If I try to find some useful phrase to sum up the time of my childhood and youth before the First World War, I hope I can put it most succinctly by calling it a Golden Age of Security. Everything in our Austrian Monarchy, then almost a thousand years old, seemed built to last, and the state itself was the ultimate guarantor of durability. The rights it gave its citizens were affirmed by our parliament, a freely elected assembly representing the people, and every duty was precisely defined. our currency, the Austrian crown, circulated in the form of shiny gold coins, thus vouching for its own immutability. Everyone knew how much he owned and what his income was, what was allowed and what was not. Everything had its norm, its correct measurement and weight. If you had wealth, you could work out precisely how much interest it would earn you every year, while civil servants and officers were reliably able to consult the calendar and see the year when they would be promoted and the year when they would retire. Every family had its own budget and knew how much could be spent on food and lodging, summer holidays and social functions, and of course you had to put a small sum aside for unforeseen contingencies such as illness and the doctor. If you owned a house you regarded it as a home for your children and grandchildren; property in town or country was passed on from generation to generation. While a baby was still in the cradle, you contributed the first small sum to its way through life, depositing them in a money box or savings account, a little reserve for the future. Everything in the wide domain was firmly established, immovably I its place, with the old Emperor at the top of the pyramid, and if he were to die the Austrians all knew (or thought they knew) that another emperor would take his place, and nothing in the well-calculated order of things would change. Anything radical or violent seemed impossible in such an age of reason.
The sense of security was an asset owned by millions, something desirable, an ideal of life held in common by all. Life was worth living only with such security, and wider and wider circles were eager to have their part in that valuable asset. At first only those who already owned property enjoyed advantages, but gradually the population at large came to aspire to them. The era of security was also the golden age of the insurance industry. You insured your house against fire and theft, your land against damage by storms and hail, your body against accidents and sickness; you bought annuities for your old age; you put insurance policies in your girl children's cradles to provide their future dowries. Finally even the working classes organized themselves to demand a certain level of wages as the norm, as well as health insurance schemes. Servants saved for their old age, and paid ahead of time into policies for their own funerals. Only those who could look forward with confidence to the future enjoyed the present with an easy mind.
But for all the solidity and sobriety of people's concept of life at the time, there was a dangerous and overweening pride in this touching belief that they could fence in their existence, leaving no gaps at all. In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith sin uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion. People believed in 'progress' more than in the Bible, and its gospel message seemed incontestably proven by the new miracles of science and technology that were revealed daily. In fact a general upward development became more and more evident, and at the end of that peaceful century it was swift and multifarious. Electric lights brightly lit the streets by night, replacing the dim lamps of the past; shops displayed their seductive new brilliance from the main streets of cities all the way to the suburbs; thanks to the telephone, people who were far apart could speak to each other; they were already racing along at new speeds in horseless carriages, and fulfilling the dream of Icarus by rising int he air. The comfort of upper-class dwellings now reached the homes of the middle classes; water no longer had to be drawn from wells or waterways; fires no longer had to be laboriously kindled in the hearth; hygiene was widespread, dirt was disappearing. People were becoming more attractive, stronger, healthier, and now that there were sporting activities to help hem keep physically fit, cripples, goitres, and mutilations were seen in the streets less and less frequently Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable. The right to vote was granted to circles flung wider and wider, and with it the opportunity for voters to defend their own interests legally. Sociologists and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and even happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade, as it drew to a close, as the prelude to an even better one. People no more believed in the possibility of barbaric relapses, such as wars between the nations of Europe, than they believed in ghosts and witches; our fathers were doggedly convinced of the infallibly binding power of tolerance and oscillation. They honestly thought that divergences between nations and religious faiths would gradually flow into a sense of common humanity, so that peace and security, the greatest of goods, would come to all mankind.
Today, now that the word 'security' has long been struck out of our vocabulary as a phantom, it is easy for us to smile at the optimistic delusion of that idealistically dazzled generation, which thought that the technical progress of mankind must inevitably result in an equally rapid moral rise. We who, in the new century, have learnt not to be surprised by any new outbreak of collective bestiality, and expect every new day to prove even worse than the day just past, are considerably more skeptical about prospects for the moral education of humanity. We have found that we have to agree with Freud, who saw our culture and civilization as a thin veneer through which the destructive forces of the underworld could break at any moment. We have had to accustom ourselves slowly to living without firm ground beneath our feet, without laws, freedom or security. We long ago ceased believing in the religion of our fathers, their faith in the swift and enduring ascent of humanity. Having learned our cruel lesson, we see their overhasty optimism as banal in the face of a catastrophe that, with a single blow, cancelled out a thousand years of human effort. But if it was only a delusion, it was a noble and wonderful delusion that our fathers served, more humane and fruitful than today's slogans. And something in me, mysteriously and in spite of all I know and all my disappointments, cannot quite shake it off. What a man has taken into his bloodstream in childhood from the air of that time stays with him. And despite all that is dinned into my ears daily, all the humiliation and trials that I myself and countless of my companions in misfortune have experienced, I cannot quite deny the belief of my youth that in spite of everything, events will take a turn for the better. Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.
Stefan Zweig - The World of Yesterday
Andrea Bell Trans.
African Writers Series covers
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