It may be my very favorite book, and I’m reading it once again. It is titled The World of Yesterday, and it was written soon after the beginning of World War II by Stefan Zweig.
Zweig was an Austrian Jew born in 1881 into a society he calls, in an opening chapter, a “World of Security.” He then lived through times that shattered that security, and the stability that his generation had grown up taking for granted: first there was the cataclysm of World War I, then there was the rise of the Nazis, who eventually annexed Austria, and brought the merciless persecution of the Jews.
The book unfolds mostly chronologically, filled with profound insights into people and culture and historical forces, and infused with deep moral values. Yet he ends that “World of Security” chapter with a perspective that reaches back from his precarious present (in exile, having escaped from the Nazis).
About the contrast between the secure lives that his parents’ generation lived and the tumultuous and troubled times that he and his generation have been compelled to live through, Zweig says this:
“All the same, I don’t know whether I envy them. For they drowsed their lives away remote from all true bitterness, from the malice and force of destiny; they know nothing about all those crises and problems that oppress the heart but at the same time greatly enlarge it. How little they knew, stumbling along in security and prosperity and comfort, that life… can be turned upside down; how little they guessed in their touching liberal optimism that every new day dawning outside the windows could shatter human lives. Even in their darkest nights they never dreamt how dangerous human beings can be, or then again how much power they can have to survive dangers and surmount trials. We who have been hunted through the rapids of life, torn from our former roots, always driven to the end and obliged to begin again, victims and yet also the willing servants of unknown mysterious powers, we for whom comfort has become an old legend and security a childish dream, have felt tension from pole to pole of our being, the terror of something always new in every fibre. Every hour of our years was linked to the fate of the world. In sorrow and in joy we have lived through time and history far beyond our own small lives, while they knew nothing beyond themselves. Every one of us, therefore, even the least of the human race, knows a thousand times more about reality today than the wisest of our forebears. But nothing was given to us freely; we paid the price in full.
When K read this passage, I thought it contained something to offer us, who are also living through times of unusual turbulence.
At this point, we are not faced with anything like the wanton slaughter of millions in World War I, or like the complete domination of our world by a regime of perhaps unrivaled evil and destructiveness.
But those of us born into post-War America are also having to confront the shattering of aspects of the order we grew up taking for granted. American democracy was something that gave us a kind of “World of Security” — an order whose survival did not seem to be questionable. But we, like Zweig’s generation, have seen laid bare the precariousness of such security.
As a result, we too are learning “more about reality” than many of those who went before us. (Or at least — inasmuch as the generation preceding mine lived through the Great Depression and World War II — we are learning more about certain aspects of reality than their experience gave them to know.)
And because Zweig, reflecting on all that was lost but also what was gained by such upheaval, declares himself uncertain whether he envies those spared such painful times; because he sees understanding of great value, as well as great pain and fear, resulting from those upheavals, I thought this passage a good thing to share here as we come to the end of 2018, and enter into another year where the great gathering political battles of our time are bound to intensify.