In 1916, Joseph Roth enlisted in the Austrian Army and spent the next two years on the Eastern Front of the First World War. He would later write of his life: ‘My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.’ Roth lived to see the destruction of his fatherland, but he never saw, never knew, his own father, a travelling salesman who disappeared before his son’s birth and later died insane. In its preoccupation with fathers real and symbolic, The Radetzky March articulates Roth’s two tragic losses.
Roth’s eighth novel, The Radetzky March is a beautiful, poignant story about fathers and sons, and the inexorable tide of history as it first elevates then abandons a peasant family, and with it the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. Roth writes with wry irony, unfolding a tragedy from his comic opening, tracing the collapse of an era through three generations of men: the grandfather, Joseph Trotta, a peasant honoured for a freak accident in which he saves the life of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I; his officious son, the district captain; and his grandson Carl Joseph, a lieutenant unfit for military life. The Radetzky March opens in 1859 in the midst of the Battle of Solferino—’the grandfather’s war’—and closes in 1914 with the faltering outbreak of war along the border of Austria and Russia. As the First World War erupts, the grandson, Lieutenant Trotta, futilely dreams. ‘Here was the war for which he had prepared himself since the age of seven. It was his war, the grandson’s war. The days and the heroes of Solferino were returning.’
The Battle of Solferino was a formative moment in both the nationalist campaign to unite Italy and in the life of Roth’s character Joseph Trotta (the grandfather), a Slovenian peasant. Fought in the north of Italy, the battle pitted the troops of Napoleon III of France and Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia against the Austrian Army under Franz Joseph. Two years later, in 1861, Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed King of Italy. In The Radetzky March, Roth’s fictional Joseph Trotta saves the life of the historical Kaiser Franz Joseph at Solferino. In the midst of battle, Trotta sees the young kaiser lift his field glasses to his eyes and, like any frontline soldier, Trotta knows the gleaming binoculars will attract enemy fire, so he pushes the emperor to the ground and takes a bullet in his left shoulder as he falls. When Trotta recovers, he is awarded the highest military honour in the empire, and for his accidental heroism he’s made Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje. Trotta is completely disoriented by the honours bestowed upon him. Every night and every morning ‘as if his own life had been traded for a new and alien life manufactured in a workshop, he would repeat his new status to himself and walk up to the mirror to confirm that his face was the same …’ When Trotta, disillusioned and gutted, later requests his discharge from the army, instead of being allowed to sink into longed-for anonymity, he is further elevated: he is made Baron Joseph von Trotta und Sipolje.
The story belongs to the baron’s son, the district captain, and grandson, Lieutenant Trotta, who are strangely afflicted by Baron Trotta’s noble legacy. Roth’s portraits of these two men are astute and agonising in their tragedy. The son, a bureaucrat, knows how to reply tersely to his own son’s dutiful letters, how to congratulate him on his promotion to lieutenant, but is lost when that same son cries out to him in need. ‘But how should you behave if your son was drunk, if he cried “Father!” if the cry “Father!” came out of him?’ the father helplessly wonders. And when the son tries to thank his father for his help, he finds he cannot: ‘And he tried to describe how touched he was. But he found no words for regret, melancholy, and longing in his meagre vocabulary.’
Roth’s penetrating psychological insights are matched by his humour and acute understanding of his times. Sent to the eastern border of the empire, Lieutenant Trotta finds himself in a shadowy multicultural world of shifting allegiances and swampland: ‘Any stranger coming into this region was doomed to gradual decay. No one was as strong as the swamp.’ In this distant outpost dwell Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, Croats, Slovenes, Poles. One of the charismatic locals, Count Chojnicki, observing his dissolute companions, remarks that ‘the Poles, of whom he himself was one after all, were skirt chasers, hairdressers, and fashion photographers …’ Their twilight world is fuelled by alcohol and ruled by merchants who are the crude predecessors of Joseph Heller’s machiavellian Milo Minderbinder:
Always on the move, always on the alert, with glib tongues and quick minds, they might have had the stuff to conquer half the world—had they known what the world was all about. But they did not know. For they lived far from the world, between East and West.
Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, Galacia, now in the Ukraine but then on the far eastern border of the Hapsburg Empire. When he was 20, Roth transferred from his local university to the University of Vienna and two years later, in 1916, he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army. He returned to Vienna in 1918 and moved to Berlin in 1920. In 1923 he began to write for Frankfurter Zeitung, travelling widely across Europe and eventually becoming one of the best paid and most respected journalists of the age. Roth also found time to write novels, working in his spare moments in hotel rooms and cafes. It was during these years that he wrote The Radetzky March, which was published in 1932.
Roth married in 1922 and in 1928 his wife, Friederike, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalised. Born a Jew, in the early 1920s Roth was one of the first to become aware of the menace of Hitler and soon became one of the most outspoken and ardent critics of the Nazi regime. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Roth severed his ties with Germany and fled from Berlin by train for exile in Paris, but he was forced to leave Friederike behind in the psychiatric hospital in Berlin. His books were later burnt by Nazi-supporting students in Berlin. Roth’s life as an emigre in France was lonely and hard. He struggled to find publishers for his work; lived out of suitcases, moving from hotel to hotel; and drank heavily. In 1939, aged 44, Roth died of pneumonia and alcoholism. The following year his wife was killed in the Nazi euthanasia program.
The title of Roth’s great novel, The Radetzky March, comes from the music of Johann Strauss the Elder, whose ‘Radetzky March‘ was composed in 1848 to honour the Austrian general Joseph Radetzky, who won decisive battles against Sardinia in the first Italian war of independence. It became one of the most popular pieces of music in the Hapsburg Empire and a symbol of the empire’s might—and its refrains haunt the pages of Roth’s novel, evoking glory days gone by. Although Roth started out as a communist—he was once known as ‘Red’ Roth—and always kept his sympathies with the poor, he later grew nostalgic for the old world of the bygone century, before nationalism had torn Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire apart. This nostalgia resonates through The Radetzky March.
Roth’s novels were long neglected and only began to be reissued in Germany in the 1970s. With the translation into English in 2000 of Roth’s novel Rebellion, the German poet, critic and translator of Roth, Michael Hoffmann (he who decimated Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), ensured that all Roth’s novels were at last available in English. The 14th Prague Writers’ Festival in May 2004, at which Hoffman spoke, was dedicated to Joseph Roth.
The Austrian director Axel Corti, passionately committed to adapting Roth’s novel for the screen, died in 1993, two weeks before he finished shooting his film of The Radetky March, starring Max von Sydow, Tilman Gunther and Charlotte Rampling. It was first screened posthumously in 1994 as a television miniseries.