Messages from a Lost World: Stefan Zweig

★★★★ ½

Europe on the Brink

Everyone has been talking about echo chambers recently. Those of us cosily insulated in our liberal-metropolitan-elite ivory towers, with our European friends and our Guardian diet, have had quite a wake-up call this year. We were lulled by our Facebook and Twitter feeds, which reflected back our own views ad infinitum, until it seemed inconceivable that anyone else could think differently. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we have to justify or, worse, defend our longing for a community greater than ourselves. In light of all this, Pushkin Press’s publication of Stefan Zweig’s essays is nothing short of inspired. Written a hundred years ago, these short pieces are charged with the despair of a generation which weathered two cataclysmic wars. They are terrifyingly relevant today. Simple, powerful and unapologetically intelligent, they’re absolutely vital reading as we wait in the shadow of Brexit. Unfortunately those who most need to read them are precisely those who won’t.

As you’ve noticed, I don’t read much about politics. I asked to review this book because I’ve wanted to read Zweig’s work for quite some time, and the subject struck me as topical. Little did I guess! I’ve copied out more quotes from these essays than from any other book I’ve read: there is so much here that strikes a chord. Zweig was writing at a time when the European Union was yet to be born, but the forces which overshadowed Europe at that time are scarily similar to those we see rising now: nationalism; racism; and a weak mainstream political class. He writes:

Our generation, which for a quarter-century has only witnessed political events directed against the rational, which sees key decisions made not at the eleventh hour but at the twelfth, our tested and disappointed race … no longer has the childish hope to believe in sane, clear, rapid decisions. It … has recognized … the favouring of short-term interests over the required wider view, the power of egoism pitched against the spirit of brotherhood.

This is from his 1932 essay ‘European Thought in Its Historical Development’. Zweig was in such despair because his whole life was founded on the belief that European collaboration and community was a good thing. Several times in these essays he uses the Tower of Babel as an analogy for European union, beginning with an essay written in the midst of the First World War in 1916. The Tower doesn’t serve as an analogy for the folly of ambition (as you might expect), but rather for the remarkable achievements that we can realise when we come together, daring even to challenge the unity of God. In 1932, arguing for the unification of Europe, Zweig drew on the metaphor once again. The Tower of Babel was a myth, for sure, but (says Zweig) hasn’t Freud taught us that myths ‘are nothing more than the wish dreams of a people… [which are] merely expressions of the unconscious and conceal a desire hidden deep within‘?

Zweig essentially uses this essay to argue that Europe’s destiny is to be united. It’s here that he leans towards wish-fulfilment rather than historical rigour: any undergraduate can tell you that history can be read any way you please. But he embarks on an earnest gallop through the last two thousand years, stressing the forces that have repeatedly risen to bring the continent together in a supranational community. First the Roman Empire; then the Church; then humanism; the Holy Roman Empire; the Enlightenment; and the international travels of composers and musicians in the eighteenth century.

Of course, Zweig was writing in a time when history was a rather different beast to its appearance nowadays: when Great Men were all the rage, and there was a very clear divide between civilisation (Greece and Rome) and everything else. No historian nowadays would dare write that the Roman Empire was ‘stretched like an ingenious network across the countries of Europe, still uninformed and devoid of culture, from the cloudy isles of the Britons to the blistering sands of the Parthian Empire‘. They’d most likely be set upon by vexed colleagues specialising in Celtic or Parthian culture.

It’s also clear that Zweig came from an age in which it wasn’t considered shameful to be part of an elite. On the contrary, it gave a sense of belonging, a sense of common responsibility for the great edifice of European history and culture. For him, Renaissance humanism is another manifestation of Europe’s inner desire for unity. He writes glowingly of ‘this supranational kingdom of Humanism… this supremacy of an international elite, indifferent to political struggles, guided by artistic passion, feeling themselves above all frontiers‘. But he’s modern enough to recognise that the chief reason we’ve found ourselves in this state – whether in 1914, 1939 or 2016 – is because the impetus of force comes not from these international elites, but from the general public. Even trying to find the words for this, in today’s overly-sensitive age, is hard. Does ‘general public’ work? ‘The majority’? Zweig has no issues: ‘masses‘ does for him. He confronts this problem in his essay ‘The Unification of Europe’ (1934), admitting that the idea of unity:

has been the domain, as in the epoch of Humanism, of a selective higher class and its roots have not yet penetrated the earth of the people… The sacro-egoism of nationalism will always cut more keenly through to the average man than the sacro-altruism of the European ideal, because it is always easier to be aware, through a spirit of devotion and veneration, of one’s own kind than of one’s neighbour.

For Zweig, technology powers the modern thrust away from the narrow parochialism of nationalism, forcing us to become members of a wider community whether we like it or not. He marvels at the fact that one can now (in 1932) be ‘everywhere at one and the same time… What is of importance to a nation can be transmitted in the space of a breath and it is inconceivable that our individual spirit can somehow evade this relentless drive towards the collective.‘ For him, these innovations were the radio, the telegraph and the telephone; for us, they’re the internet, video streaming and social media. But the point is the same. And Zweig acknowledges that technology can only help if we know how to make the most of it. He and his academic colleagues in the 1930s, for all their pan-European solidarity, were only shouting back and forth in their own echo chamber. ‘We only ever reach a tiny minority of this European community, and even then we are merely preaching to the converted; what’s more, we equally fail to employ modern technical and visual channels to further our cause‘. He could be a disappointed Remain activist reflecting on missed social media opportunities.

So how is this new European unity to come about? Zweig’s ‘Unification of Europe’ presents some ideas. Most striking is his concept of a European capital city that would move each year from country to country, not in the national capitals but in smaller cities, much as we now have the European City of Culture. Each year, conferences and cultural meetings would bring people from all over Europe to each city. As we’ve seen this year, people are prejudiced against things they don’t know. Zweig’s solution to this would be to give everyone a chance to witness the excitement of the European project and to feel themselves an integral part of the whole.

Yes, it’s all very idealist and it’s clearly not how things have turned out, but I think Zweig’s idea is more cultural and social than political. He certainly doesn’t propose the rubber-stamping bureaucracy of Brussels. On the contrary, his European unity originates in the mind. And it’s a shame that Brexit, inevitably, was less about the rubber-stamping and more about the desire to divorce ourselves from the European mindset and to wall ourselves in on our island. Zweig would have been baffled by such a choice. At one point he quotes from Goethe: ‘For the man who thinks freely, for him who can raise himself above his epoch, the fatherland is nowhere and everywhere‘. Those in the UK may smile at this, as I did. It sounds remarkably similar to Theresa May’s offhand slap-down that ‘If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. Perhaps she was actually paraphrasing Goethe? Now wouldn’t that be a turn-up for the books?!

To some extent, the essays all focus on the way that history can help us understand our joint history as Europeans. For Zweig, an understanding of the past is crucial to preventing the mistakes of the future. In a moving essay, ‘1914 and Today’, written just before the outbreak of the Second World War, he compares the vicious rhetoric of the 1930s with the comparatively innocent approach to war in 1914. Indeed, he gives the impression that Europe stumbled blindly into the First World War, as the result of a catastrophic domino-tumble, in which every safeguard failed because no group was willing to stand firm. There was no similar excuse in the 1930s. Zweig, the avowed European, found himself once more watching as his great ideals crumbled in the face of nationalism and fear of the Other.

But Zweig clung to optimism as long as he could. The final piece included in this book is ‘In this Dark Hour’, a speech he gave at a banquet of the American PEN club in New York on 15 May 1941. It goes back to themes he touched on in earlier essays, where he reflects that ultimately the story of humanity is one of progress. Although unity is destroyed, it always returns in a new form and each time it allows us to progress further and further in our construction of this mighty Tower, which brings us closer to the understanding of the gods. In bleak times, it is down to us – the voices crying in the wilderness – to stand firm and preserve the values we hold dear, because there will come a time for them to be appreciated more widely again. Even night, Zweig might have said, ends with a dawn:

Darkness must fall before we are aware of the majesty of stars above our heads. It was necessary for this dark hour to fall, perhaps the darkest in history, to make us realize that freedom is as vital to our soul as breathing to our body… It is for us today, those to whom words are granted, in the midst of a reeling, half-devastated world, to maintain in spite of everything faith in a moral force, confidence in the invincibility of the spirit.

Less than a year later, the story was different. On 22 February 1942, as his cherished European ideals crumbled in a rain of firestorms in the skies of Europe, and massed millions were gassed to death, Zweig and his wife Lotte took an overdose of barbiturates at their home in Brazil. He was sixty years old.

This is an important book because it explains the world in which the EU was founded and the reasons for doing so. It’s a call for understanding and tolerance, and a deeply sobering picture of what happens when such calls go unanswered. Zweig may have been too much of an idealist, but he is an excellent and accessible writer. He doesn’t offer any flimsy easy routes to solve the European problem, but his writing shows why it’s important that we don’t allow Brexit to stunt our cultural engagement with Europe, even if we relinquish our political involvement. I feel we’ve already made great progress since Zweig’s day and now, as we find ourselves in newly uncertain times, it’s our turn to keep the flame burning.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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