Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Stefan Zwieg on the Coming of Another World War

During the First World War Zwieg Volunteered for
the Austrian Army. He Was Judged Unfit for
Frontline Service and Assigned to the War Archives

Farewell, you dear ones, you companions of many fraternal hours in France, Belgium and England, we need to take leave now, for a long time. No words, no letters, no regards that I could send to you in your now hostile cities would find their way into your hands. And if they did, they would not reach your hearts. All of a sudden, we are separated from each other through violence—we, who have long been joined in friendship and common affinity. Yet I lament it not. Because for the first time, we would no longer understand each other, even if we exchanged speech and retort but in writing. We are not who we were before the war and the fate of our homeland stands between our feelings. You are far from me these days, and foreign, and no language—not ours, not yours—could make it so that we are close and trusting again. Farewell, you dear ones, farewell companions!

Stefan Zweig, Letter to Friends in Foreign Lands, 1914

In 1939 Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was living in England.  A second world war seemed to be near. At the conclusion of his final work, The World of Yesterday, he reflected about he responded to the coming war and the shadow of the previous war that still hung over him and Europe

I went that morning—it was September 1, a Friday—to the registry office at Bath to secure my marriage license. The official took our papers and was uncommonly friendly and zealous. Like everyone else at this time, he understood our desire for haste. The ceremony was set for the next day; he took his pen and, in a careful script, began to write our names in his book.

Just then—^it must have been about eleven o’clock—the door to the next room flew open. A young official burst in, getting into his coat while walking. “The Germans have invaded Poland. This is war !” he shouted into the quiet room. The word fell like a hammer blow upon my heart. But the heart of our generation is already accustomed to all sorts of hard blows. “That doesn’t have to mean war,” I said in honest conviction. But the man was almost incensed. “No,” he cried vehemently, “we’ve had enough! We can’t let them start this sort of thing every six months ! We’ve got to put a stop to it! ” 

Meanwhile, the clerk who had already begun to fill out our certificate laid his pen down thoughtfully. After all, we were aliens, he reflected, and in case of war would automatically become enemy aliens. He did not know whether marriage in such circumstances was still permissible. He was very sorry but in any event he would have to apply to London for instructions. Then came two more days of waiting, hoping, fearing, two days of the most terrible suspense. Sunday morning the radio gave out the news that England had declared war against Germany. 

It was a strange morning. Silently we stepped back from the radio that had projected a message into the room which would outlast centuries, a message that was destined to change our world totally and the life of every single one of us. A message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it,  sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us, and perhaps only after years and years a creative significance.

It was war again, a war, more terrible and far-reaching than ever before on earth any war had been. Once more an epoch came to an end, once more a new epoch began. Silently we stood in the room that had suddenly become deathly quiet and avoided looking at each other. From outside came the unconcerned twitter of the birds, frivolous in their love and subject to the gentle breeze, and in golden luster the trees swayed as if their leaves, like lips, wished to touch one another tenderly. It was not for ancient Mother Nature to know the cares of her creatures.

I went to my room and packed a small bag. If the prediction of a friend in high place were fulfilled, then we Austrians in England would be counted as Germans and would be subject to the same restrictions; it seemed unlikely that I would be allowed to sleep in my own bed that night. Again I had dropped a rung lower, within an hour I was no longer merely a stranger in the land but an “enemy alien,’’ a hostile foreigner; this decree forcibly banned me to a situation to which my throbbing heart had no relation. For was a more absurd situation imaginable than for a man in a strange land to be compulsorily aligned—solely on the ground of a faded birth certificate—with a Germany that had long ago expelled him because his race and ideas branded him as anti-German and to which, as an Austrian, he had never belonged. By a stroke of a pen the meaning of a whole life had been transformed into a paradox; I wrote, I still thought in the German language, but my every thought and wish belonged to the countries which stood in arms for the freedom of the world. Every other loyalty, all that was past and gone, was torn and destroyed and I knew that after this war everything would have to take a fresh start. For my most cherished aim to which I had devoted aU the power of my conviction for forty years, the peaceful union of Europe, had been defiled. 

What I had feared more than my own death, the war of all against all, now had become unleashed for the second time. And one who had toiled heart and soul all his hfe for human and spiritual unity found himself, in this hour winch like no other demanded inviolable unity, thanks to this precipitate singling out, superfluous and alone as never before in his life. Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace. It lay calmly in the noonday sun and seemed no different to me from other days. People went their accustomed way in their usual manner. There were no signs of hurry, they did not crowd talkatively together. Their behavior had a Sabbath-like quality and at a certain moment I asked myself: “ Can it be that they don’t know it yet?” But they were English, and practiced  in restraining their emotions. They needed no flags and drums, clamor and music to strengthen themselves in their tough, unemotional determination. How different from those days of July, 1914, in Austria, but how different was I, too, from the inexperienced young man of that time, how heavy with memories! I knew what war meant, and as I looked at the well-filled, tidy shops I had an abrupt vision of those of 1918, cleared-out and empty, seemingly staring at one with wide-open eyes. 

As in a waking dream I saw the long queues of careworn women before the food shops, the mothers in mourning, the wounded, the cripples, the whole night- mare of another day returned spectrally in the shining noonday light. I recalled our old soldiers, weary and in rags, how they had come back from the battlefield,—my beating heart felt the whole past war in the one that was beginning today and which soil hid its terror from our eyes. Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!

The sun shone full and strong. Homeward bound I suddenly noticed before me my own shadow as I had seen the shadow of the other war behind the actual one. During all this time it has never budged from me, that irremovable shadow, it hovers over every thought of mine by day and by night; perhaps its dark outline lies on some pages of this book, too. But, after all, shadows themselves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.

Stefan Zweig and Elizabeth Charlotte Zweig, his wife, died by their own hands at Petropolis, Brazil, on 23 February 1942. 


  1. I enjoyed the author's perspective till seeing his end. Fortunately I can't ever understand his final decision. There is always hope.