In fact, in the most important areas, he felt Brazil was superseding Europe. In an extraordinary set of passages in that book’s introduction, he speaks about how committed he and his peers had been to ideas of progress essentially gauged by statistics: the degree of comfort, the degree of productivity, the degree to which life could be organized for convenience. He writes on how this whole value standard was degraded once one realized that those sorts of statistical indices of progress could co-exist with the kinds of acts of barbarism that were then being unleashed on humanity.
In other words, Brazil had come much closer to the kind of peaceful, tolerant, and humanist society that Zweig had once hoped to see flourish in Europe—and by the mid-1930s, when he began writing the book, felt Europe had been grotesquely betrayed. One thing that’s important about Zweig’s story is the fact that, up until the First World War, he was deeply optimistic. In 1908, he described watching a zeppelin fly over Vienna—and in this airborne vehicle, effortlessly crossing national borders, cheered on by citizens of disparate countries, Zweig saw a symbol of the brotherhood of humanity that was to come. He saw technological progress and social progress as absolutely aligned, working in lock-step to unite the Continent through the beauty and significance of its peoples’ achievements.
In his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes how electric streetlights, and the telephone, and cars and planes, and the beginnings of modern medicine briefly convinced Europe that humanity was entering a new golden age. “Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles,” he wrote, and health and wealth had increased with them, and for a brief time a new utopia seemed within reach. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Although Zweig himself had once shared that faith—it was already shattered with regard to technology by 1914, and it only proceeded to break down into smaller, more jagged pieces from there. By the end of his life, he had no illusions that peace and widespread accord were imminent or even possible. He’d seen firsthand how the extraordinary technological advancements of those years went hand-in-hand with the depths of barbarism. I think the most despairing moment in the memoir is when he describes the situation in Vienna after the Anschluss, about which he says:
How timid, how petty, how lamentable my imagination—all human imagination—in the light of the inhumanity which discharged itself on March 13, 1938.
And then he uses this extraordinary phrase:
The mask was off.
For Zweig to propose that the efflorescence of evil at that moment was so engulfing that it actually defeated and outdid the imagination must be understood as a spiritual collapse. He’d made the imagination a virtually divine element in the human constitution; therefore its supersession was unspeakably damning. I think this probably represents the pivot moment for Zweig when the humanity he wanted to believe in no longer felt possible. The idea of the mask is integral to his expression of this loss of confidence—because the mask is endemic to Viennese culture in art and leisure and because, on an individual, psychological level, masks evoke the freedom to don and discard a multiplicity of personae. For Zweig this notion of preserving a mobility of character was bound up with his definition of personal freedom—and personal freedom he described in his suicide note as “the highest good on this earth.” But all of this transcendent possibility slipped away when Hitler entered Vienna, and what lay revealed was just the hideous ugliness underneath.