Pyramids of lies: Some more from Stefan Zweig

I continue listening to Stefan Zweig’s description of the disasters of the twentieth century a passage of which I’ll reproduce below.

My big essay on the Productivity Commission’s Draft Indigenous Evaluation Strategy represented a bit of intellectual progress for me. As I wrote it, my previous decade of experience and reflection poured out as anecdotes all reinforcing a point which, once I had articulated it to myself I saw elsewhere. I’d read Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers” ages before, and been struck by her horror that the whole thing had snowballed from officials’ understanding that saving face was enough of a reason to kill millions of Vietnamese, tens of thousands of American kids and ruin the global economy. But only now did I focus on her other central point which is that a system of lies many of them small white(ish) lies had snowballed into official perceptions that were functionally unhinged from reality. A system in which, speaking or even thinking the truth was not thinkable, let alone sayable.

My essay argued in effect that the same thing was going on in Indigenous affairs – and in most other areas of ‘thick policy and practice‘ – but that it was immensely more subtle built on a thousand evasions large and small. By not putting itself or the system through the discomfort of looking the issue in the eye, the PC was effectively making itself part of the problem – and helping the system reach for its next fad-diet (evaluation) – rather than point it toward the preconditions of some substantial change.

In a teleconference with the folks from the Centre for Public Impact in London, they who told me of their own recent publication of a piece from someone in local government which puts it all more starkly:

I spent 10 years of my life writing. I wrote neighbourhood plans, partnership strategies, the Local Area Agreement, stretch targets, the Sustainable Community Strategy, sub regional infrastructure plans, funding bids, monitoring documents, the Council Plan and service plans. These documents describe the performance of local government and its partners.

I have a confession to make. Much of it was made up. It was fudged, spun, copied and pasted, cobbled together and attractively formatted. I told lies in themes, lies in groups, lies in pairs, strategic lies, operational lies, cross cutting lies. I wrote hundreds of pages of nonsense. Some of it was my own, but most of it was collated from my colleagues across the organisation and brought together into a single document. As a policy, partnerships and performance officer in local government, this was my speciality and my profession.

Why did I do it? I did this because it was my job.

And so onto Zweig below the fold:

I do not mean to overestimate these small, isolated attempts of ours 1. Of course they had no influence at all on the course of events. But they helped us ourselves and many unknown readers. They alleviated the dreadful isolation and despair in which a man with genuinely humane feelings in the twentieth century found himself, and now, twenty-five years later, finds himself again—just as powerless, if not more so, against all-powerful opposition. I was well aware at the time that I could not rid myself of the real burden with these little protests and devious literary ruses. Gradually, the plan of a book began to take shape in my mind. It was to be a book in which I did not just make a few points, but set out in detail my attitude to the time and its people, to catastrophe and war.

But for a literary discussion of war as a whole, there was something I still lacked: I had never seen it at first-hand. I had now been anchored to the War Archive office for almost a year, and the reality, war in its true and terrible aspect, was in progress far away and out of sight. I had more than once been offered an opportunity to visit the front; major newspapers had asked me three times to go there as a war reporter for them. But any account I wrote in that capacity would have committed me to presenting the war in an exclusively positive, patriotic light, and I had sworn to myself—an oath that I kept after 1940 as well—never to write a word approving of the war or denigrating any other nation. Now, by chance, an opportunity did offer itself. The great Austrian-German offensive had broken through the Russian lines at Tarnów in the spring of 1915, conquering Galicia and Poland in a single determined advance. The War Archive wanted the originals of all the Russian proclamations and placards to be collected for its libraries from the Austrian-occupied area before they could be torn down or otherwise destroyed. The Colonel, who happened to know about my collecting methods, asked if I would handle the assignment. I naturally set out at once, and an all-purpose permit was made out enabling me to travel by any military train and move freely wherever I liked, without being dependent on any particular authority or directly subordinate to an office or a superior. Producing this document led to some odd incidents—I was not an officer, only an acting sergeant major, and I wore a uniform without any distinguishing marks on it. But when I showed my mysterious permit it aroused great respect, for the officers at the front and the local officials alike suspected that I must be some kind of general-staff officer travelling incognito or carrying out a secret mission. As I avoided the officers’ messes and stayed only in hotels, I also had the advantage of being outside the huge army machine, and could see what I wanted to without needing ‘guidance’.

My real task of collecting the proclamations was not difficult. Whenever I went to a Galician town, to Tarnów, Drohobych or Lemberg, there would be several Jews at the station, known as ‘factors’, whose professional business it was to supply anything a visitor might want. It was enough for me to tell one of these jacks-of-all-trades that I would like to get the proclamations and placards from the Russian occupation, and the factor would scurry off quick as a weasel, passing on the job in some mysterious way to dozens of sub-factors, and three hours later, without moving a step myself, I would have the material all collected and as complete as it could possibly be. Thanks to this excellent organisation I had time to see a great deal, and I did. Above all, I saw the wretched state of the civilian population, whose eyes were still darkened by the horror of what they had experienced. I saw the misery of the Jews in their ghettos, something of which I had entertained no idea, living eight or twelve to a room on the ground floor or in the basement of a building. And I saw the ‘enemy’ for the first time. In Tarnów, I came upon the first transport carrying Russian prisoners of war. They sat penned up in a large rectangular space on the ground, smoking and talking, guarded by two or three dozen middle-aged Tyrolean reservists, most of them bearded, looking as ragged and unkempt as the prisoners, a far cry from the smart, clean-shaven soldiers in their neat uniforms pictured at home in the illustrated papers. There was nothing at all martial or draconian in their manner. The prisoners showed no inclination to escape, and the Austrian reservists obviously had no idea of strictly observing their guard duties. They sat with their prisoners in a comradely fashion, and the fact that they could not communicate in each other’s languages amused both sides inordinately. They exchanged cigarettes and laughed. One Tyrolean reservist took photographs of his wife and children out of his dirty old wallet and showed them to the ‘enemy’, who all in turn admired them, asking questions with their fingers—was this particular child three or four years old? I had an irresistible feeling that these simple, even primitive men saw the war in a much clearer light than our university professors and writers; they regarded it as a misfortune that had befallen them, there was nothing they could do about it, and anyone else who was the victim of such bad luck was a kind of brother. This was a consoling realisation to accompany me on my entire journey, past towns that had been shot to pieces and shops that had obviously been looted, because bits of furniture lay about in the middle of the street like broken limbs and gutted entrails. And the well-cultivated fields among the war-torn areas made me hope that within a few years all traces of the destruction would have disappeared. Of course at the time I could not yet guess that, just as quickly as the traces of war would disappear from the face of the earth, so too the memory of its horrors could be blotted out of human memory.

And I had not yet seen the real horror of war in those first days; when I did, it was worse than my worst fears. Almost no regular passenger trains were running, so I travelled sometimes on open artillery carriages, sitting on the limber of a field gun, sometimes in one of those cattle trucks where exhausted men slept in the stench among and on top of each other, looking like cattle already butchered even as they were taken to the slaughter. But worst of all were the hospital trains, which I had to use two or three times. How different they were from those well-lit, white, clean hospital trains where the Archduchesses and high-born ladies of Viennese society had undergone training as nurses at the beginning of the war! What I now saw, shuddering, was ordinary freight carriages without real windows, only a narrow vent for air, and lit inside by oil lamps black with soot. Primitive stretchers stood side by side, all of them occupied by groaning, sweating men, pale as death, struggling for air in the dense stink of excrement and iodoform. The soldiers acting as medical orderlies were so exhausted that they swayed rather than walked; there was no sign of the immaculate white sheets of the official photographs. Men lay on straw or the hard stretchers, covered with bloodstained blankets, and in every carriage there were already two or three dead among their groaning, dying comrades. I spoke to the doctor who, as he admitted to me, had really been only a dentist in a small Hungarian town and had not done any surgery for years. He had already telegraphed ahead to seven stations for morphine, but it was all gone, and he had no cotton wool or clean bandages left to last the twenty hours before we reached the Budapest hospital. He asked me to assist him, because his staff were so tired that they couldn’t go on. I did my best, clumsily enough, but I could at least make myself useful by getting out at every station and helping to carry back a few buckets of water—impure, dirty water, meant for the locomotive, but now it was a blessing to help us at least wash the men a little and scour the blood off the carriage floors. And the soldiers of all imaginable nationalities, cast up together in this moving coffin, were in additional personal difficulty because of the Babel of different languages. Neither the doctor nor the medical orderlies knew Ruthenian or Croatian. The only man who could do anything at all to help was a white-haired old priest who, in the same way as the doctor feared running out of morphine, lamented his inability to perform his sacred duty because he had no oil for the sacrament of the Last Unction. He said he had never administered it to so many people in his life before as in this last, single month. And it was from him that I heard a comment I have never forgotten, uttered in his harsh, angry voice. “I am sixty-seven years old. I have seen a great deal. But I never thought humanity capable of such a crime.”

The hospital train on which I travelled back came into Budapest early in the morning. I went straight to a hotel, first to get some sleep; the only place to sit in the train had been on my suitcase. I slept until about eleven, for I had been exhausted, and then quickly dressed to go and find some breakfast. But after taking only my first few steps I kept feeling that I ought to rub my eyes to see whether I was dreaming. It was one of those bright, sunny days that are still spring-like in the morning but are summer by midday, and Budapest was as beautiful and carefree as I had ever seen it. Women in white dresses promenaded arm-in-arm with officers, who suddenly looked to me as if they belonged to some army entirely different from the one I had seen only yesterday and the day before yesterday. With the smell of iodoform from the transport of wounded soldiers still clinging to my clothes, still in my mouth and my nostrils, I saw them buying little bunches of violets and presenting them gallantly to the ladies, I saw immaculate cars being driven down the streets by immaculately shaved, well-dressed gentlemen. And all this eight or nine hours by express train away from the front line! But did anyone have a right to blame these people? Wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world for them to be alive and trying to enjoy their lives? Wasn’t it natural for them to seize on everything that they still could, a few nice clothes, the last happy hours, perhaps out of the very feeling that all this was under threat? It was precisely when you had seen what frail, vulnerable creatures human beings are, lives capable of being shattered in a thousandth of a second, together with all their memories and discoveries and ecstasies, that you understood how the prospect of a morning spent promenading by the shining river brought thousands out to see the sun, perhaps more keenly aware than ever before of themselves, their own blood, their own lives. I was almost reconciled to what had shocked me at first. But then, unfortunately, an obliging waiter brought me a Viennese newspaper. I tried to read it, and now revulsion did overcome me in the shape of real anger. I saw all those phrases about an inflexible will to victory, the low casualties among our own troops and the huge losses suffered by the enemy—the lies of wartime leapt out at me naked, gigantic and shameless. The ladies and gentleman casually parading in that carefree way were not the guilty ones, the guilty were those using words to stir up bellicose feeling. But we too were guilty if we did not do our best to counter them.


Now I really did feel a powerful urge to do something against the war! I had the material ready to hand; to get me started I had needed only this last visible confirmation of what instinct told me. I had recognised the enemy whom I must fight—the false heroism that would rather send others to suffering and death, the cheap optimism of unscrupulous prophets promising political and military victory, keeping the slaughter going, and behind them the chorus they had hired, the “wordsmiths of war”,2 as Werfel called them in his fine poem. Anyone who expressed reservations was disturbing them in their patriotic business; anyone who uttered a warning was derided as a pessimist; anyone who opposed the war which inflicted no suffering on them personally was branded a traitor. It was always the same, the whole pack throughout history who called cautious people cowards, humane people weak, only to be at a loss themselves in the hour of disaster that they had rashly conjured up. Because the pack were always the same. They had mocked Cassandra in Troy, Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and I had never before understood the tragedy of those great figures as I did now, in a time so like theirs. From the first I had not believed in ‘victory’, and I knew only one thing for certain—even if victory could in fact be gained at the expense of countless victims, it did not justify that sacrifice. But I was alone among my friends with these warnings, and the wild howl of triumph even before the first shot was fired, the division of the spoils even before the first battle, often made me doubt whether I myself was mad among all these clever heads, or perhaps was the only person to be shockingly sober amidst their intoxication. So it was only natural for me to describe my own situation—the tragic situation of the ‘defeatist’, a word that had been coined to impute a wish for defeat to those anxious for reconciliation—and I did it in the form of a play. As a symbol, I chose the character of Jeremiah, the prophet issuing warnings in vain. But I was not setting out to write a ‘pacifist’ drama, expressing truisms in verse to the effect that peace is better than war; I wanted to show that a man despised as weak and fearful in a time of enthusiastic feeling is generally the only one who, when defeat comes, not only endures but rises above it. From the time of my very first play, Thersites, I had constantly turned to the question of the mental superiority of the defeated. I was always attracted to showing how any form of power can harden a human being’s heart, how victory can bring mental rigidity to whole nations, and to contrasting that with the emotional force of defeat painfully and terribly ploughing through the soul. In the middle of war, while others, celebrating triumph too soon, were proving to one another that victory was inevitable, I was plumbing the depths of the catastrophe and looking for a way to emerge from them.

Unconsciously, however, by choosing a Biblical subject I had touched on something that so far had lain in me unexploited—my common ground with the Jews and their story, founded in either blood or tradition. Were not they my people, who had been defeated again and again by all other nations, over and over again, and yet had endured thanks to a mysterious power? And was that power not the one that, through a strong effort of the will, could overcome defeat by always enduring it? Our prophets had known in advance about the constant persecution and exile that still keeps us apart today, like chaff thrown into the street, and had taken defeat as an affirmation and even a blessed way to God. Had a time of trial not always been a gain to society and to individuals? I felt that was so as I wrote my play, the first of my works that I myself thought was really worth something. I know today that without all that I went through then in the Great War, without that fellow feeling and anticipation of the future, I would still have been the writer I was before the war, con moto—with emotion—as the musical term puts it, but gently so, not intensely moved to my very heart. Now, for the first time, I had the feeling that I was really speaking for myself and for my times. In trying to help others, I helped myself to write what is my most personal and private work, together with Erasmus, in which I made my way out of a similar crisis in 1934, the period of Hitler. From the moment when I began trying to construct it, I did not suffer so deeply from the tragedy of the times.

I had not expected any visible success from this play. Tackling as it did so many questions posed by prophets, by pacifists, by Jews, and through the choral construction of the closing scenes, rising to a hymn by the defeated to their fate, the extent of the play had grown so far beyond the usual length of a drama that in performance it would have occupied two or even three evenings in the theatre. And then, how was anyone going to produce a play on the German stage that spoke of defeat, even praised it, while every day the newspapers were urging, ‘Death or victory!’? I could consider it a miracle if the text was ever printed, but even in the worst case, that is that it was not, it had at least helped me through the worst of those times. I had said in my dialogue everything I could not say in conversation with those around me. I had thrown off the burden weighing on my mind and recovered my true self. At the very moment when everything in me was saying, ‘No’, to what was going on, I had found a way of saying ‘Yes’ to myself.

  1. at various ruses by which intellectuals could foil quite comprehensive censorship to model a certain solidarity of respect across enemy lines when it had suddenly become fashionable to excoriate all things from enemy nations[]
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paul frijters
paul frijters
3 years ago

great quote on the realities of local government plans!
I of course sympathise a lot with the feelings and even the actions of Stefan, who went to look for himself what was happening. Saying ‘no’ to such lies is indeed a way of saying ‘yes’ to oneself, which is both liberating and isolating. It brings forth a great generic difficulty, namely how to respect others and not loose complete touch with humanity.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 years ago

I read Zwieg a couple of years ago, recommended by a friend of mine. He is a terrific writer though some of the details get tedious at points. Tragic that he killed himself before the war ended.

Why do people go along with the expanding tapestry small lies? In the current context, this is a question I constantly ask myself. I have colleagues who agree with me that Acknowledgement of Country is nonsense at best; that Caitlin Jenner is a man pretending to be a woman; that indigenous folks would be better off forgetting their culture and enjoying the opportunities of the 21st century; that the pay gap is mainly a personal choice of women; that diversity training is insulting and ineffective; that immigration levels have been much too high over the past 20 years; that most people are not racists. etc.

But they would never say so publicly. So I am forced to speak up at faculty meetings and often receive supportive confidential emails afterwards. Nothing has ever happened to me. I have sent emails to the Vice Chancellor on occasions when he has said daft things. Why are they scared? Why am I not?

I think the reason is that they care about what others think. They want to be liked. Whereas I really do not care who likes me. If everybody hated me then this would be empirical evidence that I was an arsehole and I don’t want to be an arsehole. But it would not worry me per se, so long as they were still civil. I have probably five good long time friends who I see regularly and that is enough for anybody.

The academy was once charged with providing a haven for people like me, those who would challenge public attitudes if it so moved them. The canonical case of such a person is Paul Fritjers and we all know how he was treated by UQ. The Academy has been colonised completely in the US and is partly colonised here. So my diagnosis is that the culture of Universities has been deliberately undermined over the past 30 years and we are just starting to see the long term consequences of their submission to orthodoxy and the thousands of students acolytes who are spreading their stain across the polity.

John R walker
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Lloyd

Chris it might also be down to:
a not unreasonable trepidation generated by the mindless pile ons that seem to increasingly be visited on people ,who for whatever reason just happen to stand out from the crowd, at that moment.
Also there is just so much of the things that you mention around these days that nobody ,who wants to get anywhere could stop to throw rocks at every barking beast along the path.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 years ago
Reply to  John R walker

Yes John but academics are essentially unsackable and social media pile-ons are easy to block. I think the problem is that people actually CARE about being criticised. I am glad that I did not get that gene.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 years ago

Regarding the source of ethics, I would not refute anything you said in your last paragraph except to note that “understanding what ethics is by the approval of others is a shaken foundation”. I think it has deeper foundations. The Golden Rule appears in most cultures and is a genetically hard-wired ability of humans to put themselves in the shoes of others. This is core to the success of human beings as a cooperative, and not just a competitive, species. It is a poisoned chalice to be sure, as it leads to game theory and MAD. But the core of the rule is “As I would have others treat me.”

This does not work out well for psychopaths who are selected against by being exiled or murdered by the tribe. But my point is that it is I who judge how people would like to be treated. It is self-assessed and does not require approval of other actors per se.

If some others judge me harshly then that is feedback that I am treating them not as THEY would like to be treated. It does not mean I am treating them unfairly, or as I would not like to be treated. Luckily most of us have similar views about how we would like to be treated. This comes from our common biology and ancestry and consequent desires and needs. So it works out pretty well in practice.

Negative feedback from peers is information but it will not, by itself, drastically change our view of how we would like to be treated. It might make us review how we have behaved from the other’s point of view. But if we review it and can see no ethical wrong then we need not change our minds about whether we have acted rightly. The desire for approval in Germany in the late 1930s is my best example of this. I think I would have resisted the zeitgeist and may have ended up dead or exiled. Disapproval would not have made me doubt my ethical principles. Which was the central topic of your great post.

As to your use of the phrase “get over it”, I think that is not only a misquote but unsportsmanlike, typical of a Collingwood supporter. Zweig was rightly traumatised by the mutation of the urbane, literary culture of his youth into Nazi Germany. I am not saying he should “get over it” but killing himself was surely not the answer. He would have had so much to offer in post-war Germany. And I never said Aborigines should “get over it”. I am suggesting that the next generation will be better off if they embrace the wide opportunities that this century offers.

My argument is that anyone may choose to distance themselves from the culture of their grandparents. I have. I think you also have. Mr. Darville for instance. I used the phrase “walk way from” which was a poor choice of words because it perhaps implies disdain and not all of our ancestors’ culture was bad. Embracing the culture you have been immersed in and know is a better way to express it and usually the best and natural course.

I do not disagree that culture is important, just that the culture of my grandparents who were variously anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant and anti-Jewish is worth following. I have “lost” this culture but it is not really a loss. The notion that you can lose culture and be left empty is an abuse of language.

We all have the same amount of culture! It is the influence of everyone we know and hear. You cannot lose it! My British cultural heritage has been replaced by modern Australian cultural influences, including that of Freddie Gruen and my Italian in-laws. Snakes and ladders. There is simply no need for individuals to preserve “their culture” whatever that means.

Your own culture is tautologically unkillable. Your culture is whatever you have known and loved and built your sense of self upon. Unfortunately, kids in Wadeye are only given a culture from 100 or 1000 years ago, and quarantined from the amazingly rich culture of the 21st century.

Anything quoted from Stephan Zweig’s magnificent, tragic biography leads to great conversations don’t you think? A noble soul with a great intellect who lived through times that you and I managed to avoid be sheer dumb luck.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen


Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
3 years ago

Alright. I just clicked on the link to Nick’s Inside Story essay and was all set to read it when I say the title “Orwell that Ends Well.” Was that your title Nick, or the editor’s?

If yours, some kind of punishment or public penance is due. What say you Troppodillians?

paul frijters
paul frijters
3 years ago

Hi Nick,

I think your essential point that ethics is inherently socially anchored is key in the feelings of the individual around all this: what group does one hang on to and try to belong to when the ethical ground one used to stand on shifts dramatically? My own ethics is quite explicitly socially-anchored in my own story of my ethics, namely that I am trying to belong to the ‘long-run’ notion of what deemed good by humanity. The kind of social group you then ‘follow’ is a bit abstract, but in any generation there are many others that are similar and whom one can relate to and spar with. It is also cross-cultural and cross-generational, which helps too because the immediate group is then wide and difficult to disrupt. It is also very recogniseable by the majority in any place, as they too feel some notion of a long-run tug of the rest of humanity. On the other hand, one then doesnt truly belong to any actual community whose ethics are far more fluid, throwing up that question of respect.
Something similar holds for ‘truth’ where the groups we belong too are also our ‘operating system’ as you call it.