The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European [Book Review]

I read this book over a year ago; hence, I might have forgotten some of the details but not the mark it left on me. “The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European” is the final work of Stefan Zweig, the renown Austrian writer who, a day after sending this manuscript, decided to take his own life together with his wife. These memoirs took seven years to write, from 1934-1942, and they are the desperate pleas of an intellectual who had lived some of Europe’s brightest and
darkest times.

Born in 1881 in Vienna, Zweig came of age in what he hopes to convey as “the Golden Age of Security”, and would live through the First and Second World Wars, the rise of Nationalism, Bolchevism and Fascism. In the center of an affluent family, he became one of Europe’s most celebrated intellectuals, whose abilities to dominate multiple languages and eagerness to travel would put to shame those who see themselves as the globetrotters of the XXIst Century.

As a Jew, he saw his books being burned by the Nazis, to be exiled from his home and then Europe, fleeing to Brazil where he would live his final days. He saw reputed colleagues turn from amicable acquaintances to sworn enemies, turning into cogs for the hate-fuelled propaganda machines of Nationalism.

As I write this review, two moments seem to have stuck with me for their echoing effect to today’s historical events. The first, the day he spends an evening in a Cinema in the French countryside of Tours in 1914. There, he witnesses a quite crowd’s uproar at the sight of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany during the news clip that would customarily be shown before the movie, signalling a deeply instilled, irrational hatred in the hearts of the French. The second episode is when the Great War is declared and soldiers start triumphantly marching in Vienna, when he guiltily admits to a sense of greatness and belonging despite his aversion to war.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the way in he conveys the freedom with which the continent lived during the dawn of Globalization, when relaxed passport requirements, extending train lines and new means of transportation sparked a true cosmopolitan Europe. The tone with which he depicts such times manages to make it seem eerily similar to our World today, serving as an alarming reminder of the fragility of Global Peace.

The legacy of this book is present in our daily lives, firstly by having contributed to the idea of the European Union itself. It has also provided the inspiration in movies such as “Grand Hotel Budapest“, and his own biopic “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe“, and has become almost mandatory reading for Europarlamentarians. Through the “World of Yesterday”, Stefan Zweig gave us something to think about the way we run our world today.

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