The World of Yesterday: Memoir of an Austrian Jew in WWI/II

This is my next attempt at engaging in the world of German literature. I have read several novels in German, including Franz Kafka’s famed Der Prozess (The Trial), and lesser known ones such as Michael Kohlhaas both of which I read for classes towards my German minor. I have continued to seek out additional books and plays, including Woyzeck and Der Schimmelreiter. Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) by Stefan Zweig was one Goodreads recommended based on my German bookshelf, and I decided to give it a go. I had heard the name before, but I couldn’t have told you who he was.

Image result for Die Welt von Gestern


It turns out that Zweig isn’t German at all: he’s an Austrian author of Jewish descent. According to his Wikipedia page, “in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most popular writers in the world.” Die Welt von Gestern is his memoirs living through two regime changes in current day Austria, first from the powerful Austrian Empire, heir of the 1000-year old Holy Roman Empire, to a parliamentary government mired in war debt after World War I. And next to an annexed state of the German Third Reich during World War II:

I was born in 1881 in a great and powerful empire, the Habsburg monarchy, but you won’t be able to find that on a map anymore; she was washed away without a trace. I grew up in Vienna, the two thousand year old international metropolis, and had to leave like a criminal before she was degraded to an annexed province of the German state.

I am fascinated with World War I/II history, because the world was so different. We sometimes don’t get a grasp at the momentous regime changes that were going on. The “small” assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir of the Austro-Hungarian empire often mentioned in passing in history textbooks to get to the real fun of battle tactics is explained much more in depth here, and from the perspective of someone who lived through it. You probably don’t even consider Austria’s role in World War I after the assassination– just “the Germans” as a whole. But they had a separate role to play, and the specifics are fascinating. For example, after World War I, I didn’t realize that the Allies had to insist on separate German and Austrian states: the Austrians felt embarrassed after their empire was disassembled into independent nations, and they really tried to rally for a unified German state. That didn’t work. But after they got their new government going, and Hitler took power in Germany, they put up a fight for their independence.

You get a view into the daily living in three different regimes– everything from “the birds and the bees” in the late 19th century to school life at the gymnasium. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Zweig’s in-depth sketches of artists, musicians, writers, and politicians, which whom he was personally acquainted. You get to know writers like Hugo von Hoffmanthal and George Bernard Shaw, musicians like Richard Strauss, and his personal acquaintance with Sigmund Freud when they were both refugees in England. There are times when you get a bad taste in your mouth from Zweig: he likes to brag about his self-importance, and put himself in the center of events. But hey, everyone thought he was a great guy. He was good at making connections and building friendships across international borders. In one scene, he explains how every time he tries to get a cast to put on one of his new plays, the producer dies. He takes this as a sign that his play must be cursed. I got a bit of a chortle out of that.

As a Jew in Austria, Zweig has a lot of insights to share what it was like before and during World War II. I liked how he explained the centrality of the Jewish people to the preservation of Austrian culture: when rich aristocrats were no longer sponsoring artists, it was the Jews who funded the arts. In one interesting passage near the beginning of the book, he does a bit of psychoanalyzing of his own people:

Fitting in to the milieu of the surrounding people or country is for Jews not only a safety consideration, but also a deep inner need. Their longing for home, for peace, for rest, for safety, for normalcy, compels them to passionately bind themselves to the culture of their surroundings.

The book closes right after World War II begins. He was residing in England after Austria officially revoked his passport. He can’t go back home. Once the war has begun, England is also kicking him out as an enemy. He ends up going to Brazil where he committed suicide a day after finishing this book. Here, he also reminisces on the fate of the Jewish people:

The most tragic element of the Jewish tragedy of the 20th century was, that they could no longer find meaning in that which they suffered. All the persecutions of the middle ages of their forefathers and ancestors– they at least knew what they suffered for: for their faith, for their law. They still possessed a talisman of teh soul, what those of today lost long ago, the the trust in their God. The lived and suffered in the proud knowledge that they were a people chosen by the Creator of the world selected for a special mission for mankind, and the promised word of the Bible was their command and law. When they were thrown into the flames, they pressed their holy scriptures to their breasts, which made the murderous flames feel not so hot. When they were driven out of the land, they had one last home, the home of their God, out of which no earthly power, no emperor, no king, no inquisition could drive them. As long as their religion still surrounded them, they were a community and therefore a power.

A fascinating account of a man who lived through turbulent times, wars, and regime changes. It makes me want to live in the present a little bit more, and to reflect on the big picture of events. Of course, you can’t write history textbooks as events are occurring; Zweig didn’t see World War II through to the end either, and the book would likely be different if it were written twenty years later. But lots to think about.

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