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Lessons from the World of Yesterday: The events, catastrophes, and trials faced by refugees

Damien McGloin By Damien McGloin Published on July 30, 2016
This article was updated on November 14, 2016

The name Stefan Zweig may be unfamiliar to you but there was a time when his work was known by all. A writer of novellas, short stories, histories, biographies and the novel, ‘Beware of Pity’. He has also been described by George Prochnik, the writer of ‘The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World’, as an ”affluent Austrian citizen, restless wandering Jew, stupendously prolific author, tireless advocate for Pan-European humanism, dog lover, cat hater, suspected flasher and a casual womanizer.” You can see there are many reasons to take an interest in him but perhaps the most interesting is the time he lived through.

Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 and died in Petropolis in 1942. A lifelong traveler and believer in both Internationalism and Europeanism, Zweig spent much of his life in transit. In his autobiography, ‘the world of yesterday’, the author talks of the sense that he’s lived many lives. He experienced “revolution, famine, inflation, terror, epidemics, emigration and two of the greatest wars of mankind.” Having started his life in a great empire he ended it a stranger with no home, a permanent exile.

The writer describes the start of the First World War as “seductive” on account of the sense of belonging it produced. The nation of Austria was drawn together as one but this feeling quickly passed. One chapter from this memoir describes the author’s attempts to be of use onboard a hospital train en route to Budapest. He brought water onto the train when it stopped so the constantly dripping blood could be mopped. Gradually this sobering experience came to an end and the post war period began.

The next two decades gave rise to intolerance, authoritarianism and ultimately Nazism. Zweig left Austria following Hitler’s rise and first moved to England, then America and finally Brazil. It was here that the author, at the age of sixty, committed suicide with his wife. Before taking the fatal dose of Barbiturates he left a note. “After one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning”. After witnessing the burning of his work, the loss of his nationality and so much needless brutality he was tired.

His work provides a glimpse into the difficulties which are sadly inherent in leaving your home, your possessions and your identity behind only to face long years of hardship and intolerant attitudes. This is the choice many have been forced to make though and a sense of hopelessness is surely unavoidable among refugees today. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) more than 3000 migrants have drowned in their attempt to reach Europe this year.

The immigration crisis has come to mean two things for the people of Europe. For some it is a tragedy which touches us all. This feeling has come from footage of families courageously travelling great distances with the hope of finding some kind of sanctuary. Some like sixteen year old Noujain Mustaffa have made the journey from Syria despite being in a wheelchair. Her dreams of being an astronaut and meeting the queen motivated her to leave a country which had little to offer.

For others the influx of the greatest number of immigrants since World War Two evokes terror. A seemingly countless number are moving through Europe and millions more are being hosted in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Such large numbers produce fears that these people are coming to drain our economies by abusing our welfare systems and taking jobs from other citizens. These fears have been heightened by dehumanizing language in the media such as a “swarm of migrants” which does little to aid us in empathizing with their plight.

What could be the greatest tragedy of this crisis is the lack of humanity present. This can be seen in the language used on social media, the lack of facilities present in the refugee camps and the registration forms given to some arrivals which included interview dates scheduled five years in the future. This is ridiculous when you consider that a refugee would be unable to work during this time period.

“The world was on the defensive against strangers, everywhere they got short shrift. The humiliations which once had been devised with criminals alone in mind now were imposed upon the traveler, before and during every journey. There had to be photographs from right and left, in profile and full face, one’s hair had to be cropped sufficiently to make the ears visible; fingerprints were taken, at first only the thumb but later all ten fingers; furthermore, certificates of health, of vaccination, police certificates of good standing, had to be shown; letters of recommendation were required, invitations to visit a country had to be procured; they asked for the addresses of relatives, for moral and financial guarantees, questionnaires, and forms in triplicate and quadruplicate needed to be filled out.”

The main difference between the World of Yesterday and our present situation so far is that the warmest welcome received by immigrants has been by Germany. The contribution of its citizens has been staggering and truly a source of inspiration for many. Sadly this welcome culture hasn’t been present in all of Europe. The Danish government even published advertisements written in Arabic in a number of Lebanese newspapers highlighting its strict regulations. However, this attempt to dissuade refugees is just a symptom of a problem which has manifested throughout the continent.

Slovakia stated in 2015 that it will only accept Christian refugees claiming that Muslims would not feel at home. In Poland the controversial MEP, Janusz Korwin-Mikke compared the influx of immigrants to human trash. This anti-immigrant rhetoric is occurring in conjunction with a switch to conservatism and nationalism throughout many countries. An example of this is the upcoming Austrian presidential election in which the far right freedom party could possibly see its candidate, Norbert Hofer seize the presidency.

This is a party which originally prompted shock and outrage from the people of Austria when they first joined the Austrian government sixteen years ago. It was founded by a former Nazi minister and SS officer and has focused strongly on defending the Austrian identity. Fears of immigration have taken hold in Europe. The national front has risen in popularity in France, Britain has voted to leave the European Union and many countries seek to follow in their footsteps.

The imagery used by parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) during the Brexit campaign highlights the fears of many. This fear impacted the vote and pushed many into seeking a change from austerity and rising unemployment.

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Europe has been plunged into a situation which may seem dark and inescapable. Zweig once said that “it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world.” However, we have yet to witness any weakness from the brave men, women and children who have risked everything and left so much behind in search of safety. 

Zweig wrote about a time when millions suffered an incalculable loss. We've found ourselves in a similar period of history. Let's not surrender to intolerance this time. Let's transcend the divisions that made the creation of the European Union necessary. Let's be better and respect the principles of the union: "respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities."

English teacher, student of applied linguistics, terrible violinist and mediocre runner