Stefan Zweig on the Rise of Democracy in Europe

Stefan Zweig lived through Austria’s transition from aristocracy to democracy. His account is not one you’ll find in the school books.

Zweig writes:

Thanks to the constant accumulation of profits, in an era of increasing prosperity in which the State never thought of nibbling off more than a few per cent of the income of even the richest, in which, on the other hand, State and industrial bonds bore high rates of interest, to grow richer was nothing more than a passive activity for the wealthy. Not yet, as later at the time of the inflation, were the thrifty robbed, and the solid business men swindled; and the patient and the non-speculating made the best profit. … I never loved that old earth more than in those last years before the First World War, never hoped more ardently for European unity, never had more faith in its future than then, when we thought we saw a new dawning.

It may perhaps be difficult to describe to the generation of today, which has grown up amidst catastrophes, collapses, and crises, to which war has been a constant possibility and even a daily expectation, that optimism, that trustfulness in the world which had animated us young people since the turn of the century. The cities grew more beautiful and more populous from year to year. The Berlin of 1905 no longer resembled the city that I had known in 1901; the capital had grown into a metropolis and, in turn, had been magnificently overtaken by the Berlin of 1910. New theatres, libraries and museums sprang up everywhere; comforts such as bathrooms and telephones, formerly the privilege of the few, became the possession of the more modestly placed, and the proletariat emerged, now that working hours had been shortened, to participate in at least the small joys and comforts of life. There was progress everywhere.

The mountains, the lakes, the ocean were no longer as far away as formerly,; the bicycle, the automobile, and the electric trains had shortened distances and had given the world new spaciousness. On Sundays thousands and tens of thousands in gaudy sports coats raced down the snow banks on skis and toboggans; sport palaces and swimming pools appeared everywhere .. None but the very poorest remained home on Sundays, and all youth hiked, climbed, and gamboled.

Up to that time the erroneously denominated “universal suffrage” was only permitted to the well-to-do, who had to submit proof of ability to pay a set minimum tax. The advocates and landholders chosen from this class truly and honestly believed they were the spokesmen and representatives of “the people” in parliament. Because of their liberal belief in the unfailing progress of the world through tolerance and reason, these middle-class democrats honestly thought that with small concessions and gradual improvements they were furthering the welfare of all subjects in the best way possible. But they had completely forgotten that they represented only fifty or a hundred thousand well-situated people in the large cities, and not the hundreds of thousands and millions of the entire country. In the meantime the machine had done its work and had gathered the formerly scattered workers around industry. Under the leadership of an eminent man, Dr. Viktor Alder, a Socialist Party was created in Austria to further the demands of the proletariat, which sought a truly universal suffrage. Hardly had this been granted, or rather obtained by force, before it became apparent how thin though highly valuable a layer of liberalism had been. With it conciliation disappeared from public political life, interests hit hard against interests, and the struggle began.

… The Christian Social Party, a lower middle-class party throughout, was actually only the organic counterpart of the proletarian movement and, like it, was fundamentally a product of the victory of the machine over the manual crafts. The large department stores and mass production were the ruin of the bourgeoisie and the small employers and manufacture by hand. An able and popular leader was Dr. Karl Lueger, who mastered this unrest and worry and, with the slogan, “the little man must be helped” carried with him the entire small bourgeoisie and the disgruntled middle class, whose envy of the wealthy was markedly less than the fear of sinking from its bourgeois status into the proletariat. It was exactly the same worried group which Adolf Hitler later collected around him as his first substantial following. Karl Leuger was also his prototype in another sense, in that he taught himself the usefulness of the anti-semitic catchword, which put an opponent before the eyes of the broad classes of the bourgeois, and the same time imperceptibly diverted their hatred from the great landed gentry and the feudal wealthy class.

But soon a third flower appeared, the blue cornflower, Bismarck’s favorite flower, and the emblem of the German National Party, which – although not then recognized as such – was consciously a revolutionary party, and worked with brutal forcefulness for the destruction of the Austrian monarchy in favor of a Greater Germany under Prussian and Protestant leadership, such as Hitlers dreams of. Weak in numbers, it made up for its unimportance by wild aggression and unbridled brutality. Its few representatives became the terror and ( in the old sense ) the shame of the Austrian parliament. Hitler also took over from them the anti-semitic racial theory - “In that race lies swinishness” his illustrious prototype had said. But above all else, he took from the German Nationals the beginning of a ruthless storm troop that blindly hit out in all directions, and with it the principle of terroristic intimidation by a small group over a numerically superior but humanely more passive majority.

Zweig later tells us the story of his travels through back country France. This passage helps explain the psychology that resulted in World War I:

It was a small suburban cinema, utterly different from the modern palaces of chromium and glass; a sparsely fitted hall, filled with humble folk, workers, soldiers, market women – the plain people – who chatted comfortably. The third picture was “Kaiser Wilhelm visits the Emperor Francis Joseph in Vienna.” The train came on the screen, the first coach, the second, and the third. The door of the compartment was thrown open, and out stepped William II in the uniform of an Austrian General, his mustache curled stiffly up wards. The moment he appeared in the picture, a spontaneous wild whistling and stamping of feet began in the dark hall. Everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted. The good natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers, had gone mad for an instant. I was frightened. I was frightened to the depths of my heart. For I sensed how deeply the poison of the propaganda of hate must have advanced through the years, when even here in a small provincial city the simple citizens and soldiers had been so greatly incited against the Kaiser and against Germany that a passing picture on the screen could produce such a demonstration.