On a recent trip to Flanders, I re-read Volker Weidermann’s almost mathematically precise and limpid novella, Ostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft – ‘Ostend 1936: the Summer of Friendship’, which I first encountered in 2014, when the drumbeat of Europe’s current existential crisis had already long been audible, – at least to those who care to listen – in the same way that the coming war was clear to observant and committed Europeans by the mid-1930s, if not earlier.
Set in the Belgian seaside resort, then far more fashionable and elegant than drab Ostend is now, it takes a magnifying glass to a small group of mostly Jewish writers, centred on Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun, who have all fled Hitler’s rapidly expending Reich, to take refuge in Ostend; what turns out to be a form of ersatz literary exile which soon fragments under the inexorable pressure of events that were soon to engulf the whole of Europe.
Comparisons between the 1930s and the present time are, of course – and with justification – very popular at the moment, with varying degrees of accuracy and insight. The rise of highly organised and increasingly ruthless extreme right factions in almost every European country is the most obvious symptom of decadence, as well an indication of a possibly impending conflict, that we share with the immediate pre-war era. Of particular concern is the agenda of Alternative für Deutschland, who occupy 94 seats in the German Bundestag, and whose discourse is more than an echo of right-wing groups who helped bring about the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
Nonetheless, this is not the 1930s. Europe has moved on from 1945, despite what Britain’s homegrown nationalists would have us believe. For over seventy years, there has been a prolonged and historically unparalleled period of peace on our Continent.
Weidermann’s novella is not a historical commentary. Instead, and arguably more intuitively, it draws us into the often claustrophobic milieu of a small group of Jewish artists and intellectuals who will soon be scattered across the globe, and will perish – directly or indirectly – by their own hand, not that of the Nazi regime.
It describes the often tenuous and complex friendship between Zweig, Roth and Keun, and others in their circle. The reality of their situation, the looming and indescribable horror, is familiar to all Europeans and most of the rest of the world. We know what is coming, and hope that it won’t be repeated; or at least, most of us do.
Sitting in a café on a rainy afternoon in Ostend, I came across a passage that lies at the heart of this slim, clear-sighted book. In their different ways, both Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth suffered from nostalgia for a recent but increasingly bygone era – that of the Habsburg Empire, a near-continent made up of dozens of peoples and languages where – and this is the element which most closely resembles the situation in 2018 – it was possible for its citizens to move freely from one country to another without a passport, to live, love, work and retire in any nation of the Kaiserlich und Königlich dominions, to speak their own mother tongue and be understood and accepted, even if your countries had once been at war.
Perhaps the European Union will go the way of the Habsburg Empire, which it so resembles. Some of us would view that with sadness and even fear; others would not. In fact, they would do their utmost to accelerate the process.
But where the present time differs from that described by Weidermann is in the title. For we have no summer of friendship: that has already been consigned to the bonfire of the past.