“I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life.” Thus begins Stefan Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday, a work that is as much an account of the biographer/poet/dramatist’s life as it is a poignant elegy for a culture. It recounts Zweig’s education in fin-de-siecle Austria, his ascent in the teeming world of European arts and letters in the first decade of the twentieth century, his sobering reflections on the First World War, and finally his devastating confrontation with the subterranean social agitations that concludes with his exile and the rise of Nazism.

Along the way, Zweig meets and recounts his interactions with luminaries such as Rudolf Steiner, Theodor Herzl, Auguste Rodin, Richard Strauss, and many others. With a style both moving and incisive, Zweig’s memoir serves as a reminder of how beautiful liberalism can be as well as a warning of how it can disintegrate.

Image: Cafe Griensteidl 1896


Ian Marcus Corbin on Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday


Ian Marcus Corbin

Ian Marcus Corbin is a philosopher on faculty in Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital / Harvard Medical School, where he co-directs the Human Network Initiative, and is a Faculty Member at the HMS Center for Bioethics. His philosophical work examines the connections between modes of intersubjectivity, community, and cognitive flourishing.

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Discussion Questions:

  1. How much should we trust Zwieg as a narrator of his childhood?  
  2. What accounts for the very high status ascribed to intellectual endeavor in Zweig’s Vienna?  
  3. What signs, if any, can we see that all was not really so well as Zweig felt it was?   


Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the sexual conservatism Zweig describes comport with the broader atmosphere of cultural experimentation? Are the two at odds?  
  2. How does Zweig’s vision of the university compare with current day visions?  
  3. What are the core ingredients that make a city great in the way that Zweig’s Paris is great? 


  • The World of Yesterday, Detours On The Way To Myself,” “Beyond Europe,” & “Brightness And Shadows Over Europe

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it still possible for young people to feel the reverence and awe that Zweig felt towards writers like Goethe? If not, what has changed?  
  2. What is the relationship between the technological and cultural progress that Zweig describes? Are they entirely separable phenomena?  


  • The World of Yesterday, The First Hours Of The 1914 War,” “The Fight For International Fraternity,” & “In The Heart Of Europe

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the relationship between all of the progress, experimentation, and excitement Zweig describes, and the simmering tensions that came to a boil in 1914?  
  2. Are we fated to always cluster around tribal identities, or is Zweig’s cosmopolitanism a live possibility?  
  3. Within a few pages, Zweig describes time spent with R.M. Rilke and James Joyce. What accounts for the concentration of great literary talent in Zweig’s time and place? If we are in a different literary epoch now, why?  


  • The World of Yesterday: “Going Home To Austria,” “Out Into The World Again,” & “The Setting Sun

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why was the interwar period a golden age for “all that was extravagant and uncontrolled—theosophy, occultism, spiritualism, somnambulism, anthroposophy, palm-reading, graphology, the teachings of Indian yoga and Paracelsian mysticism”? Are we approaching another such period ourselves?  
  2. What role did inflation play in setting the cultural tone for Weimar Germany? 
  3. Hitler, in Zweig’s telling “destroyed our world.” Did one man do this? 


Discussion Questions:

  1. Prior to the rise of Hitler, Zweig says he believed in “the existence of a German, a European, an international conscience, and we were convinced that a certain degree of inhumanity is sure to self-destruct in the face of humane standards.” Was he right to do so?  
  2. Was there anything left of or for Stefan Zweig after the Nazis stormed through Europe? Did he succumb to despair, or did he accurately see that there was nothing left for him?

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