennese world. One lifetime passes, and another begins.

It starts calmly enough. Zweig observes that the death of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo barely causes a stir in his own social milieu, and why would it? After all, the heir was the objectionable sort, cranky and scowling, and nowhere near as trustworthy and seemly as the ancient whiskered Emperor and other reliable royal court figures like Karl, the new and far more youthful figurehead in waiting.

Significantly, Zweig’s summer holiday in 1914 occurs in the vicinity of the Low Countries. He is right there, watching, as troop trains roll forward near the beach. Mobilization of the European armies is in full swing, according to secret plans written to the rhythm of railway timetables. The writer barely makes it back to Österreich before the national borders slam shut, ending the blissful era of peace and passport-free travel.

Back home in Vienna, Zweig finds himself too old to enlist and too young to die. He nabs a sinecure in the library of a military branch, all the while continuing to write, to be published and to get paid as the world around him falls to pieces.

Zweig’s eyes finally are opened (or so he reports) during a public relations junket to the Eastern Front, during which he nominally performs his official duties by subcontracting them to local Jewish “factors”, later sharing a filthy hospital train with the dying flower of Austro-Hungarian manhood in route from the hellish trenches to lovely Budapest, where the juxtaposition of death’s gritty squalor and the Hungarian capital’s seemingly unchanged quaint urban ambience moves him.

Reckoning that he’s seen enough, and despairing of the increasingly impoverished atmosphere in Vienna, Zweig elects to wait out the conflict in neutral Zurich, Switzerland, from which VI Lenin travels to return home for the revolution.

The writer continues to ruminate, addressing his own work, as well as the nature of art and culture in wartime, and how the international fraternity of writers comes to be as conflicted by patriotism as the workers abandoning the socialist international. Zweig expresses pain and disappointment … and he watches the clock.

With the war over and the Central Powers in degraded shambles, Zweig heads for Salzburg in the now emasculated Austria, pausing at the border to observe ex-emperor Karl heading for exile in the other direction. The first few post-war months are hard. They’d get easier for a while, but across the valley from Salzburg, up atop Berchtesgaden, is the man who’ll soon be taking it all away from Zweig.

It’s that same former resident of Vienna, Hitler.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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