On being a European

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian by birth, a European by instinct and vocation, an author and poet who became the most translated writer in Europe in the 1930s, a Jew, an exile, a refugee, who in spite of two world wars and exile continued to write and travel and argue – until in 1942 he and his wife took their own lives in Brazil.

He championed international cooperation, championed culture and the intellectual life – his aspiration that they might bring Europe together, and triumph over petty nationalisms.

In the World of Yesterday, ‘one of the canonical European testaments’, he tells the story of his life and times from school days to 1939. Curiously in the UK he never achieved the fame he found in Europe.

Maybe that should change.

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On Europe…. 

‘It will be decades before that other (trusting) Europe can return to what it was before the First World War…….bitterness and distrust have lurked in the mutilated body of Europe.’

As more became known about Hitler and his ready resort to violence ‘the conscience of Europe’ chose not to take sides, because all violent acts were within Germany…. (my italics)

After the First World War, ‘The orderly German nation did not know what to do with its liberty, and was already looking for someone to take away it away again.’ (Today the guardians of that liberty hold sway, but the threat is always there, from neo-Nazis, and from political parties such as Alternative fur Deutchland.) 

In Austria in 1937, before the Anschluss, few at least publicly made the connections with 1914 – no-one wanted to. Zweig describes vividly a traditional Christmas in Vienna in 1937.

All the while a new power out there, aiming to seize government, ‘regarded all idea we valued as outmoded – peace, humanity, reconciliation…’

He compares the English with Austria, Germany, or France – they lived more quietly, more content, thought more about their gardens.

(We lose so much if we deny ourselves that European focus – if we imagine the values we hold sacred are specially English, or British. Reading Zweig reminds us what it was like living through that remarkable period from 1900 to 1940. We are part of Europe, our outlook and culture – and origins. The rest of the world sees us as European – we are foolish to think otherwise. )

On government – and the people …

In the run up to 1939 (and too often true today): ‘ … 10 or 20 people (in Downing Street, the Quai d’Orsay…), few of whom had ever shown any evidence of any particular intelligence or skill were talking and telephoning and coming to agreements which the rest of us knew nothing about.’

Zweig ‘knew that the vast majority always go to whichever side holds the balance of power at any given moment.’

On armchair revolutionaries… 

Zurich in 1916 – the Zurich of Dada – Zweig had never met such an impassioned and varied mixture of people and opinions. Since his death Zweig’s been accused of being a coward for not coming out more strongly against the war. His comment about ‘coffee house conspirators’ gives the answer – his disdain for ‘professional revolutionaries raised from personal insignificance merely by adopting a stance of opposition’.

(There were many such – and there were as I well recall in the 1970s when I was a trade unionist –Father of Chapel of the Penguin Books NUJ chapel, and they are still very much out there today – and will be in every generation. )

On the arts… 

The poet Rilke, a friend of Zweig’s – ‘Can there ever be such pure poets again…all they wanted was to link verse to verse perfectly in quiet yet passionate endeavour, every line singing with music…. can that kind of poetry exist in our new way of life… which chases out peace of mind like a forest fire?’

On being a refugee, in England…. 

‘I, the former cosmopolitan, keep feeling as if I had to offer special thanks for every breath of air that I take in a foreign country, thus depriving its own people of its benefit…’ Zweig had ‘trained his heart to beat as a citizen of the world for 50 years… On the day I lost my Austrian passport I discovered, at the age of 58, that when you lose your native land you are losing more than a patch of territory set within borders.’

On being Jewish….  

Jews used to have ‘an inviolable faith in their God’. But they were many peoples, multiple languages, now thrown together – what did they have in common? And they asked – ‘what is the reason for this pointless persecution.’

The questions asked by Job.  [‘Why did I not perish at birth, an die as I came from the womb?’  (3:11). ‘What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?’ (6:11)]

After the Anschluss – his elderly mother enjoyed walking – but now ‘no Jew must sit on any public bench’. She no longer had a place to rest. And that was almost the least of the strictures which took down and took apart Jewish life in the city.

And at the last….

A confession- ‘I do not mourn for what I have lost – the art of saying goodbye to everything that was once our pride and joy..’

And yet – ‘But in the end every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.’

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Zweig has many lessons for us, as a European, a Jew, a citizen of the world, a man of culture and intellect, with many flaws as have all of us – but just maybe someone to champion in our own times, when uncertainties are greater, and crises seem – and are – closer to hand, when there’s a sense that the post-war consensus might just break apart, and we need reminders, we need a champion or two.

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