In the spring of 1916 an article called The Tower of Babel (Der Turm Zu Babel) appeared in the noted German liberal daily, the Vossische Zeitung. The paper was a distinguished one and would later serialise a new book by a young German author titled All Quiet on the Western Front. The article The Tower of Babel wasn’t of quite this calibre, but it had a certain daring. In it, a youngish Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, recounted the Biblical legend of the Tower, in which men had come together to build a tower to Heaven and, enraged by their presumption, the Lord had scattered their tools and confused their tongues so that they could no longer speak and work together.
Zweig then described the current situation as a new Babel. Europeans, he said, had been getting to know each other again: “God… saw with horror that the tower he had destroyed was rising once more, …he knew that in order to remain more powerful than this humanity he would have to sow discord anew and ensure that men ceased to understand each other. …This is the monstrous moment we are living through today…”
Subversive stuff for Germany in 1916, even for a liberal paper. (The Vossische Zeitung would be closed by Hitler in 1934.) It’s striking that this article was published almost exactly 100 years before the June 2016 referendum in Britain that may undermine the European Union. It’s a good time to get to building the tower again.
That’s why I welcome the arrival of BabelsBook. It’s a timely response to a changing publishing industry. Ten or fifteen years ago, books were the preserve of publishers; few could publish, as eBooks did not exist. Neither, then, were there many digital bookprinters – the machines that have made it economic to print one or two copies of a book at a time, enabling print-on-demand. No longer need one make litho plates and commission a costly run of 2,000 books, hoping that they will sell. This has revolutionised the printed word and made independent publishing accessible to hundreds of thousands of writers. But what hasn’t changed much yet it the cost of getting your book across the language barrier. BabelsBook plans to address this. In so doing, they can help us reach across frontiers that, in much of the world, are growing higher. We need to rebuild the Tower. It’s fitting that BabelsBook’s founder is himself an alumni of the Erasmus Programme, through which the EU has enabled literally millions of young people to study in each other’s countries. (It is equally fitting that the programme bears the name of the great Dutch scholar Erasmus, a moderate and conciliatory figure in a time of religious turmoil.)
Zweig himself would have liked BabelsBook (and the Erasmus Programme), for he was a true internationalist. Born in Vienna in 1881, he was a middlebrow writer known for his novellas and for his historical biographies. His work was widely translated between the wars and was immensely popular. From quite a young age he travelled widely, especially in Europe, and had friends in the arts in much of the continent. But he was Jewish and in 1934, sensing what would happen in Austria, he went into exile in England – ironically, one of the few Western countries where he was not well known. Until recently, he was largely forgotten. I only discovered him myself when searching for someone else (Arnold Zweig, the pro-Soviet author of The Axe of Wandsbeck).
In recent years, however, there’s been a revival – and this time it has extended to Britain, where Zweig has been championed by the Pushkin Press. It has now brought out Messages From A Lost World, a collection of lectures and articles Zweig produced between 1916 and 1941, translated for the first time by Will Stone. The pieces vary in subject, but mostly reflect on Zweig’s sense of loss for the cosmopolitan, unified Europe of his youth, and his wish to see the borders vanish again. Given this subject matter, and the circumstances of Zweig’s death, it’s easy to see why Pushkin would think this book relevant for our current time, with its rising nationalisms and threat of European disunity.
It is because of this book that the essay The Tower of Babel, forgotten for a century, has seen the light of day once more. It’s not the best piece in the book. Far more interesting is the much later The Historiography of Tomorrow, a lecture given during a tour in the US in early 1939, by which time Zweig had been in exile for five years. In it he explains how, while moving house, he once found an old history book from his schooldays and was taken aback that its chief objective had been to impress upon the pupil the greatness of the Austrian empire in which s/he has been raised. “But twelve hours by rail from Vienna …in France or Italy, the school textbooks were prepared with the directly opposing scenario: God or the spirit of history laboured solely for the Italian or French motherland.” The key dates, he says, are all wars. “It is deeply pessimistic and depressing.”
As this lecture progressed, it seems, Zweig argued for a new set of values on which to base the study of history. In a telling passage, he points out that in 1797 Napoleon defeated Austria on Italian soil at Rivoli – but that victory, the type of event lauded in history schoolbooks, has long collapsed into insignificance, whereas in the same year and region Alessandro Volta produced the first feeble spark from his first battery – an event of far greater weight. More important still, Zweig states that: “I still remember the revelation I experienced many years ago, from a book which completely overturned [my] conception of history.” It was, he says, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, in which the theory of a struggle for existence is challenged by the notion that evolution is the product of cooperation. I think that is what something like BabelsBook could represent; mutual aid, by which we transcend the mental boundaries that are descending all over Europe.
Stefan Zweig would have approved. It’s hard to have to record that, for him, there was no happy ending. In 1940 he moved to the US and eventually to Brazil, where, despairing of Europe’s future, he committed suicide with his wife in Petrópolis in February 1942 at the age of 60. We can honour his memory by reading and understanding each other’s work, and building anew the Tower of Babel. It has rarely been needed more than it is today.
Mike Robbins is the author of two books of travel memoirs, three books of fiction, and a scientific book on climate change. He has been a journalist, traveller, development worker and climate-change researcher. He blogs on books, science and travel at http://mikerobbinsnyc.blogspot.com/.