The German Jewish writer Joseph Roth, whose letters are newly translated, chronicled the death of 19th century Europe and the rise of its darker heir
Roth took pride in his bohemian existence: “I haven’t lived in a house since my eighteenth year,” he wrote in 1929. “Everything I own fits into three suitcases.” But living in hotels was an expensive kind of poverty, especially once his wife Friedl became schizophrenic and he had to pay the bills for her sanitarium. Luckily, Roth happened to leave Germany on Jan. 30, 1933, the very day Hitler became chancellor; but if his life was saved, his livelihood was devastated. By Feb. 11, he was writing of his “prospects of having to sleep under the Seine bridges within 4 weeks.” His only advantage was his clear-sightedness: Unlike some of his fellow Jewish writers, he knew exactly what the Third Reich would mean for him. “It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe,” he writes Zweig in February 1933. “Quite apart from our personal situations—our literary and material existence has been wrecked—we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”
For the next six years, the letters record an increasingly desperate, and finally unsuccessful, struggle for survival. With the German market barred to him, Roth could no longer earn a living as a journalist. All he had left were his novels, which he sold to émigré German publishers in Austria and Holland and had translated into French and English. But to write a novel a year, or more, while facing imminent destitution—Roth was now supporting his new lover and her children, and spending heavily on alcohol—was a prolonged nervous torture, which the letters faithfully reflect.
Roth poured out his troubles to Stefan Zweig, who supported him financially and professionally throughout these years. But supporting a man like Roth was not a simple matter—especially for a man like Zweig. The two were a study in contrasts: If Roth was a genius and a spendthrift, Zweig was a careful, calculating literary bourgeois. He earned a fortune, and worldwide fame, with his biographies of historical figures and writers, yet recognized that Roth was the greater talent.
The possibilities for hurt feelings in such a situation are obvious, and if they were largely avoided, the credit goes wholly to Zweig. Roth, not a temperate man at the best of times, was reduced by poverty to the most abject begging and the most ruthless emotional blackmail: “I have worries, such worries, and I’m so UNHAPPY. Please, please secure a little freedom for me. I can’t live like this any more, it’s killing me,” he wrote in June 1934. Yet his supplicant position did not stop him from loftily criticizing Zweig’s books, or blasting his political caution, or generally disparaging his character. “It seems to me that you can’t have had a friend before in your life,” he raged in 1936. “Within such a serious and tragic relationship as friendship, there is only the UNCONDITIONAL. THE UNCONDITIONAL. There are no criteria.” The whole correspondence is so fraught with emotional and political drama that it cries out for theatrical treatment: A play about Roth and Zweig in Paris could really be something.
Inevitably, the subject of Jewishness is also a central topic of Roth and Zweig’s correspondence—even though Roth strains at times to distance himself from it. “My Jewishness never appeared as anything else to me but an accidental quality, like, say, my blond mustache (which could have been brown),” Roth wrote in July 1935. “I never suffered from it, I was never proud of it.” It follows that Roth was ambivalent about solidarity with his fellow German Jews. Partly this was because he insisted, correctly, on seeing Nazism as a threat to civilization as a whole, not just to the Jews: “anti-Semitism … is a little spoke in the great wheel of bestiality.” And he despised anyone, especially any Jew, whom he thought ready to compromise with Germany. In 1936, he wrote venomously about “people who, if they’d been able to borrow a foreskin from somewhere, would still be sitting in Germany, quietly or otherwise.”
But Roth also had an undisguised contempt for all manner of Jews. As a political conservative who dreamed of restoring the Austrian Empire, he hated Jewish leftists; as a cosmopolitan who dreamed of becoming a Catholic, he hated Jewish nationalists. And he was all too ready to blame the Jews for their own persecution. In February 1935, we find him writing “It’s the Jews … who have introduced Socialism and catastrophe into European culture,” thus making National Socialism possible: “They are the real cradle of Hitler. … The Jews have unleashed the plebs.” Six months later, Roth is attacking Chaim Weizmann, writing, “A Zionist is a National Socialist, a National Socialist is a Zionist … what I want to do is protect Europe and humanity, both from the Nazis and from the Hitler-Zionists.” When all mitigating factors are taken into account—Roth’s political and religious convictions, his personal desperation, his desire to shock—this remains vile.
But as is often the case in Roth’s letters, the emotion of the moment is far from the whole story. Though he might claim that Jewishness means as little to him as hair color, it is in fact the explicit subject of two of his best books—Job, a novel about an Eastern European Jewish everyman, and The Wandering Jews, a collection of reportage on the same theme. And in The Radetzky March, it’s possible to see how Roth’s Jewishness intersects in a complicated way with his Austrianness, an identity that he embraced far more fervently.
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