Joseph Roth’s magnum opus, The Radetzky March , is perhaps one of the greatest novels that emerged out of the carnage of the First World War describing the dying days of Habsburg rule in Central Europe. It is also one of the most melancholy tales ever written in the German language. Roth vividly portrays the decline and death of an empire that has outlived its time by telling the story of the ill-omened Trotta family, whose sad end—like in a Greek tragedy—is preordained.
The fragility of life in general and political institutions in particular is naturally, most acutely felt during times of profound social upheaval. Times of upheaval, however, also offer a unique vantage point for authors to observe change; “The owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk,” as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously stated. Consequently, Roth’s The Radetzky March provides a rare perspective on the old Europe prior and during “the great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, modern-day Western Ukraine, which was then part of the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. He studied in Vienna, served in the Habsburg army, witnessed the dissolution of the empire, became a writer, moved from Berlin to Paris, and finally succumbed to alcoholism in 1939. Talking about his life, Roth notes : "My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary."
Legend has it that in 1928, while living in Berlin, a dispirited Roth asked the band at the Hotel Adlon to play the Radetzky March—a march composed by Johann Strauss Senior in 1848 and dedicated to Field Marshal Radetzky in honor of the old soldier’s victory at Custozza —while the Austro-Jewish author was reminiscing about the past. Radetzky was the epitome of Austria’s imperial Heldenzeitalter (heroic age). The poet Franz Grillparzer waxes eloquently about this longest-serving, imperial Austrian officer (who served more than seventy years in total) in his poem, In deinem Lager ist Oesterreich (“In your camp is Austria”). More important to Roth, the old general singularly rekindled and solidified Austria’s neoabsolutist identity around the Habsburg dynasty after the revolutionary years of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1930, Roth, inspired by Austria’s past and no small amount of alcohol, finally got to work on the novel, which he finished in September 1932. However, it was his editor, Gustav Kiepenheuer, who chose the ironic title The Radetzky March —ostensibly compressing the novel’s content in one short phrase, but in reality, turning the meaning of the old march upside down; Roth’s novel was about death and demise, rather than victory and rebirth.
Roth traces the fate of three generations of the Trotta family and their service to the Habsburg Empire and the Austrian Emperor Franz-Josef. The founder of the dynasty, Joseph, a Slovenian peasant and officer in the Austrian army, saves Franz-Josef’s life during the Battle of Solferino in 1859, a deed for which he is subsequently knighted and awarded nobility. The towering figure of Joseph, the “hero of Solferino” casts a large shadow over his son Franz, who becomes a district captain in Moravia, and Franz’s son Carl Joseph, who is commissioned into the imperial forces, first into a prestigious cavalry regiment and then into an infantry battalion stationed in Galicia. Joseph von Trotta is an impossible role model to follow for both his son and grandson in the already crumbling empire, and from page one of the novel, there is never any doubt of the impending doom of a family so intrinsically linked to the fate of a dying monarch and monarchy.
The relationship between the district captain Trotta and his son, Carl Joseph, is the driving force of the novel and the vehicle Roth uses to paint the kaleidoscopic world of Austria-Hungary stretching from Moravia to Galicia. While still a cadet, Carl Joseph visits his father’s residence in the Moravian district town of W every summer. Every Sunday the military band of a nearby-stationed regiment plays under the balcony of the district captain’s house. Each performance of the band begins with The Radetzky March, invoking in Carl Joseph the desire to go to war and die for the emperor:
It would be best to die for him amid military music, easiest with The Radetzky March. The swift bullets whistled in cadence around Carl Joseph’s ear, his naked saber flashed . . . he sank into the drumming intoxication of the music . . .
The district captain’s house also contains a portrait of the founder of the dynasty, the “hero of Solferino.” Carl Joseph studies it during every summer vacation:
The dead man revealed nothing; the boy learned nothing. From year to year, the portrait seemed to be growing paler and more otherworldly, as if the hero of Solferino were dying once again and a time would come when an empty canvas would stare down upon the descendant even more mutely than the portrait.
In fact, throughout the novel, the Trottas, rather than being alive, appear already dead. They are part of the group of the “living dead”—Habsburg servants cursed to wander the twilight zone between life and death while the empire lingers—yet released from their oath with the demise of the monarchy after which they can finally flee this world, freed from its cares and troubles. Carl Joseph, the district captain, after the death of his faithful servant Jacques, has the foreboding that they both belong to a cursed class of civil servants and soldiers, the traditional pillars of the Austrian monarchy, doomed to collapse once the superstructure is gone.
While the district captain, one of the “old decent men,” dutifully continues his work as a faithful civil servant to the emperor, maintaining “heroic equanimity,” Carl Joseph fails as a soldier in the peacetime army. Acutely sensitive, he feels unable to live up to the impossible ideals of the “hero of Solferino.” He initiates affairs with married women, accumulates gambling debts, is partially responsible for the death of one of his friends in a duel and becomes an alcoholic on the Galician border (“ Der Leutnant von Trotta, der bin ich.” —“I am Lieutenant von Trotta,” Roth allegedly proclaimed after he finished the novel). The young Trotta’s principal achievements are the rescue of a faded portrait of the Emperor Franz-Josef from a brothel, which he and his fellow officers frequent, and the bloody suppression of a communist-inspired riot in Galicia, where he is severely wounded by a protester.
In the summer of 1914, during a regimental anniversary ball in the castle of Count Chojnicki, a rich Polish noble, the news arrives that Franz-Ferdinand has been assassinated. A heated discussion immediately breaks out among the different nationalities of the officer corps with some Hungarian officers openly showing their disloyalty to the empire (“We can be glad the bastard is gone!”). It was then that Carl Joseph finally realizes that, “The Fatherland of the Trottas was splintering and crumbling. At home in the Moravian district seat of W, Austria might still exist. Every Sunday Herr Nechwal’s band played The Radetzky March . Austria existed once a week, on Sundays.” Yet otherwise, she was already a corpse.
In one last outburst, Carl Joseph von Trotta seemingly tries to defend his family’s honor: “My grandfather saved the Kaiser’s life. And I, his grandson, will not allow anyone to insult the House of our Supreme Commander in Chief; these gentlemen are behaving scandalously.” Yet even the subsequent funeral march at the ball turned into a farce with drunk musicians playing too fast, guests hopping around and giggling, “each person a mourner behind the corpse of the one in front of him, and at the center of the room, the invisible corpses of the heir apparent and the monarchy.”
Carl Joseph dies ingloriously in the first weeks of the war in Galicia, while trying to fetch water for his troops:
He heard the shots before they were fired and also the opening drum beats of The Radetzky March. He was standing on his father’s house. Then a bullet hit his skull. Warm blood ran from his head to the cool soil of the slope. From below, the Ukrainian peasants in his platoon chorused, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ!’ Forever Amen! he wanted to say. Those were the only Ruthenian words he knew. But his lips didn’t stir. His mouth gaped. His white teeth shone against the blue autumn sky.