Michael Slate Interviews George Prochnik
On Stefan Zweig, the Rise of Hitler, and "When It's Too Late to Stop Fascism"
March 1, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
George Prochnik was interviewed February 24, 2017, on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio. This is a transcript of that interview.
Michael Slate: George Prochnik is a writer and he has an article in the February 6, 2017, edition of The New Yorker, “When It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism, According to Stefan Zweig.” In the 1930s, Stefan Zweig was the most translated author in the world. He fled Austria when the Nazis took over in 1934. In 1941, he was in exile in the U.S. He spent the final months of his life furiously writing a memoir and the memoir was a warning to the people of the future. He had learned first-hand what it meant to not take on fascism when it first arises, what the consequences are.
George Prochnik's article is such a compelling piece and it’s such a necessary and important piece today given what’s going on the world. So, I’m really happy to welcome George to the show. George, I’m glad you’re here.
George Prochnik: Thanks so much for having me on and what you said about the piece.
Michael Slate: Well, let’s jump into this. You recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and his memoir, The World of Yesterday, that he wrote in the summer of 1941. Tell people who Zweig was and why his memoir was so significant that you felt you had write about this.
George Prochnik: Well, Zweig was an affluent Austrian Jew. He grew up in Vienna at the height of its cosmopolitan glamour. He himself, from a very early age, decided that his vocation was writing and was successful immediately. He began writing poetry, then he was writing essays for newspapers, and everything that he did found an audience. He began then writing extremely popular short stories, political essays, eventually histories, a novel, biographies, a libretto, a play.
Everything that Zweig did added to his worldly acclamation. He saw himself—because he became so popular not just within Austria but in fact, world-wide and at the pinnacle of his career in the mid-1920’s, he was the most widely translated author in the world and quite possibly, the most successful. He saw himself as representing all the values of humanism that he hoped the historical trends were going to affirm more and more as his life went on. The first of course, terrible blow to this dream was the First World War which shattered the original Hapsburg Empire, balanced between different ethnic groups, which was a vexed balance but one which at least for a period of time, kept the worst aspects of prejudice and ethnic denigration in check.
After that war, Zweig decided that more important to himself than being a celebrity author was doing what he could to promote tolerance, international humanism, etc. Even though he continued to write at an extraordinarily prolific rate, he spent even more time arguably, organizing different conferences, giving talks, trying to bring together the leading humanists from everywhere—from the East as well as from the West, to talk about what could be done to ensure that the catastrophe of the First World War was not repeated. So, throughout this time leading up to the rise of fascism in the late ’20’s and early ’30’s before Hitler actually came to power, Zweig felt that his own situation—despite his grave concern for other more vulnerable populations, that his own situation was relatively immune. And of course, after the Nazis came to power and eventually Austria as well, later in the 1930’s became threatened and collapsed and fell under Nazi rule, Zweig found himself suddenly among the refugee population that he had watched with compassion and with a terrible sense of premonition dating way back to after 1933 when Hitler became chancellor.
So, after he himself left Austria he went to England and then he went to the United States. And eventually he ended up Brazil. But in the United States he did the bulk of the work on his memoir. In the summer of 1941, living in of all places a small town up the Hudson from New York City called Ossining. He lived in a house—a very modest house—not like the grand apartments and grand hotels in which he had spent most of his life, very close to Sing Sing prison. He worked furiously on this memoir because he wasn’t trying so much to preserve a record of his private existence. It says virtually nothing about his own domestic life. What he was trying to do was to look at what had happened to his generation and understand how even someone as privileged as himself, let alone the millions without all the buffers that he had thought would barricade him against the worst effects of fascism; how has it all fallen away? So, the document that he ended up producing in an incredibly rapid rate—he was sometimes writing several hundred pages in as short a period as a few weeks—what he ended up producing is this extraordinary, I guess we would say, almost a record in real time of how a civilization which had seemed so secure and so invested in its progressive democratic values, could have collapsed so utterly and in a relatively short a period of time. He really tries to look at this, and I am convinced having spent a great deal of time with this book, that there are lessons that are sadly very pertinent for us today.
Michael Slate: That was one of the really important points that you made in this article. Even the title of the book, The World of Yesterday and he’s speaking to an audience that clearly is not an audience that was necessarily living in the time that he was writing about and was actually looking to the future. If he actually could conceive of a future given what was going on in the world at the time and what the future might be. But that whole idea of speaking to people about what actually—this is a warning to the future. I thought that the point that he made is that it’s a law of history that contemporaries have denied recognition of the early beginnings of the great movements that determine their times. If you look throughout history that has so much importance in seeing how things develop and how things get to the point that they get to.
George Prochnik: That’s absolutely correct—everything that you just said. First of all in terms of the book as a message to the future, I think he literally conceived of it as kind of a message in a bottle to the future. He knew that his own generation was going to be immersed in, as he said, the abyss and unspeakable hell for as long ahead in time as he himself, at the age of 60 when he was composing this could see or, 59 and about to turn 60. At the same time he didn’t think that the Nazis would ultimately destroy the planet. What he felt was if there was anything that he could give to allow the next generation to rebuild civilization on sounder ground, there could be no higher mission that he could take on.
To your point, where you mention how it’s denied to contemporaries to see what will become the great or the most important movements of their time; this is something that Zweig very, very poignantly presents. When Hitler first began to make a name for himself—which was in the early 1920’s—nobody took him seriously, because he seemed a buffoon, uneducated, so crude and ultimately, unlikeable that the elite, the intellectuals couldn’t imagine that this person would ever become a threat to the entire German, Austrian and ultimately global culture. You know, there’s another scene that I think of in this context. The son of the writer Thomas Mann. Klaus Mann, who was also an author, describes having seen Hitler early on at a Munich teahouse and he watches Hitler stuff his face with these crème puffs and he’s—as he puts it—such a petit bourgeois pig and so nasty in a so visceral way, not a leader, not a figure who seems capable of inspiring the urge for greater German glory or let alone, preserving any ideals for civilization. He said that, “This man can never be a threat to us.” He says, “It’s impossible.”
I think in our own situation here it’s obviously the case that Trump had been around for many years in the public eye. No one who was in a position to stop him understood for a very long time, that he might be capable of channeling some sort of mood of a large swath of the country that could ultimately sweep him into power.
Michael Slate: You know, one of the things that comes up too, in your piece, and I thought it really made me pause because at the same time what you’re talking about in terms of Zweig and what he began to understand. When he actually was out there, at one point he even ended up applauding the Nazis for the ability to bring, “A renewed sense of passion and import” to German elections. And I kept thinking about the whole idea that someone could get in there and mix it up and really—the idea is to set people’s heads on fire and then you can actually get in there and wrestle with some things, but this was a fairly stunning thing to see someone who did care the way he cared about what was going on, and at the same time to be sort of blindsided by this whole point of the Nazis had an ability to bring a renewed sense of passion and import to the German elections.
George Prochnik: I think that’s a very important point and again, there are certain people who looked on—who continue to look on—I've seen this phrase in a number of relatively mainstream conservative essays and sites now: The idea that well, what this president is doing is acting like a bull in a china shop; we had a huge problem, something had to happen. He’s there. He’s going to shake things up and there’s this almost sly little, winking, joking sense that they’re going to know how to rein this force in at the right time. Historically speaking, the idea that you can control a charismatic maverick at the moment you decide it’s gone too far—It’s just been disproven time and again. I think we have to be very clear that the passions the leader can excite—even though those passions may have different motivations and be from all sorts of different demographics with different goals in mind, they don’t in any way validate the larger platform on which the charismatic leader runs. The passions may be real, sincere and have positive elements. That doesn’t make anything the leader himself represents something that we as a country can abide by.
Michael Slate: And that’s extremely important. I mean again, you look at what’s going on today—and think about this. With all the things that we got in the buildup to the election where it was like, “Look, the people from the rustbelt are really coming forward—people who haven’t voted—who have been so alienated from the system and finally they found their hero.” When I’m reading your piece I’m thinking, “Damn, there’s way too much similarity here.”
George Prochnik: Right. There were so many reasons to be skeptical that he would be a hero of the demographics who felt forgotten, disenfranchised, etc., beginning of course with his vast wealth and his notorious lack of generosity as a human being in every sense. But he said what people wanted to hear. Another point that Zweig makes that is relevant, because it's obvious that that vote of, in Trump's words, “the forgotten man,” mattered.
But another thing that Zweig points out about Hitler's ascendency, at the moment when Zweig himself began to take Hitler seriously, was when he realized how much money was being spent on the different squads of young men that he saw training in these towns along the Austrian-German border. They would be driving new trucks, wearing these spanking new uniforms, and all very, very well-heeled in their appearance. And he realized that there were financial interests using the nascent Nazi Party as a front. And there was unquestionably also a great deal of money interest behind Trump. And that shouldn't be lost sight of—moneyed interests who have, since the election, however they voted, come to decide, well, maybe this can work in our favor after all. A friend was telling me recently of a friend of his who is involved with a hedge fund that made hundreds of millions of dollars in the initial weeks after Trump's election. Obviously there's this enormous rally on Wall Street. So, there has also been an acceptance of the more heinous, from the point of view of human rights, actions taken by the administration, I think unfortunately because the greed of people with money is so far still being gratified. So it isn't only that this one population found its hero, it's that another population found someone who would allow them to become that much richer, and in fact, increase the very socio-economic inequalities that in some way made this president possible.
Michael Slate: You say in your piece that Zweig recognized the crucial role of propaganda in eroding the conscience of the world at the time, and this was a massive boon to what Hitler was trying to do. Let's talk about that.
George Prochnik: One point that Zweig makes is that at the outset of the First World War, it was still possible for a poet, for an intellectual, for an eloquent voice, to intervene in the clamor towards war, and make a statement, that even if it didn't halt the progress towards war, would at least cause enough of a controversy, enough dissension within that rush into bloodshed, that there was some hope that you could affect the course of history by sufficiently articulating the dangers of what lay ahead.
But over the course of that war, what we think of as modern propaganda really took hold, and saturated all forms of media, not just print media, but radio as well, and Zweig documents to an extent, how the very capacity to exaggerate the fear of strangers, the dangers posed by foreigners, became not just a self-perpetuating, but an expanding, snowballing phenomenon, so that by the end of the war, he actually labeled what the press was doing as “the doping of excitement,” that there was just a need to produce a certain kind of effect on readers or listeners, so that you would continue to have what we call today, an audience.
By the time the Second World War was becoming more and more imminent, Zweig says that the “organization of lies,” which is how he describes propaganda, had become so effective, that it was no longer possible for anyone to say anything that could have the slightest effect on the rush into the madness that that terrible war became. And there were so many eloquent statements in the period leading up to our own election period. I think of Michelle Obama's rightly celebrated speech at the DNC Convention, and any number of other instances, that if it was possible for words to matter to the whole population, they would have mattered at those moments. Unfortunately, it's obvious that our ability to curate our own news feeds, through social media, our lack of any common standard of truth, has led to a situation in which propaganda is now seen as one side or the other, and I would argue, infinitely more perniciously on the side of the right, is now viewed as just a situation with news. You're looking for an affirmation of your opinion, not for some sort of factual report. In that situation I don't know how you find common ground again.
Michael Slate: One thing that's very important in relation to all this is the fact that propaganda has that other role, which as you point out, both whips up Hitler's base, and it covered over some of the most brutal things that he was doing as he was consolidating his hold on power. People actually didn't see the truth. Truth was blurred into wishful thinking, even as all these terrible things were going on.
George Prochnik: Absolutely. The combination that you just said, of how propaganda can hide from people what was actually going on, and stir sentiments to encourage the worst excesses. We've seen that. And we've also seen—the last point that you made—about how, in a situation where everything feels so chaotic and dangerous, any gesture towards normalcy becomes something that people just grasp for desperately. There was that long period in the run-up, both after the election and in the period leading up to the election when I felt as if Trump had only to not do anything awful for 24 hours, or 36 hours, and you would have extraordinary statements on the part of CNN, where it began to sound as though this was a clear indication that he had converted and become just like any other politician.
It took so little for people to want to project so much onto any sign that things were not going to be as disastrous as many people feared.
Michael Slate: One question that you posed in your article was, how far along the scale of moral degeneration Zweig would judge America to be today, under Trump?
George Prochnik: Well, I think that one heartening phenomenon here has obviously been the strength of the resistance to all sorts of different measures that have been promulgated by the White House. The marches and the boycotts have shown that the population is hardly subdued. And there are lots of positive signs of people’s understanding that this has to sustain itself and build momentum.
One thing that is clear about Trump's character is that he is capable of being thrown off balance. And I say only slightly tongue in cheek that I wish that some of the energy of the Occupy movement might turn into a Preoccupy Trump movement. I think this could take all sorts of different forms: more boycotts, strikes, obviously marches, every possible effort to disrupt his own effort to give a veneer of every-day-ness to what is in fact a radical politics.
So that's a good sign. I think in terms of where we are with news, where we are in terms of doubt about the checks and balance in our government, what's the sweep that the GOP had on every level, not just in terms of Congress, but in terms of the governorships, etc., things are a lot rockier, particularly because the GOP has shown itself to be so absolutely spineless.
The point that Zweig makes is that you can have that particularly dangerous equation of eroded shared values and eroded institutions, and things still might not tip all the way over until something catastrophic happens. In the case of Germany, less than 30 days after Hitler became chancellor, that was the Reichstag fire, the burning of the parliament building which the Nazis blamed on the communists, and which there remains some doubt about today as to whether that might not in fact have been set by the Nazis themselves. But regardless, once that happened, Hitler immediately imposed a raft of emergency measures that shut down justice entirely.
What I worry about here is the big event, whatever form it takes—or the fabricated big event, but something that becomes an excuse—and we've already seen Trump manufacture terrorist incidents, manufacture the threat posed by different demographics—in ways that could really spin things very quickly into a different place than we find ourselves in today
Michael Slate: I'm going to read the last sentence in your article, and you can comment on it. “The excruciating power of Zweig’s memoir lies in the pain of looking back and seeing that there was a small window in which it was possible to act, and then discovering how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.” That's sort of what you're talking about now, but it's something that needs to be emphasized, because frankly, I'm really happy to see all of the resistance that's out in the streets, and there is a need for a hell of a lot more. There needs to be millions of people in the streets to actually speak to the horrible situation that exists today. But I thought your last sentence puts out a sharp warning to people.
George Prochnik: I agree with you that what's happened so far, there needs to be more of it, and unfortunately, there's not going to be an opportunity to tire of it. This is not something that is going to go away quickly. In a best case scenario, I think there's a fight here that's going to have to be waged for a long time and it's been heartening to see that enough Americans have a spirit of defiance of injustice, that they're willing to break up the routines of their own lives and speak out against what's going on. But we need more of it, and I really hope that the different groups, not only the vulnerable ones, but different groups with different kinds of privilege can find ways of resisting together. Because it's only in a very powerful and relentless co-resistance that we're going to keep that window open long enough to actually get these people out of power.
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