Want to understand Vienna? Start by reading Stefan Zweig's book The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European.
To understand the present, it is crucial to understand the past. To understand Vienna, it is vital to understand the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire.
Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European, has been called the most famous book on the Habsburg Empire. It is arguably one of the best books to read if you want to understand Viennese, Austrian, and European culture.
On the one hand, the book portrays an intimate account of Stefan Zweig’s life and travels through Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and London. On the other, it shows the burden and turmoil with which Vienna entered a new Republic. It depicts a formative past that reaches into the present and colors modern Viennese life even to this day. And it paints a dramatically expressive picture of a world long gone.
“If I try to find a useful phrase to sum up the time of my childhood and youth before the First World War, I hope I can put it most succinctly by calling it the Golden Age of Security.”
― Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European
Stefan Zweig was the very embodiment of a Viennese and European citizen.
Stefan Zweig is one of the most famous Austrian authors. He is also one of the most widely translated authors in the world. As a result of the Nazi regime, he was forced to emigrate to England in 1934. Afterward, he moved briefly to New York in 1940. And then finally settled in Brazil.
His memoirs depict a vibrant, multicultural European lifestyle and mentality. It covers a turbulent time in Austrian history, from the turn of the century Vienna on the brink of war to the years between the two world wars. It concludes with his exile in Brazil due to the impending Nazi takeover.
“The mother’s family is international. Italian, French, German, or English is spoken at family gatherings. Jewish origin plays no role; no one in the family circle practices religion.”
- Stefan Zweig, Yesterday’s World: Memoirs of a European
The book is a masterpiece, a work of literature that you will return to repeatedly. It vividly describes a world that, although now long gone, in some ways still reaches into the present. It also illustrates and clarifies many of the customs, places, attitudes, mentality, and language associated with Vienna. The world of yesterday, as Stefan Zweig knew it, is still an essential part of Austrian culture & identity today. It is one of the cornerstones of the Austrian economy, especially in the fields of tourism and the arts.
“On the day I lost my passport, I discovered, at the age of fifty-eight, that losing one’s native land implies more than parting with a circumscribed area of soil.”
― Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
A guidebook across time and space
If you want to understand the indomitable spirit of Vienna, then start here. You will not be disappointed. I enjoyed reading this book before I arrived in Vienna. And then, I reread it as a guidebook during my first year in this magical city while visiting the places mentioned in the book. I spent many an afternoon, morning, and evening reading and studying his memoirs.
I read it to understand Vienna. I read it in English to understand the mentality. Then I read it in German to understand the language. Finally, I read it while drinking many a Kleiner Brauner in Café Griensteidl to internalize the culture.
Café Griensteidl was one of Zweig’s favorite haunts. It was soon to become mine as well. Sadly, it is no more. However, other cafés still testify to the Viennese coffee culture and the world that created it. Go to Café Sperl in Vienna’s 6th district if you want to be transported to the world of yesterday. Go to Café Prückel on the Ring across from the Stadtpark to feel how coffee house culture has seamlessly integrated into the 21st century.
From a twilight town to a cosmopolitan city
At the beginning of the 20th century, after the First World War, Vienna was forced to abandon its imperial identity as the capital of a multiethnic empire. After the allied forces dissected the Hapsburg Empire, they triumphantly declared, “And the rest is Austria.” Vienna was reduced to the capital of a crippled nation. The years between the two wars were marked by inner turmoil as Austria struggled to establish itself as a new nation. Vienna became the scene of mutually antagonistic political forces vying for control. Within a span of merely 20 years, democracy was abolished, revolution broke out, and a government nothing short of a dictatorship was established before Austria fell to Nazi Germany.
In 1945, in the aftermath of WW II, Vienna was again challenged to reinvent itself as a city. It had to accept being reduced to the capital of a broken and impoverished State, repositioned at the edge of Western Europe. Vienna became a twilight city, sandwiched between a divided Europe. The inherent value of the former imperial capital was reduced to a physical border, a barrier between two political dogmas, the dividing line between Eastern and Western Europe. Vienna was the gateway that led to and through the Iron Curtain. It was also the breeding ground for espionage, real and imagined.
The feeling of this era is wonderfully captured in the classic 1949 British film noir The Third Man directed by Carol Reed and featuring Orson Wells and Joseph Cotton. If you are a fan of the movie and plan on visiting Vienna you might enjoy the Third Man Tour. It boasts an unusual view of underground Vienna and it’s sewer system complete with the original spiral staircase from the film.
Towards the end of the 20th century, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, Stefan Zweig’s words urging for European identity would once again ring truer and timelier than ever. The fall of the Berlin Wall set Europe on a renewed course toward reunification. New emerging states had to be integrated, forcing the existing Western European states to redefine and redistribute power and position. This geographical reformation was to become a stroke of luck for Austria and its capital. Vienna was repositioned within Central Europe and on course to becoming the beating heart of European culture in a newly formed European Union.
Having entered the 21st century, Vienna has established itself as a respected economic, diplomatic, political, and, not least of all, the cultural hub of the European Union. It is globally referred to as the city of music and boasts a strong tourist industry and a flourishing start-up scene. All this while still retaining its unique mentality.
A true Viennese is said to be a true skeptic. Security, a characteristic inherited from the Hapsburg Empire as described by Stefan Zweig, remains a priority in Viennese decision-making. Risk-takers are rare but growing. “Schau ma mal,” translated loosely as “let’s see,” is a characteristic answer to everything from tomorrow’s weather to planning a trip or even starting a new company.
Despite the conservative, traditional attitude, the city of Vienna is focused on furthering innovation. Trends may take longer to grasp in Vienna and Austria, but waiting and watching have advantages. By sorting out what works and doesn’t before diving in, risks become more calculable and manageable.
Yes, Vienna is European but still distinctly Viennese. However, that, too, is changing. Globalization, the internet, and perhaps most relevant, migration are compelling Vienna to evolve further from a multicultural European city to a diversely global metropolis.
The challenge will be for Vienna to successfully integrate a new migrant population while retaining its inherent culture.
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