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
In the introduction to his 2000 translation of The Wandering Jews, Hofmann mentions a story Roth liked to tell: “An old caftaned Jewish refugee, sitting in a train compartment, shows his ticket to the inspector. The inspector, suspicious, thinking that perhaps he is hiding a child in his caftan to save the price of a ticket, asks the Jew what he has in there. The Jew produces a framed portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph.” This double-edged story suggests the bittersweetness of Jewish feeling toward the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was ruled by Franz Joseph from 1848 until 1916. In the late 18th century, Austria had joined with Russia and Prussia in dismembering the country of Poland and in the process annexed a large Jewish population. Over the next century, many of those Polish Jews made their way to the cities of the Austrian Empire, especially Vienna, which by the turn of the 20th century was a glorious center of Jewish culture and achievement. This was the Vienna of Freud, Mahler, and Wittgenstein—and of Joseph Roth, who moved there to study at the university during World War I.
Yet fin-de-siècle Vienna was also a world capital of anti-Semitism, one of the first places where explicitly anti-Semitic parties and politicians took power; Adolf Hitler learned his Jew-hatred in the streets of Vienna. What Roth’s anecdote captures is the sense that Austrian Jews were both exposed to danger—that suspicious train conductor—and, finally, shielded against it by the benevolence of the imperial government, as personified in the kaiser. This feeling became even more seductive after 1918, when the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to an age of aggressive nationalism in Eastern Europe. Compared to the tolerant Empire, new states like Poland and Hungary—and, after 1933, Nazi Germany—were nightmares of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
In a sense, Roth used his memories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just as the old Jew in the story used his portrait of the emperor: as a talisman against evil, a token of a safer, more civilized world. This nostalgia for a doomed Austrian civilization is the theme of The Radetzky March, which belongs with The Magic Mountain and Remembrance of Things Past in the group of great novels that chronicle the death of 19th-century Europe.
The title of the novel is taken from an Austrian military march, and Roth’s story is set in the cloistered world of the Austrian army in the years leading up to 1914. His hero is Carl Joseph von Trotta, a weak-willed, thoroughly unheroic young officer who is struggling, like the empire at large, with an unmanageable legacy. Trotta’s grandfather, we learn in the novel’s opening chapter, saved the life of Emperor Franz Joseph at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. As a reward, “the Hero of Solferino” was abruptly ripped away from his Slavic peasant roots and turned into a baron. His grandson, Carl Joseph, has to live out the consequences of this deracination: He has a title but no personal nobility, an officer’s commission but no military talents.
As Roth suggests, this makes him the perfect emblem of an empire that is being hollowed out from within. In the lazy years before the World War, being an Austrian soldier means living in a garrison town, drinking, gambling, and fighting the occasional duel—in short, wasting a lifetime in preparation for a struggle that no one really believes will ever come. Trotta’s Austria is a land of the lotus-eaters, much like the mountaintop sanitarium that Thomas Mann creates in The Magic Mountain. Only occasionally does Trotta meet someone who sees more clearly—like the Polish Count Chojnicki, who tells him, “We are all no longer alive!” The Habsburg monarchy ruled over a dozen nationalities—Poles, Hungarians, Croats, Slovenes—all of which wanted to break free; only the extraordinary longevity of Franz Joseph was still holding things together. “An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism.”
Writing from the vantage point of the early 1930s, Roth knew that the worst losers in the age of European nationalism would be the Jews. This knowledge informs one of the most elegiac scenes in the novel, when the kaiser receives a delegation of Jews during his visit to a small town. For Franz Joseph, this is merely another obligation—he has already shown himself to the town’s Catholics and Orthodox Christians, when someone mentions that the Jews also want an audience. But for the Jews it is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege, a chance to thank their remote protector face-to-face:
The leader of the Jews, a patriarch with a wafting beard in a white prayer shawl with black stripes, flowed toward the Kaiser. The Kaiser paced his horse. … The black throng of Jews billowed toward him. Their backs rose and sank. Their coal-black, fiery-red, and silvery-white beards wafted in the soft breeze. The patriarch stopped three paces from the Kaiser. In his arms he carried a huge Torah scroll topped by a gold crown with tiny, softly jingling bells. The Jew then lifted the Torah scroll toward the Emperor. And in an incomprehensible language his toothless, wildly overgrown mouth babbled the blessing that Jews must recite upon seeing an emperor. Franz Joseph lowered his head. … ‘Blessed art thou,’ the Jew said to the Kaiser. ‘Thou shalt not live to see the end of the world.’ I know! thought Franz Joseph.
The passage is a good example of Roth’s style. Like the expert feuilletonist he was, he captures a scene in a few bold strokes of color and detail, using short sentences to move the reader’s eye from spot to spot. Typical, too, is the benevolent irony with which he depicts the kaiser—an old man, at a loss among these exotics, but still recognizing his duty to his Jewish subjects. In the last sentences, Roth turns the words of the blessing into an inadvertent curse. If Franz Joseph will not live to see the end of the world, it is not because the Messiah is coming; it is because his death will signal the dissolution of the Austrian Empire. And for the Jews of Europe, this dissolution would culminate in a destruction more absolute than even Roth could have predicted. “Now,” he asked Zweig in 1933, “do you understand why I always was, and am, presciently sad?”
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