The generation of my parents and grandparents was better off, they lived their lives from one end to the other quietly and in a straight, clear line. All the same, I do not know whether I envy them. For they drowsed their lives may remote from all true bitterness, from the malice and force of destiny; they knew nothing about all those crises and problems that oppress the heart but at the same time greatly enlarge it. How little they knew, stumbling along in security and prosperity and comfort, that life can also mean excess and tension, constant surprise, can be turned upside down; how little they guessed in their touching liberal optimism that every new day dawning outside the window could shatter human lives. Even in their darkest nights they never dreamt how dangerous human beings can be, or then again how much power they can have to survive dangers and surmount trials. We who have been hunted through the rapids of life, torn from our former roots, always driven to the end and obliged to begin again, victims and yet also the willing servants of unknown mysterious powers, we for whom comfort has become an old legend and security, a childish dream, have felt tension from pole to pole of our being, the terror of something always new in every fibre. Every hour of our years was linked to the fate of the world. In sorrow and in joy we have lived through time and history far beyond our own small lives, while they knew nothing beyond themselves. Every one of us, therefore, even the least of the human race, knows a thousand times more about reality today than the wisest of our forebears. But nothing was given to us freely; we paid the price in full.
That world was a wonderful tonic, its strength reaching our hearts from all the coasts of Europe. At the same time, however, although we did not guess it, what delighted us was dangerous. The stormy wind of pride and confidence sweeping over Europe brought clouds with it. Perhaps the upward movement had come too fast, states and cities had made themselves powerful too swiftly--and an awareness of having power always leads states, like men, to use or misuse it.... one group of companies was set against all the rest--the economic situation had maddened them all in their frantic wish to get their hands on more and more. If today, thinking it over calmly, we wonder why Europe went to war in 1914, there is not one sensible reason to be found, nor even any real occasion for the war. There were no ideas involved, it was not really about drawing minor borderlines. I can explain it only, thinking of that excess of power, by seeing it as a tragic consequence of the internal dynamism that had built up during those forty years of peace, and now demanded release. Every state suddenly felt that it was strong, and forgot that other states felt exactly the same; all states wanted even more, and wanted some of what the others already had. The worst of it was that the very thing we loved most, our common optimism, betrayed us, for everyone thought that everyone else would back down at the last minute, and so the diplomats began their game of mutual bluff.
Every foray down to the city was a distressing experience at the time. For the first time I saw, in the yellow, dangerous eyes of the starving, what famine really looks like. Bread was nothing but black crumbs tasting of pitch and glue, coffee was a decoction of roast barley, beer was yellow water, chocolate a sandy substance colored brown. The potatoes were frozen. Most people trapped rabbits so as not to forget the taste of meat entirely. The only fabric on sale was treated paper, a substitute for a substitute. Almost all the men went around dressed in old uniforms, even Russian uniforms, collected from a depot or a hospital, clothing in which several people had died already. You often saw trousers made of old sacks. Every step you took along the streets, where the shop windows were as empty as if they had been looted, mortar was crumbling away like scabs from the ruinous buildings, and obviously undernourished people dragged themselves to work with difficulty. It was deeply upsetting. Country people on the plain were better off for food. The general breakdown of morale meant that no farmer would dream of selling his butter, eggs and milk at the legally fixed 'maximum prices.' He kept what he could in store and waited for buyers to come and make him a better offer. Soon there was a new profession--hoarding. Unemployed men would and go from farm to farm with a couple of rucksacks, even taking the train to particularly productive areas, and bought up food at illegal prices. They then sold it on in cities for four or five times what they had paid. At first the farmers were happy with all the paper money coming in for their butter and eggs, and they in turn hoarded the banknotes. But as soon as they took their fat wallets to town to buy things for themselves, they discovered, to their discomfiture, that they had asked only five times the price for their food they sold, but meanwhile the price of the scythes, hammers and pots and pans they wanted to buy had risen by twenty or fifty times. After that they tried direct exchange for manufactured objects, bartering in kind. Humanity had already cheerfully reverted to the cave-dwelling age in trench warfare, and was now rejecting thousands of years of conventional financial transactions and going back to primitive exchange. A grotesque style of trading spread through the whole of Austria. Town-dwellers took what they could spare out to the country, Chinese porcelain vases, carpets, swords and guns, cameras and books, lamps and ornaments. If you walked into a farmhouse near Salzburg, you might see, to your surprise, an Indian statue o the Buddha staring at ou, or a rococo bookcase containing leather-bund books in French of which the new owners were inordinately proud. "Genuine leather! France!" they would boast with a broad grin. Real goods were in demand, not money. Many people had to get rid of their wedding rings or their leather belts just to keep body and soul together.
Finally the authorities intervened to put an end to this under-the-counter trading, which did no one any good except those who were well off already. Cordons were set up in province after province, and good were confiscated from the hoarders transporting them by rail or bicycle and handed over to the rationing offices in urban areas. The hoarders struck back by organizing a Wild-West kind of nocturnal transport, or bribing the officials in charge of the confiscations, who had hungry children at home themselves. Sometimes there were actual battles with knives and revolvers, which after four years at the front these men could handle expertly, just as they knew the fieldcraft of taking cover when in flight. The chaos grew worse by the week, and the population more and more agitated, for financial devaluation was more obvious every day. The neighbor states had replaced the old Austrian banknotes with their own currencies, leaving tiny Austria with almost the entire burden of redeeming the old crown. As the first sign of distrust among the people, coinage disappeared, for a small copper or nickel coin still represented something more real than mere printed paper. The state might crank up the printing presses to create as much artificial money as possible, in line with the precepts of Mephistopheles, but it could not keep pace with inflation, and so every town and city and finally every village began printing its own 'emergency currency', which would not be accepted in the neighboring village, and later on, when it was recognized, correctly, that it had no intrinsic value at all, was usually just thrown away. An economist with a gift for the graphic description of all the phases of the inflation that began in Austria and then spread to Germany would, I think, have been able to write a book far more exciting than any novel, for the chaos took increasingly more fantastic forms. Soon no one knew what anything cost. Prices shot up at random; a box of matches could cost twenty times more in a shop that had raised the price early than in another, where a less grasping shopkeeper was still selling his wares at yesterday's prices. His reward for honesty was to see his shop cleared out within the hour, for one customer would tell another, and they all came to buy whatever there was to be bought, regardless of whether they needed it or not. Even a goldfish or an old telescope represented 'real value', and everyone wanted real value rather than paper. Most grotesque of all was the discrepancy between other expenses and rents. The government banned any rise in rents in order to protect tenants--who were the majority--but to the detriment of landlords. Soon the rent of a medium sized apartment in Austria for a whole year cost its tenant less than a single midday meal. In effect, the whole of the country lived more or less rent-free for five to ten years--since even later landlords were not allowed to give their tenants notice. This crazy state of chaos made the situation more absurd and illogical from week to week. A man who had saved for forty years and had also patriotically put money into the war loan became a beggar, while a man who used to be in debt was free of it. Those who had observed propriety in the allocation of food went hungry, those who cheerfully ignored the rules were well fed. If you knew how to hand out bribes you got on well, if you speculated you could make a profit. Those who sold in line with cost price were robbed; those who calculated carefully still lost out. There were no standards or values as money flowed away and evaporated; the only virtue was to be clever, adaptable and unscrupulous, leaping on the back of the runaway horse instead of letting it trample you.
In addition, while the people of Austria lost any idea of financial standards as values plummeted, many foreigners had realized that they could fish profitably in our troubled waters. During the period of galloping inflation, which went on for three years at ever-increasing speed, only one thing had any stable value inside the country, and that was foreign currency. While the Austrian crown was dissolving like jelly in your fingers, everyone wanted Swiss francs and American dollars, and large numbers of foreigners exploited the economic situation to feed on the twitching corpse of the old Austrian currency. Austria was discovered and became disastrously popular with foreign visitors in a parody of the society season. All the hotels in Vienna were crammed full with these vultures; they would buy anything, from toothbrushes to country estates; they cleared out private collections of antiquities and the antique dealers' shops before the owners realized how badly they had been robbed and cheated in their time of need. Hotel receptionists from Switzerland an Dutch shorthand typists stayed in princely apartments of the Ringstrasse hotels. Incredible as it may seem, I can vouch for it that for a long time the famous, de luxe Hotel de l'elope in Salzburg was entirely booked by unemployed members of the English proletariat, who could live here more cheaply than in their slums at home, thanks to the generous unemployment benefit they received. Anything that was not nailed down disappeared. Word gradually spread of the cheap living and low prices in Austria. Greedy visitors came from further and further afield, from Sweden, from France, and you heard more Italian, French, Turkish and Romanian than German spoken in the streets of the city centre of Vienna. Even Germany, where the pace of inflation was much slower at first--although later it would be a million times worse than in Austria--took advantage of the falling value of the Austrian crown in relation to its own mark. As Salzburg was on the border I had a good opportunity of observing these raids on us every day. Germans crossed from the neighboring towns and villages of Bavaria in their hundreds and thousands, pouring into the small city. They had their suits made and their cars repaired here, they went to the pharmacist and the doctor in Salzburg, big firms in Munich sent their letters and telegrams from Austria soap to profit by the difference in postage. Finally, at the urging of the German government, a border checkpoint was set up to prevent German citizens from buying everything cheap in Salzburg, where you could get seventy Austrian crowns for a single German mark, instead of in their shops at home, and all goods coming out of there was one item that couldn't be confiscated; the beer you had already consumed. And every day the beer-swilling Bavarians worked out, from the rate of exchange, whether the devaluation of the crown enabled them to drink five, six, or even ten liters of beer in and around Salzburg for the price they would pay for a single liter at home. No greater temptation could be imagined, and whole troops of visitors came over the border from nearby Freilassung and Reichenhall, complete with their wives and children, to indulge in the luxury of pouring as much beer down their throats as their bellies would hold. The railway station was in pandemonium every evening, crowded with hordes of intoxicated, bawling, belching and expectorating Germans. Many of them, having overestimated their capacity had to be wheeled to the carriages on the trolleys generally used to transport baggage before the train took them back to their own country, to the accompaniment of bacchanalian shouting and singing. These cheerful Bavarians, of course, had no idea that a terrible vengeance lay in store for them. For when the crown stabilized, while the fall of the mark assumed astronomical dimensions, the Austrians traveled over from the same station to get drunk on the cheap in their own turn, and the same spectacle was repeated, although in the opposite direction This beer war in the midst of two inflationary periods is among my strangest memories because it clearly illustrates in miniature the entire crazy character of those years in perhaps its most graphic and grotesque aspect.
Strangest of all is the fact that day, with the best will in the world, I cannot remember how we managed to keep house in those years, when everyone in Austria had to raise the thousands and tens of thousands of crowns and in Germany the millions of marks they needed every day just to survive, and had to do it again and again. But the mysterious fact was that, somehow, we did manage. We got used to the chaos and adapted to it. Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days at first hand would probably imagine that a time when an egg cost as much in Austria as the price of a luxury car in the past, and later fetched four billion marks in Germany--roughly the basic value of all the buildings in the Greater Berlin area before inflation--women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and the theaters and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt a great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in banks and government securities melted away, spectators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept on turning into the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. The baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated the land, trains ran regularly, the newspaper lay outside your door every morning at the usual time, and the places of entertainment in particular, the bars and the theaters, were full to overflowing. For the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch. Young men and girls went walking in the mountains and came home tanned brown by the sun, music played in the dance halls until late at night, new factories and businesses were founded everywhere. I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at that time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.
I will never forget what operatic performances were like in those days of our greatest need. You groped your way through dimly lit streets, for street lighting was feeling the effects of the fuel shortage, you paid for your seat with a bundle of banknotes that would once have allowed you to hire a luxurious box for a year. You sat in your overcoat, because the auditorium was unheated, and pressed close to your neighbors for warmth--and the theater itself, once brilliant with uniforms and expensive gowns, was so dismal and grey! No one knew whether it would still be possible for the opera to keep going next week if money went on falling in value and there were no coal deliveries. Everything seemed doubly desperate in this scene of former luxury and imperial extravagance. The musicians of the Philharmonic sat in the pit, also grey shadows of themselves, emaciated and exhausted by deprivation, and we in the audience looked like ghosts in this now ghostly theater. but then the conductor raised his baton, the curtains parted, and it was more wonderful than ever before. The singers and musicians gave of their best, for they all felt that this might be the last time they performed in the theater they loved. And we listened with bated breath, more receptive than ever, knowing that for us, too, this might be the last time. Thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, lived like this. We all strained ourselves to the limit in these weeks and months and years on the brink of downfall. I never felt the will to live in a nation and in myself as strongly as I did then, when the end of everything, life and survival itself, was at stake.
The World of Yesterday - Stefan Zweig