The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth, trans. Michael Hofmann, Granta 2013, 320pp, £9.99 (paperback)

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth, trans. Michael Hofmann, Granta 2013, 208pp, £12.99 (hardback)

The Austrian army’s war began with punishments, with courts martial. For many days the real or supposed traitors were left dangling on trees in the church squares, as an example to the living. But far and wide, the living had flex. Fires burned around the hanging corpses, and the leaves caught, and the fire was stronger than the continuous, drizzling rain that ushered in a bloody autumn.

This is the kind of detail that tends to get obscured when historical memory gets sentimental. However much it may suit fin de siècle nostalgia to imagine that the Austro-Hungarian Empire obligingly faded away when its time was up, it did not go down without a fight. But there was something undeniably pathetic about its demise, and the suggestion that the Empire did a better job of brutally purging its own citizens in 1914 than of actually waging the external war does little to dispel that notion; the historian Eric Hobsbawm has observed that ‘never, probably, has an empire been carried to its grave with more mockery than that of the Habsburgs.’

First published in 1932, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March is remarkable for its disarmingly sensitive and humane portrayal of a time and a place that exists in the Western European psyche largely as a sort of forbidding monolith. Whereas Emile Zola’s Nana (1880) portrayed with a pointed, gloating irony the complacency of the Parisian bourgeoisie as Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire threw itself into the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Roth’s account of the collapse of the doomed Habsburg monarchy is altogether more sympathetic – not so much a paean to the fallen regime itself as a poignant eulogy to a lost world.

The novel starts with a humble Slovene infantry lieutenant, Trotta, saving the life of the Emperor Franz Joseph at the Battle of Solferino (1859) by removing him from the trajectory of an enemy bullet. He is ennobled for his trouble, becoming Baron of his home village of Sipolje, in what is now Slovenia. The Radetzky March tells the story of three generations of the Trotta family: from the ‘Hero of Solferino’ through his officious and patriotic son, the District Commissioner Herr von Trotta, to the hapless young scion, Carl Joseph, whose coming of age is scarred by senseless deaths – of an older lover in childbirth, and a close friend in a duel – even before he is called up to serve in the Great War.

War breaks out only in the closing chapters of the book; it is nonetheless a war novel in its entirety. Death – its memory, its imprint and its promise – pervades The Radetzky March. But the slide into obsolescence is delivered with a certain affecting warmth, not least in the figure of the Emperor himself, rendered in all his human frailty as a ‘white-bearded, forgetful old man with the crystal drop on the end of his nose.’ Perhaps most portentous of all is the death of the Trottas’ aged, faithful servant, Jacques: overlapping with a slow but inexorable proliferation of ‘suspicious individuals’ – leftist agitators, nationalists, democrats – Jacques’s passing marks the end of an age of deference and moral certainty:

When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show there he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap … Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.

In its place came all the bustle and confusion of modernity; the nostalgia is not for a less democratic age per se, but for a less cynical one. While his father, the District Commissioner, struggles to come to terms with a new vocabulary of ‘national minorities’, the young Lieutenant Trotta is similarly overcome by the enormity of the outside world that has irrupted into his consciousness:

… for a lieutenant in the Monarchy it was just as bewildering as it might be for us to consider that the earth is only one of millions upon millions of heavenly bodies, that there are innumerable other suns in our galaxy, and that each of these suns has its own planets, and that we therefore are relegated to being a very obscure thing indeed, not to say: an insignificant speck of dust!

Maybe they sensed what was coming, but habits of duty, obligation and deference kept them going. Tradition is not so easily pushed aside; the Empire, this great limbering anachronism, would meet its fate head-on. The clairvoyant pessimism of the irreverent Count Chojnicki provides the only realist counterpoint to the blind faith of the Habsburg patriots:

This empire’s had it. As soon as the Emperor says goodnight, we’ll break up into a hundred pieces. All the peoples will set up their own dirty little statelets, and even the Jews will proclaim a King in Palestine. Vienna stinks of the sweat of democrats, I can’t stand to be on the Ringstrasse any more. Ever since they got their red flags, the workers have stopped working … I tell you, gentlemen, unless we start shooting it’s all up. In our lifetime, I tell you.

Elegantly told and rich in social history, The Radetzky March is punctuated with telling vignettes in which the most complex of historical contradictions are condensed into wry satire. When a Slovene patriot in the dragoons hears his Hungarian comrades insulting the Emperor, he finds himself in a bind. His patriotic instinct tells him to stand up for the Habsburg monarchy, but his head tells him this would be a betrayal of the emergent nationalism of his own countrymen:

He was a patriot. But he stood there in shrugging, gesturing perplexity, an embodiment of love of country, like a banner that wants to be hung out somewhere, but can’t find a suitable roof ledge.

Strong nationalist and antimonarchist sentiment was already well established among the Serbs, Italians and Romanians, along with a minority of Czech intelligentsia. Among the Slovenes, Slovaks and Hungarians it had taken rather longer to articulate itself. The Hungarian historian Peter Hank’s study of the intercepted letters of Austro-Hungarian soldiers to their families suggests the experience of the war was instrumental in the development of a nationalist consciousness. Hank notes that ‘until 1918 national sentiment had not yet crystallized out, among broad masses of the people, into a stable component of consciousness [and] people were not yet conscious of the discrepancy between loyalty to the state and to the nation, or had not yet made a clear choice between the two.’ Craving a return to ordinary life, the soldiers communicated their disaffection only in terms of a general hostility towards the war and a desire that it should come to an end – there was little talk of what should take its place. As the conflict went on, however, the political content of the correspondence became more marked, as their loyalties ebbed away from the Habsburgs in favour of national independence.

By the end of the war, nationalism had become the natural rallying point for opposition, and the national cause became bound up in hopes for a fairer, more economically just society. In his Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990), Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that such aspirations found revolutionary expression in some of the bigger belligerent nations in the aftermath of defeat, as witness the emergence of short-lived soviet republics in Germany, German Austria and Hungary. Elsewhere they manifested themselves in a synthesis of nationalist and social democratic movements – although the latter component was invariably subsumed within, and ultimately subjugated to, the former. The new system of Wilsonian petty states thus established itself in opposition to two distinctly non-national (one might even say supra-national) alternatives – the erstwhile Habsburg Empire and the spectre of a Soviet Europe.

The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand became the reference point for the school primers, but, as Roth shows, the geopolitics of central and southern Europe was a conflagration just waiting for its spark. For Austria-Hungary, the disaster of 1914-18 was the culmination of a process that had could be traced back to the book’s genesis event, the Battle of Solferino of 24 June 1859. Following a gruelling nine-hour engagement, the Austrians were forced into a retreat by the French and Piedmontese armies. The battle was a decisive victory in the Italian nationalist struggle, the Risorgimento; two years later, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed. Liberalism and nationalism would ultimately triumph over the entrenched reactionary despotism with which the Habsburg monarchy was synonymous. With the benefit of considerable hindsight we can see that every bit of the Trottas’ faith in their heritage – unstinting in the case of the District Commissioner, more ambivalent in the case of the young Carl Trotta – was misplaced: the game was up from the start.

Six years after the publication – and great commercial success – of The Radetzky March came the sequel, The Emperor’s Tomb. It is a very different sort of novel – not only substantially shorter but also stylistically sparser, reflecting the historical urgency of its time and becoming, in the process, characteristically modern. Again we have a protagonist – a Trotta – on the run from his fate, out of his depth and struggling to come to terms with a changing world. But the mood is different. Gone is the expansive, affectionate condescension of the crumbling fin-de-siècle; in its place a blacker, more total hopelessness. Its climax is a cruel juxtaposition: the birth of a son – ‘that soft, pathetic little body was a repository of all my strength, as though I was holding myself in my hands, and the best of myself at that – and the portentous arrival of jackbooted messengers proclaiming ‘A new German people’s government.’ The year was 1938; history filled in the rest.


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