As we end the Nonprofit Leadership Summit this year, I am struck by how much our current time mirrors 1939. if history is indeed repeating itself, what can we say about the current times, and what does this mean for our tactics in the uncertain future?
Well, recently, I discovered the famous Stefan Zweig. His books provided some of the inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel, a 2014 movie by Wes Anderson. I read one of them recently, his memoir, called The World of Yesterday.
It strikes me- how much Zweig’s words in his memoir, written 80 years ago-can be applied to our own time. I’ve modified what he said about artists to apply to nonprofit leaders.
“Our duty as nonprofit leaders is to express our convictions even in the face of opposition from our own country and the disapproval of the entire world now waging war. the one appropriate path is, like Walt Whitman, who became an orderly in the civil war, to actively bring humane help to others. We represent the moral compass of our countries, and as such, need to show improbable strength of character, look clearly and fearlessly at the turmoil of the world.
Nothing is quite such an eerie sensation as when something you thought long dead and buried approaches you again with its own form and figure. (For example, fascism, Nazism and concentration camps.)
I have been a defenseless, helpless witness of the unimaginable relapse of mankind into what was believed to be long-forgotten barbarism, with its deliberate program of inhuman dogma. It was for our generation, after fifty years, to see again wars without actual declarations of war, concentration camps, torture, mass theft and bombing of defenseless cities, bestiality unknown for the last fifty generations, and it is to be hoped that future generations will not see them again.
Never until our time has mankind as a whole acted so diabolically, or made such almost divine progress.
it seems to me a duty to bear witness to our lifetime, which has been fraught with such dramatic events, for we have all, I repeat, witnessed these fast transformations- we have been forced to witness them. For our generation, there was no other option, no chance such as earlier generations had of standing aside. Thanks to our new methods of spreading news as soon as it happens, we have been constantly drawn into the events of our time. When bombers smashed buildings in Shanghai, we knew it in our sitting rooms in Europe even before the injured were carried out. Incidents thousands of miles away overseas came vividly before our eyes. There was no shelter, no safety from constant awareness and involvement. There was no country to which you could escape, no way you could buy peace and quiet, all the time everywhere, the hand of fate took us and dragged us back into its insatiable game.
We have experienced more history than any of our forefathers did. Even today we stand at another watershed, at an end and a new beginning.
(Seeing the concentration camps at our borders for thousands of children whose only crime was to follow parents seeking a better life)- We have a right to be angry. Our irritability is what gives us the strength to be vigorous and creative.
Insofar as the eyes of the world were open, it saw that it had been betrayed. The mothers who had sacrificed their children were betrayed, so were the soldiers who came home as beggars, everyone who had believed in the promises of the state.
All of us who had dreamt of a new and better world and now saw the old games, on which our lives, our happiness, our time and our possessions were staked, about to begin again, played by the same gamblers or new ones. We had all been betrayed.
No wonder a whole young generation looked bitterly and scornfully at their fathers, who had allowed themselves to be deprived first of victory and then of peace, who had done everything wrong, had foreseen nothing, and had made the wrong calculations in every respect.
Was it not understandable? None of these young people believed their parents, the politicians or their teachers. Every state decree was read with distrust.
We look at what is happening at the border in the US, the refugee crisis in Europe- What was the reason for this pointless persecution, what is its aim? Refugees driven out of their lands where they had lived, but never given any land of their own. They were told “Don’t live here with us” but no one told them where they were to live. They were blamed for transgressions but offered no means of atonement.
What a wild, anarchic, improbable time were those years, when, with the dwindling value of money, all other values began to slide! An era of frenzied ecstasy and chaotic deception, a unique mixture of impatience and fanaticism. This was the golden age of all that was extravagant and uncontrolled- occultism, palm reading, mysticism. everything that promised an extreme unheard of experience, every form of narcotic-cocaine, heroin, sold like hot cakes.
In the theatre, the refugee crisis and constant war featured in plays, the extremes of fascism were the only subjects of conversation in politics. Any kind of morality and moderation were rejected. Advancing like all intellectual revolutions, it discharged the tensions of many years and in spite of everything produced some valuable ideas that would last.
We can be surrounded by the jingoistic-patriotic propaganda-take a stance and opinion on any number of things, join the loquacious confusion-the never-ending discussions-those who cling to their stance of opposition and dogmatism, surround ourselves in confused and insecure company-We may be surrounded by fault-finding, captious, negative, a temporary community that does not owe its community anything in real life, and in the midst of all that-go on.
So there was only one thing for it- we must get on with our own work quietly.
Something else was beginning, a new time, and who knew how many hells and purgatories we still had to go through to reach it?
The sunlight was full and strong. As I walked home, I suddenly saw my own shadow going ahead of me, just as I had seen the shadow of the last war behind this one. That shadow had never left me all this time, it lay over my mind day and night. Perhaps its dark outline also lies over the whole world. But in the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.
– Stefan Zweig, writing in exile in 1939 in The World of Yesterday