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Stefan Zweig: The fruits of peace, the drive toward war


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war


Stefan Zweig
From The World of Yesterday
Translated by Benjamin W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger

It may perhaps be difficult to describe to the generation of today, which has grown up amidst catastrophes, collapses, and crises, to which war has been a constant possibility and even a daily expectation, that optimism, that trustfulness in the world which had animated us young people since the turn of the century. Forty years of peace had strengthened the economic organism of the nations, technical science had given wings to the rhythm of life, and scientific discoveries had made the spirit of that generation proud; there was sudden upsurge which could be felt in almost identical measure in all countries of Europe. The cities grew more beautiful and more populous from year to year. The Berlin of 1905 no longer resembled the city that I had known in 1901; the capital had grown into a metropolis and, in turn, had been magnificently overtaken by the Berlin of 1910. Vienna, Milan, Paris, London, and Amsterdam on each fresh visit evoked new astonishment and pleasure. The streets became broader and more showy, the public buildings more impressive, the shops more luxurious and tasteful. Everything manifested the increase and spread of wealth. Even we writers experienced it in the editions of our works which, within some ten years, had increased three-, five-, and tenfold. New theatres, libraries, and museums sprang up everywhere ; comforts such as bathrooms and telephones, formerly the privilege of the few, became the possession of the more modestly placed, and the proletariat emerged, now that working hours had been shortened, to participate in at least the small joys and comforts of life. There was progress everywhere. Whoever ventured, won. Whoever bought a house, a rare book, or a painting saw it increase in value; the more daring and the larger the scale on which an enterprise was founded, the more certain a profit. A wondrous unconcernedness had thus spread over the world, for what could interrupt this rapid ascent, restrict the élan, which constantly drew new force from its own soaring? Never had Europe been stronger, richer, more beautiful, or more confident of an even better future…

But there was danger too in the very thing that brought joy, although we did not perceive it. The storm of pride and confidence which rushed over Europe was followed by clouds; perhaps the rise had come too quickly, the States and cities had become powerful too hastily. The sense of power always leads men as well as States to use or to abuse it. France was puffed up with wealth; it wanted yet more, wanted a colony even though there was no superfluous population for the old ones; it almost went to war over Morocco. Italy wanted Cyrenaica; Austria annexed Bosnia; Serbia and Bulgaria pushed toward Turkey; and Germany, still excluded for the time being, raised its paw for an angry blow. In all these States there was a congestive rush of blood to the head. Out of the fruitful will for internal union there developed everywhere, simultaneously, an in infectious greed for expansion. The French industrialists with their big profits agitated against the Germans who were fattening no less fast, because both of them, Krupp and Schneider-Creusot, wanted to produce more guns. The Hamburg shipping interests with their huge dividends worked against those of Southampton, the Hungarian agriculturists against the Serbians, one corporation against another. The critical juncture everywhere evident had made them frantic for more and more. Calmly reflecting on the past, if one asks why Europe went to war in 1914, neither reasonable ground nor even provocation can be found. It had nothing to do with ideas and hardly even with petty frontiers. I cannot explain it otherwise than by this surplus of force, a tragic consequence of the internal dynamism that had accumulated in those forty years of peace and now sought violent release. Every State suddenly had the feeling of being strong, and forgot that every other State had the same feeling, each wanted more and wanted something from the other. And the worst was that just the sentiment which we most highly valued – our common optimism – betrayed us. For each one thought that in the last moment the other would draw back affrightedly; and so the diplomats began their game of bluff. Four or five times, at Agadir, in the Balkan War, in Albania, it remained a game; but the great coalitions drew together always more tightly and more militaristically. In Germany a war tax was introduced in the midst of peace, in France the period of military service was prolonged. The surplus energy had finally to discharge itself and the vanes showed the direction from which the clouds were already approaching Europe.

It was not yet panic, but there was a constantly swelling unrest; we sensed a slight discomfort whenever a rattle of shots came from the Balkans. Would war really come upon us without our knowing why and wherefore? Slowly – all too slowly, all too timidly, as we are now aware! – the opposing forces assembled themselves.

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