When Stefan Zweig, one of the most celebrated authors and thinkers of old Europe, concluded a trajectory in exile by taking his life in 1942 in the Brazilian backwater of Petropolis, his suicide was an acknowledgement that the cosmopolitan, bourgeois world that nurtured him no longer existed. Instead, it had been replaced by a world engulfed in the disruption of two world wars.
Zweig, an Austrian journalist, biographer, novelist and thinker wrote the elegiac “The World of Yesterday”, a lament for an irretrievable world of gentility and hierarchy. He did not live to witness the new social systems created in the aftermath of the wars and, despite his books selling millions of copies and being adapted into Hollywood films, he became obscure. His stories about the spiritual concerns and complicated etiquette of cultured, turn-of-the-century, Viennese bourgeoisie encapsulated an era far removed from the thrusting, can-do literalism of a postwar West dominated by American industry and its optimistic entertainment products.
But Zweig and his psychological reading of human nature are enjoying a comeback. His reprinted books inspired last year’s award-winning “Grand Budapest Hotel” and a new biography has just been published. In Istanbul, a city not known for literary consumption, Turkish-language translations of his books can be bought in the main shopping drag.
Engineering an age
So is there something about our troubled era that is turning us onto Zweig? Does his nostalgic reinvocation rhyme with the ongoing collapse of the post-World War II order? And are we, like Zweig’s generation, experiencing a parallel disenchantment with the ideas of reason and progress?
The Middle East is living its own world war, a highly traumatic series of interconnected conflicts ushering in a reorganisation of the region. A generation of Iraqis and Syrians, the majority under 30 years old and with prematurely shattered dreams, live in refugee camps.
After two apocalyptic world wars, western elites responded to the “never again” challenge and the threat posed by Communism by cultivating the middle class in the world’s most powerful economic blocs.
Urban office environments, inflated state bureaucracies, and the rise of petrocarbon-enabled mass consumerism established a new economic logic that acted as automatic stabilisers to the prospect of social unrest. The dollar’s decoupling from the gold standard facilitated a massive expansion in borrowing that funded expensive social insurance systems, medical care and pensions.
This six-decade era was an unsustainable period of stability built to ensure that past excesses not be repeated. But it was done at the expense of future generations, as today’s overqualified and underemployed generation is discovering.
The 2008 economic crisis was the shock of that era, and it prompted my generation – post-Cold War, post-ideological and lulled by technology into lethargy – to gradually rediscover theory-driven politics.
Advances in technology have brought us closer to the once utopian ideal that humans would cease having to work. But our failure to revise our social systems has resulted in fewer people working longer hours for less pay; a mass displacement of jobs that politicians are disguising through statistical sleight of hand even as they dismiss calls for a debate about a universal basic income.
We are on the brink of a Third Industrial Revolution where businesses “replace people with machines, using sensors to simplify distribution patterns and reduce inventories, deploying algorithms that eliminate human error, and so on”, as a recent essay noted. For the first time, greater productivity will not depend on human labour.
Today’s transition to crisis is reminiscent of the passing of the “golden age of security” lamented by a Zweig witnessing his formational certainties implode.
“Whether or not they realise or admit it, there are many who fear that Zweig’s fractured and de-civilised Europe belongs not only in the world of yesterday,” a recent review noted.
“There is a growing suspicion that the security we have come to take for granted may be passing away, and it may be this as much as the rediscovery of the merits of his work that is leading so many to turn to him.”
Responses to a strange modernity
On a December evening, warplanes circled above the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and artillery boomed from the frontline between Kurdish and ISIL fighters. The city is part of a dysfunctional new normal: A faultline of conflict stretching from the Iranian to the Algerian border across the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
The Islamist groups are bolstered by hundreds of thousands of frustrated, angry and unemployed Muslims who are voting with their feet and travelling from all five continents to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Just as some Europeans are dealing with future uncertainty by sympathising with far-right parties, so do these radicalised Muslims strive for an Islamist utopia that they believe may provide themselves and their children with stability.
The city is part of a dysfunctional new normal: A faultline of conflict stretching from the Iranian to the Algerian border across the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
Meanwhile, thousands of refugees continue fleeing the wars across the Mediterranean in the other direction. Their numbers have swollen to the point that even the traditional winter hiatus is not observed.
A corresponding increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, where 50 percent unemployment gnaws away at the ranks of Greek, Spanish and Italian youth, is prompting comparisons with the Fascist era.
And in the US, claims that the skyrocketing unemployment problem were solved by devaluing salaries (making it the country with the largest number of workers employed in the world in low-paying jobs), failed to conjure away social unrest.
Today, the Middle East is living its own world war, a highly traumatic series of interconnected conflicts ushering in a reorganisation of the region.
‘There is just something missing’
A generation of Iraqis and Syrians, the majority under 30 years old and with prematurely shattered dreams, live in refugee camps. Their Potemkin states’ failure to equip them with foreign languages or employable skills suggests that even when the strife is over they will struggle for a place in the hyper-competitive global marketplace.
In 1913, a gilded society of well-educated bourgeois thought that their Arcadian world, one largely constructed on trade, colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, would continue forever. But the advent of World War I resulted in its violent dismantling within only a few years, with those same idealists clamouring to be sent to the front. By the end of World War II, the technological paradigm had shifted so suddenly that the remnants of these societies were reengineered in ways that left the turn-of-the-20th-century generation deeply alienated.
As Robert Musil, another Austrian novelist and contemporary of Zweig’s who sunk into obscurity and is currently experiencing a revival, observed towards the end of World War II, “there is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there has been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older”.
In an echo of today’s disruptive era, Zweig and Musil thought that the good times would continue forever, but were skewered on a painful historical transition they hadn’t foreseen. As with today, the technological paradigm shifted so suddenly that the remnants of their societies were re-engineered in ways that left them deeply alienated. Too old and formed to adapt but still too young to be discarded, they were left dangling between cultures, etiquettes and values.
In hindsight, it’s unsurprising that neither became a father. At a time when fewer members of Generation X are having children, what does this tell us about our own era?
Iason Athanasiadis is a multimedia storyteller and commentator based in Istanbul.