The Library: Stefan Zweig's Journeys – On memories and places

Review: Paul Scraton

Throughout his life Stefan Zweig was a traveller. The Austrian writer made numerous journeys in Europe, criss-crossing the continent by train. They began as trips of leisure and inquiry, for the summer season of 1902 in Ostend or a trip in 1904 to explore the ancient streets of Bruges. By 1934 he was travelling for a very different reason; a Jewish writer in exile following the rise to power of the Nazis. First to England and then to the United States, before one, final, journey to Brazil where he committed suicide with his wife.

This collection of travel essays does not take Zweig beyond Europe, beginning as it does with that trip to Ostend in 1902 and ending, in England, with the ‘Gardens in Wartime’ of 1940. Presented chronologically, the essays that make up Journeys comprise a journey as a whole, through time and a changing Europe, one which begins with the security and stability of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Zweig’s childhood and early adulthood and that passes through World War I, the flux of the aftermath, the rise of the Nazis and the (beginnings) of the horrors to come. 

Zweig’s own feelings about the transformation of the continent in those first decades of the 20th century can be read in his 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday - completed the day before he committed suicide – but it can also be felt in this collection, as the excellent translator Will Stone comments in his fascinating introduction to the book:

“It would probably be true to say that as Zweig gains experience as both a traveller and a writer, especially after the trauma of world war, his essays exhibit more depth and his concerns take on more urgency.”

And it does feel, as in his later memoir, that World War I is a defining period in Zweig’s life, such a violent upheaval that transformed the world he knew into the World of Yesterday, changing him as both man and a writer. On a personal level, as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about place and memory, and places that become ‘sites of memory’, it is the essay on Ypres that I return to time and again.

The essay is written in 1928, ten years after the end of World War I and in it Zweig is reflecting on the nature of how the battlefields of Flanders had become a tourist destination. The first Thomas Cook tours had begun barely months after the cessation of the hostilities, with the guns still warm and the landscape still scarred. Stefan Zweig writes:

“Presently the name of Ypres, the ville martyre, shouts from all the posters, from Lille to Ostend, from Ostend to Antwerp, and far into Holland. Organised tours, excursion by automobile, individually tailored visits; it’s a veritable bidding war. Every day some ten thousand people (perhaps more!) come to pass a few hours here: Ypres has become Belgium’s star attraction.”

This is something that I think about a lot, especially here in Berlin where it feels as if there is a memorial on nearly every corner; where it is possible to watch people climbing on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, playing hide and seek or holding fashion shoots among the columns; where it feels, like Ypres does to Zweig, that the whole city is a ‘site of memory’. I have long come to the conclusion that this is a necessary process, and indeed when I have written about the subject of tourism and sites of memory it is a Zweig quote from this collection that always comes to mind:

“Nevertheless: it is good that, in some places on this earth, one can still encounter a few horrifying visible traces of the great crime. Ultimately it is something good too when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through here annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders… All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned.”

Sadly, this is the other power of this collection. Alongside his sharp observations, well-written descriptions and thoughtful reflections, as the essays progress there is something else at work that has nothing to do with the writer and everything to do with the reader: our knowledge of what is to come, especially in the later essays. For however comfortable and carefree those visitors were in 1928, there would soon be more graves, more woods poisoned and more squares devastated. The lessons were indeed unlearned. It is perhaps this realisation that led Zweig to take his own life across the ocean as the continent he loved was consumed by war once more. And it gives these essays a melancholy power, beyond simply the nostalgia for times gone by and places changed beyond recognition. It is not so much that they have changed, but the how and the why. 

Journeys by Stefan Zweig, translated by Will Stone, published by Hesperus Classics, 2010.
Tourism and Sites of Memory, an essay by Paul Scraton appears on Traces of a Border.

Elsewhere No.03 featuring writing on place, interviews and reviews, is out now and available via our online shop.