The last twenty years have seen a striking revival in the English-speaking world for arguably the two greatest Austrian writers of the first half of the 20th century: Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. The former, best-known for The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb (I would also recommend The String of Pearls) is adjudged by many to be the better novelist. But Zweig had a wider range with a particular skill for identifying why specific personalities played the role they did at crucial moments in history. Moreover, there are few writers whose ideas and observations resonate so powerfully with audiences who come after.
This resonance partly explains why sales of Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday have surged in the United States and Great Britain in recent years. In this memoir, Zweig describes the decade before the First World War when the mass roll-out of exciting new technologies and rapid social change were tempered, and indeed sometimes fed, by the emergence of mass political movements with class, nationalist, populist, and racist ideologies. While not exact parallels, comparisons with today are easy to spot. So are Zweig’s implied warnings about Nazism and other forms of extremism. The memoir was Zweig’s final great work, and brings together in one coherent volume many of the themes he had explored in earlier works in greater detail.
After re-reading The World of Yesterday, I decided to turn to two of Zweig’s other works. I was already familiar with one, Sternstunden der Menschheit. This collection of key moments in – largely European – history has been variously translated into English, most recently as Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures. The stories are simply a great read. Both pithy and poetic, Zweig identifies the peculiar human constellations that fell into alignment at moments when history took a radically different path. Some, like the fall of Constantinople, are obvious choices, but other events are less well-known, such as the monumental effort and achievement in laying the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic which revolutionised communication between Europe and the Americas in the mid-19th century.
Zweig always kept one eye on technology and how its development moulded human consciousness and actions. In his short biography, The Triumph and Tragedy of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the printing press acts as a discreet backdrop to Zweig’s portrait of the greatest Humanist, Erasmus. In 1440 when Gutenberg and friends developed the printing press, there were tens of thousands of books in Europe. By the end of the century, just sixty years later, there were some fifteen to twenty million books in circulation in the homes of an ever-broadening class of literate men and women. In 1511, Erasmus published his tract, In Praise of Folly, a sharp satire that attacked the superstitions and corruption of the Catholic Church. It was a huge bestseller across Europe. From then on, princes and politicians of every station and tongue sought Erasmus’s acquaintance and his approbation. When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, he too was desperate to seek Erasmus’s endorsement. This was not forthcoming. Erasmus believed it would be a betrayal if he were to take sides in any dispute. His commitment was to learning and to reconciliation. Conflict and confrontation were anathema.
As the book progresses, it becomes harder to divorce the portrayal of Erasmus from Zweig himself. Zweig never deals in precise parallels but his own personality melts into that of Erasmus. The influence of Erasmus declines as that of Martin Luther accretes. Zweig portrays Luther as a violent bully, explicitly associating his spiritual critique of Rome with an aggressive German nationalism. Zweig’s book was published in 1934: plenty of time for him, and others like him, to understand the reality of Hitler’s electoral coup of January 1933. At the end of the book, Zweig turns on his Humanist hero. Erasmus is offered the chance to arbitrate the theological disputes between Luther and the Roman Church at the Diet of Augsburg, convened by Emperor Charles V. Yet again he turns down the opportunity to mediate, finally earning Zweig’s contempt for failing to influence the critical moment in history when the stars were aligned in his favour. Unwittingly, Zweig argues, he acts as handmaiden to the polarisation which prolonged the religious wars for almost another century before culminating in the greatest bloodletting ever witnessed until that point – the Thirty Years War.
The lessons for Zweig’s generation were clear. And they are worth revisiting today.
By Misha Glenny
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