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Stefan Zweig: Origin of the Nobel Peace Prize

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

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war

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

In Germany, it was Werfel who gave world brotherhood its strongest lyric accent with Der Weltfreund; Rene Schickele, an Alsatian, placed by fate between the two nations, laboured passionately for an understanding; from Italy, G. A. Borgese hailed us as a comrade, and encouragement came from thee Scandinavian and the Slavic countries as well. “Why don’t you come over here!” a great Russian writer said in a letter. “Show the Panslavists who are trying to egg us into the war that you Austrians are against it.” Oh, we loved our inspired time well enough and we loved our Europe ! But this blind belief, that reason would baulk the madness at the last minute, established itself as our one shortcoming. True, we did not regard the handwriting on the wall with sufficient misgiving, but is it not the very essence of youth not to be distrustful but to believe? We relied on Jaurès, on the Socialist International, we believed that the railroad men would rather tear up the tracks than transport their comrades to the front as so much cattle to be slaughtered, we counted on the women, who would refuse to sacrifice their children and husbands to Moloch, we were convinced that the spiritual and moral forces of Europe would reveal themselves triumphantly at the critical moment. Our common idealism, our optimism based on progress, led us to misjudge and contemn the common danger.

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The Balkan War, where Krupp and Schneider-Creusot rehearsed their guns against foreign “human material,” as later the Germans and Italians rehearsed their planes in the Spanish Civil War, drew us closer and closer to the cataract. Again and again we started up, only to breathe again: “Not yet, this time – and let us hope, never!”

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By chance, the very next day I met Berta von Suttner, that majestic and grandiose Cassandra of our time. An aristocrat of one of the first families, in her early youth she had experienced the cruelty of the War of 1866 in the vicinity of her family seat in Bohemia. And with the passion of a Florence Nightingale she saw but one task for herself in life: to hinder a second war, or any war at all. She wrote a novel, Lay Down Your Arms, which met with universal success; she organized countless pacifist meetings, and the triumph of her life was that she had aroused the conscience of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, to such an extent that, to compensate for the evil that he had caused with his dynamite, he had established the Nobel Prize for Peace and International Understanding. She came up to me in great excitement. “The people have no idea of what is going on!” she cried quite loudly in the street, although she usually spoke quietly and with deliberation. “The war is already upon us, and once again they have hidden and kept it from us. Why don’t you do something, you young people? It is your concern most of all. Defend yourselves! Unite! Don’t always let a few old women to whom no one listens do everything.” I told her that I was going to Paris; perhaps one could really attempt a common manifesto. “Why only ‘perhaps’?” she pressed on. “Things are worse than ever, the machine is already in motion.” Being disturbed myself, I had difficulty in quieting her.

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