UKREN blog

Friday 10 February 2017

Farewell to Europe: A homage to Stefan Zweig

“Before 1914 the earth belonged to the entire human race. Everyone could go where he wanted and stay there as long as he liked. No permits, no visas, nothing to give you trouble; the borders that today, thanks to the pathological distrust felt by everyone for everyone else, are a tangled fence of red tape were then nothing but symbolic lines on the map, and you crossed them as unthinkingly as you can cross the meridian in Greenwich.”  Zweig

These are the words of Stefan Zweig, a world acclaimed writer and Jewish refugee.  Amongst his prolific publications he wrote ‘Farewell to Europe’ and ‘The World of Yesterday’ whilst in exile from his beloved homeland Austria that had been occupied by the Nazis. His writings are haunting indications of what the pre-cursor to malignant racism are; from their subtle origins to the institutionalisation of racism, and genocide. The parallels between 2017 and 1937 are increasingly recognised by historians and citizens alike. As the Western world continues soul searching with an uncertain battle with fascism ahead of us, it is as important than ever to remember the lessons of history. However historical fact and well-rehearsed promises echoing ‘Never Again’ do not seem to be sinking in.  Could the accounts of an individual’s life experience help us empathise, understand and prevent the sinister geo-political forces that seem to be allowing history to repeat itself?


Who was Stefan Zweig?

Zweig, born in 1881 was an Austrian playwright, novelist and poet who at his height in the 1920s and 30s was one of the world’s most famous authors. Fearing his life, Zweig escaped Germany in 1934 during Hitler’s rise to power. During his exile he lived in the UK, the USA and finally resided in Brazil. As one of the twentieth centuries most renowned socially commenters, the sinister political perceptiveness of Zweig’s writing is comparable to Orwell’s insightfulness. Anxious about the fate of humanity as well as his own fate as a Jew, Zweig was deeply depressed by the fascist tide that swept Europe. One day after finishing his final book ‘The World of Yesterday’ he and his wife committed suicide- found later by fellow Jewish refugees.  

Farewell to Europe (2016): Zweig’s revival

It isn’t hard to recognise the parallels between now and the 1930s, when Zweig was at his most prolific and his most persecuted. When director Maria Schrader and her co-screenwriter Jan Schomburg started shooting Farewell to Europe in 2016, they could not have forecasted how politically relevant Zweig’s story would be in 2016. Schrader reflects:

"If you read the accounts written by Friderike Zweig where she writes about standing at the Marseille docks with thousands of people all fleeing war and persecution, then you view the people on the other side of the Mediterranean, who are risking their lives to cross the sea in the opposite direction but with similar reasons, in a different, much broader context,"

While the film was well received across Europe as Austria’s Oscar Entry it has been largely neglected in the US, arguably the place where it needs most reflection.  Zweig’s world was one wherein the U.S.A was a haven for refugees, a true beacon of the freedom for European refugees. In light of Trump’s recent Muslim ban, that seems like a distant dream.

Farewell to America?

The ‘refugee crisis’ is not the only historically comparable feature that links Zweig’s lifetime and our own. The rise of far right policies, which in Zweig’s time only spread across Europe are now spreading across the Atlantic to the White House. Zweig’s recollections of the first warnings of Nazism are arguably resonant in President Trump’s first week as the president of the United States.

National Socialism began destroying the world, and the first visible symptom of that intellectual epidemic of the present century was xenophobia—hatred or at least fear of foreigners. People were defending themselves against foreigners everywhere; they were kept out of everywhere. Zweig

Zweig’s linear description of the implementation of Nazism are almost too sinister to admit. We have seen the first visible symptom, xenophobia increasing in the UK since Brexit which has is reflected starkly in the rapid growth of hate crime reports.  But before we discuss the extremities on the hard end of this linear path, we have to examine the political policies that catalysed and normalised xenophobia into policy and rhetoric.

The scapegoat, the UK asylum system and the ‘culture of hostility’

The world was on the defensive against strangers, everywhere they got short shrift. All the humiliations previously devised solely for criminals were now inflicted on every traveller before and during a journey. You had to be photographed from right and left, in profile and full face, you had to be able to show certificates—of general health and inoculations—papers issued by the police certifying that you had no criminal record; with addresses of relatives; you had to have other documents guaranteeing that you were of good moral and financial repute; you had to fill in and sign forms in triplicate or quadruplicate, and if just one of this great stack of pieces of paper was missing you were done for. Zweig

Sound familiar? The criminalization of migrants across the Western world, particularly in the U.K has been common place over the last twenty years. The U.K.’s infamous ‘culture of hostility’ justifies the inhumane treatment and rejection of refugees and asylum seekers by scapegoating migrants as the source of British people’s hardships. On arrival they are expected to provide countless documents to face the bureaucratic fortress of the Home Office. Claims of rape and torture are met with invasive medical examinations, while stories are met with the mistrust one would treat a perpetrator with, not a victim. Hence, as Zweig describes they are criminalised: sent to detention centres and prisons where they are invisible and thus exempt from standards of justice and citizenship.

We blame Brexit on the dramatic rise of the visibility of racism. But racist rhetoric surfaced long before in government rhetoric. David Cameron’s “swarm of migrants”, David Blunket’s “bogus asylum seekers”, And of course Theresa May “Go Home Vans”. And we wonder how racism has come to be normalised to the extent it is in contemporary society.

The World of Yesterday

“When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the war, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security” Zweig

Zweig finished the last pages of his final book The World of Yesterday the day before he committed suicide. Writing in the midst of World War Two, he wrote of a time before hate. Every day another historian draws parallels between today’s politics and the rise of Hitler. Yet instead of giving into the ‘inevitability’ of the repetition darkest chapters in history repeating themselves, now is a more important time than ever to learn the lessons of history to maintain the treasure of peace.

 “I believe in a Free Europe. I believe that passports and borders will be history someday.” Zweig

While Zweig doubted he would see this progression in his lifetime, these were the hopes he had for our generation. We are now faced with a choice: fear or resistance. Fear is what allowed the Nazi’s to come into power, as fear was similarly preyed upon in both the Brexit and Trump campaigns. Allowing ourselves to be fearful today is only perpetuating the darkest form of power. While Zweig never lived to see the end of the war, his words stay with us as an echo of the world of yesterday here to remind us of what Never Again really means.


Georgia Whitaker


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