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Customer Review

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Old Europe, 3 Feb. 2009
This review is from: The World of Yesterday (Paperback)
This is a lovely book. Stefan Zweig included the words `An Autobiography...' in its sub-title. True, but the subject of this autobiography is not he but Europe. He deliberately gave none but the barest personal account of himself or any of his friends.
Half the book is concerned with the Europe from 1895 to 1914. The son of a prosperous Jewish family, Zweig grew up in the Vienna of God and the Emperor Franz Josef. Being Jewish then was incidental to being Viennese. It was a city where opera, theatre and music were the basis of everyday life; news of catastrophes elsewhere did not penetrate the Viennese well-padded existence. The Austro-Hungarian empire's lingual and national differences were harmonised by the common love of music.
On leaving school, Zweig determined on a literary career and, while he travelled around Europe, rejoiced in the differences between countries. The Viennese landlady would always be helpful but not obsessed with tidiness, whereas in Berlin his apartment was spotlessly maintained by the Prussian landlady, who never forgot to add two pfennigs to his bill if she sewed a button on his trousers. Paris during the Belle Époque was a city for the young. There, they breathed the very atmosphere of youth. Like every young man who spent a year there, Zweig carried away an incomparably happy memory that lasted for all his time. London by contrast was polite and, if the truth were known, a bit stuffy.
Europe before the War may have been golden, but it was not Eden. European nations had become increasingly prosperous over the previous forty years. However the position of women had scarcely advanced. Even wealthy women were constrained by the dictate of fashion's handicapping their physical mobility. Middle class women were stultified by lack of sexual education when young and the belief in the custom that sexual enjoyment by them was unseemly. Amongst women it was probably only peasant women who enjoyed sex. Men visited prostitutes for sexual gratification and not infrequently came away with syphilis.
Unanticipated, the Great War that was to destroy Europe suddenly came about in the summer of 1914. Its horrors should have been foreseen by European governments, who had the example of the American Civil War some fifty years before. Zweig, temperamentally and physically unfit for military service was employed as an archivist by the Imperial government. His duties sometimes took him to the Front and his return, transport by hospital train, exposed him to the horrific sufferings that the wounded endured. He was struck by the contrast between the state of the hospital trains and the almost pre-war appearance of normality in Vienna and Budapest. He was allowed to visit neutral Switzerland to stage his pacifist play, Jeremiah. Possibly the granting of this permission was aided by Emperor's secret peace moves in 1917.
After the war he returned to a devastated Austria. After rebuilding his life over the following five years he progressively worried about the rise of Hitler and the way his actions in Germany desecrated the corpse of the old Europe. Eventually, he escaped to England and thence South America. Hitler's malignity progressively depressed him until Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942. Had he lived he might have seen the corpse of Europe decently reburied after 1945. He would not have survived to see today's EEC functionaries and their apologists dance on old Europe's grave.
By chance, Zweig was a witness to the precise moment of Europe's death. Early in 1919 he was standing on the platform of Feldkirch station just over the Austrian border with Switzerland. Whilst waiting for the scarcely operational train with its malnourished crew, which would take him home he noticed another train approach from the Austrian direction. It was truly a train de luxe with spacious black polished cars. It came to a halt at the opposite platform and Sweig then saw standing behind the plate glass window in the car corridor was the person of Emperor, Karl I, looking back for a last time at the hills and homes of his people as he went into exile. Then, the locomotive started with a violent jerk - Europe's last twitch of life - as it started off into Switzerland and his exile carrying Europe's corpse while its soul departed into eternity. Sweig's dead Europe it was, but it was also the Europe of Constantine, of Charlemagne, of St Benedict, of Beethoven and Mozart, of Shakespeare and Dante. Yes, and our Europe too, for that Europe gave us our faith and our laws.
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Initial post: 27 Jul 2014 05:55:04 BDT
izzy says:
Thank you for the most insightful review I've read, this tells what Zweig's book is really about. Having studied Zweig at school in Dublin in the 1950's I am finally coming around to reading him properly and this review helps me find what is important at this late stage.
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Location: Sydney NSW Australia

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