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What book would you recommend to a prospective student?
One aspect that is rewarding from the study of history is a sense of a life in different, changing circumstances. So my recommendation would be the autobiography of Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European. Zweig, born in 1881, came from a cultured, successful, assimilated Jewish family in Vienna. He would become one of the most widely read authors in the German-speaking world in the interwar era until he was forced to flee from Austria in 1934.
He sought refuge in Britain, then went to Brazil, where depressed by the war and its effects, he committed suicide in 1942. As Germany, whose culture and language he loved and treasured, burnt his books and sought to systematically kill his fellow Jews, Zweig wrote about the world he had lost, not with bitterness but with nostalgia and yearning. We walk the streets of fin-de-siecle Vienna, meet great cultural figures such as Richard Strauss (with whom he collaborated), Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Romain Rolland and many others, then observe the rise of Fascism and the targeting of Jews.
History is about people and Zweig’s book is one testament to a continued belief in European culture.
If you could meet any historical figure, which person would you choose and why?
My main area of research has been Austrian liberalism. I would like to meet some of its leaders (who are totally neglected today) – Eduard Herbst, Karl Giskra, Moriz Kaiserfeld, Josef Lasser, Leopold Hasner, for example – in a Viennese coffee house and ask them questions that have been circulating in my mind for years. What did they read? Who influenced them? What were their guiding principles? What were their goals when they became ministers? How did cabinet government work in 1867?
I would have a tape recorder handy and I am sure it would be very illuminating. If the conversation flagged, we could fortify ourselves with coffee and cake, then continue onwards.