Yesterday

When I attempted to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, I hope that I convey its fulness by calling it the Golden Age of Security.

Everyone knew how much he possessed or what he was entitled to, what was permitted and what forbidden. Everything had its norm, its definite measure and weight. He who had a fortune could accurately compute his annual interest. An official or an officer, for example, could confidently look up in the calendar the year when he would be advanced in rank, or when he would be pensioned. Each family had its fixed budget, and knew how much could be spent for rent and food, for holidays and entertainment; and what is more, in­variably a small sum was carefully laid aside for sickness and the doctor’s bills, for the unexpected. Whoever owned a house looked upon it as a secure domicile for his children and grandchildren; estates and businesses were handed down from generation to generation. When the babe was still in its cradle, its first mite was put in its little bank, or deposited in the savings bank, as a “reserve” for the future. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.

This feeling of security was the most eagerly sought-­after possession of millions, the common ideal of life. Only the possession of this security made life seem worth while, and constantly widening circles desired their share of this costly treasure. At first it was only the pros­perous who enjoyed this advantage, but gradually the great masses forced their way towards it. The century of security became the golden age of insurance. One’s house was insured against fire and theft, one’s field against hail and storm, one’s person against accident and sickness. Annuities were purchased for one’s old age, and a policy was laid in a girl’s cradle for her future dowry. Only the man who could look into the future without worry could thoroughly enjoy the present.

Despite the modesty of this view of life, there was a grave and dangerous arrogance in this touching confidence: that we had barricaded ourselves to the last loophole against any possible invasion of fate. We were honestly convinced that it was on the straight and unfailing path towards being the best of all worlds. Earlier eras, with their wars, famines, and revolts, were deprecated as times when mankind was still immature and unenlightened. But now it was merely a matter of decades until the last vestige of evil and violence would finally be conquered, and this faith in an uninterrupted and irresistible “progress” truly had the force of a religion for that generation.

One began to believe more in this “progress” than in the Bible, and its gospel appeared ultimate because of the daily new wonders of science and technology. Comfort made its way from the houses of the fashionable to those of the middle class. Hygiene spread and filth disappeared. People became handsomer, stronger, healthier, as sport steeled their bodies. And all of these miracles were accomplished by science, the arch­angel of progress.  Progress was also made in social matters; year after year new rights were accorded to the individual, justice was administered more benignly and humanely, and even the problem of problems, the poverty of the great masses, no longer seemed insurmountable.
Sociologists and professors competed with one another to create healthier and happier living conditions for the working class. Small wonder, then, that this century sunned itself in its own accomplishments and looked upon each completed decade as the prelude to a better one. There was as little belief in the possibility of such barbaric declines as wars as there was in witches and ghosts. Our fathers were comfortably saturated with confidence in the un­failing and binding power of tolerance and conciliation.

They honestly believed that the divergences and the boundaries between nations and sects would gradually melt away into a common humanity, and that peace and security, the highest of treasures, would be shared by all mankind.


[F.O. – adapted from Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (1941), chap. 1]
Featured image: Koloman Moser, Early Spring – Illustration To A Poem By Rainer Maria Rilke (1901)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s