Joseph Roth, Radetzkymarsch
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2010
Would you like to talk about the end of the world, your world? One part of the story is the unpleasant things in life: from climate change and migrants’ misery to poverty and housing shortage. Most of the time we close our eyes to it as long as possible and live in blind flying. We see a possible outcome of this when we look at the people of Austria-Hungary 150 years ago, who headed straight for the end of their country. No one painted a more empathic and dedicated picture of this than Joseph Roth (1894-1939).
Influenced by the early loss of his father and the loss of his fatherland later in his life, after World War I the Galician Jew Roth grew into his role of chronicler of the perished Habsburg monarchy; the “Radetzkymarsch”, first published in 1932, mark the peak of his creative powers.
For half a century, we keep accompanying the Trotta family. In a dramatic opening, Lieutenant Trotta saved the life of Emperor Franz Joseph I in the 1859 Battle of Solferino. The officer is rewarded by being ennobled and promoted, and the fate of his family becomes closely linked to that of his country. All family members share a sense of duty and devotion towards the emperor. When he reads a legendary account of his action in the school history textbook of his son, however, Trotta (the “hero of Solferino”) approaches the emperor himself (“I’ve been abused. I’ve never served in the cavalry.”) – later, he retires, disillusioned. His obedient son Franz becomes district administrator and forces his son Carl Joseph into the military career which he himself was denied. Boredom drives Carl Joseph into gambling addiction, misery into the arms of alcohol. People act in the straightjacket of outdated values; the aristocratic officers fight duels over vanities – because they are expected to. The world around them changes, but both the Trottas and the nobility remain in their bubble.
Page after page, Roth pulls us readers deeper into the spell of the era, grand Vienna contrasts with the miserable province, the modesty of the district administrator’s household with the dictate of decor among the officers. But nobody really wants to see the signs of the times; they all shut their ears to the thundering accompanying the approaching storm over Europe, to the minorities’ vocal demands for political equality, even independence. Captivated as we are moving around the salons and barracks, we are shaken by the clear-sighted words of the Polish Count Chojnicki and the aged district administrator: “Of course, taken literally, the monarchy still exists. We still have an army, and we have officialdom. As we speak, it’s falling apart, it’s already falling apart! An old man with not long to go, a head cold could finish him off, he keeps his throne by the simple miracle that he’s still able to sit on it. But how much longer, how much longer? The age doesn’t want us anymore! This age wants to establish autonomous nation states!”
As the leitmotif of his requiem to the Habsburgs, Roth aptly chose the Radetzky March. He plays this piece for his protagonists, for their dance on the volcano. The old von Trotta ignores the change until the very end. Every Sunday, year in, year out, he has the Radetzky March played in front of his house: “Once a week, Austria still existed.”
Translated by Annika Backe