Outbreak of the war
End of the war

‘What remained was a mutilated trunk that bled from every vein.’ Stefan Zweig and his "World of Yesterday"

Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) (1942) is a testament, a description of Old Europe, interwoven with the author’s reminiscences – which tend towards idealization.

Zweig, like many other writers, volunteered for military service as soon as the war began, but he was found unfit for the front and was sent to the Imperial and Royal War Archive in Vienna. This was where a whole group of writers were gathered; their task was to write war propaganda – undoubtedly a privileged position, for which the authors had their profession to thank.

Zweig’s initial enthusiasm for the war, which he no longer describes in this way in The World of Yesterday (‘I had sworn to myself … never to write a single word that countenanced war or disparaged another nation.’) was first expressed publicly in the Vienna daily Neue Freie Presse in August 1914 in Ein Wort von Deutschland (A Word from Germany):

Germany must now strike with both fists, to the right and to the left, in order to free itself from the double embrace of its opponents. Every muscle of the magnificent might of her people is tensed to the utmost; every nerve of their will is quivering with courage and confidence.

In 1915 Zweig travelled to the devastated Polish war zone in order to collect material for the Archive following the Austro-German attack which had broken through the Russian front line. The reality of the war that he experienced there and elsewhere, together with the influence of Romain Rolland, a French pacifist who consistently maintained his position from the outset, led Zweig to decide ‘to commence my personal war in the midst of war, the struggle against the betrayal of Reason by the current mass passion’.

However, Zweig did not renounce his activities in the field of war propaganda definitively and consistently until 1917. He applied for leave for a lecture tour of Switzerland, where he remained as an exile until the end of the war. Zweig viewed the radical changes of the year 1918 in an ambivalent way; he returned to an Austria ‘which showed faintly on the map of Europe as the vague, grey and inert shadow of the former Imperial monarchy. The Czechs, Poles, Italians and Slovenes had snatched away their countries; what remained was a mutilated trunk that bled from every vein.’

A few months after completing his memoirs, Stefan Zweig, together with his wife, committed suicide in exile in Brazil. The way he was categorized by the literary critics was not without ambiguity, and his touched up picture of himself was not corrected until relatively late. The contradictions in his Wortkämpfe eines Pazifisten (Word Battles of a Pacifist) only became clear with the publication of Zweig’s letters in 1998, and this in a way that truly came as a revelation.

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Weinzierl, Ulrich: Außerordentlich gelehrige Halbaffen. Wortkämpfe eines Pazifisten: Stefan Zweigs Briefe 1914 bis 1919. Unter: (19.06.2014)

Zweig, Stefan: Ein Wort von Deutschland, in: Die Neue freie Presse vom 6.8.1914, 2f. Unter: (19.06.2014)

Zweig, Stefan: Die Welt von Gestern. Unter: (19.06.2014)



„I had sworn to myself ...", „to commence my personal war ...", „which showed faintly ...": Zweig, Stefan: Die Welt von Gestern. Unter: (19.06.2014) (Translation)

„Germany must now strike ...": Zweig, Stefan: Ein Wort von Deutschland, in: Die Neue freie Presse vom 6.8.1914, 2f. Unter: (19.06.2014) (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    War and art

    Many artists, intellectuals and writers welcomed the outbreak of the First World War. They saw it not as an apocalypse but as the opportunity for a change for the better. As such they joined in the patriotic fervour of the first weeks and months of the war. What motivated them not only to devote their artistic energies to the fatherland but also to take an active part in the fighting? How were anti-war sentiments articulated by artists? What other forms of relationship were there between art and warfare during and after the First World War?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    The role of the intellectual in the war

    The year 1914 brought about an incisive change in their private and professional lives of many intellectuals. Formerly international intellectual and artist circles collapsed, many intellectuals entered the war, voluntarily or not, and many of them failed to return.

  • Person

    Stefan Zweig

    Like many of his contemporaries, Stefan Zweig was euphoristic at the start of the war, but this attitude changed radically from 1915 on. After working in the War Archives, he used the opportunity of a lecture series in neutral Switzerland to become an exile.