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The man who chronicles the loss of Old Europe

Joseph Roth (right) and Stefan Zweig in Ostende, Belgium, in 1936 - Credit: Getty Images

In his work, and in his life, Joseph Roth chronicles the old order that was swept away in the first half of the 20th century

According to Joseph Roth his earliest memory was of watching his mother give away his cradle to a woman he’d never seen before. She “holds it to her chest, as though it were some trifling object of negligible dimensions, speaks for a long time, smiles, showing her long yellow teeth, goes to the door and leaves the house. I feel sad, unspeakably sad and helpless. I know that I have lost something irrecoverable”.

This may have been true; it probably wasn’t. After all he once said admiringly of Heinrich Heine: “Maybe he did make up the odd fact, but then he saw things the way they ought to be.” If it was a genuine memory then it certainly explains a great deal of how Roth went on to live his life. If it was an invention then it displays a depth of self-knowledge conjured by a master storyteller.

It is certainly plausible that Joseph Roth was riddled with wistful nostalgia almost from the womb. His was a life spent pining for what was lost, beginning with his father and ending with the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was a central European living through a period of almost unprecedented tumult and change in the region, the descent of an old order into a war that led to further political fragmentation and the emergence of a murderous regime that provoked another devastating war. As the world he knew was relentlessly uprooted so too did Roth become rootless, spending much of his adult life living in hotels across the continent.

“I’m always back and forth, without a fixed address,” he told his friend and fellow chronicler of the fading ‘old’ Europe Stefan Zweig. Between them Roth, Zweig and Ernst Toller wrote some of the most compelling fiction, memoir and journalism chronicling the descent into tyranny of the Europe they knew. It ended well for none of them: having escaped Nazi Germany, Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil in 1942 while Toller hanged himself in a New York hotel room in May 1939. When he learned of Toller’s death, Roth, in the full grip of his alcoholism, was in Paris drinking in the Café Tournon. He collapsed in his seat and died in hospital a few days later.

His health and his heavy drinking had been deteriorating for some time. He knew death was coming; when he learned it had visited Toller he realised it would soon be coming for him.

Just over death’s shoulder was the imminent war, the second of Roth’s lifetime, one he knew meant the destruction of the last vestiges of the Europe he’d known and loved.

“It will have become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe,” he’d written to Zweig. “Quite apart from our personal situations – our literary and material existence has been wrecked – we are headed for a new war. I wouldn’t give a Heller [a German term for small change] for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”

Six years earlier things had looked more promising for both men. Zweig was living in Salzburg in 1933 and was enjoying great commercial success while Roth, based in Berlin, had established himself as a star writer for the Frankfurter Zeitung thanks mainly to his brilliant feuilletons, the short, observational pieces at which he excelled. In addition he had the previous year published his masterpiece, Radetsky March, a novel that charted the decline of Austria-Hungary from the middle of the 19th century to the First World War.

Arguably one of the greatest ever European novels Radetsky March opens at the 1859 Battle of Solferino where the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph arrives at the front lines to observe his forces attempting to hold on to their Italian territories. When he raises a telescope to his eye a young lieutenant from peasant stock named Joseph Trotta, realising the glass will be a target for a sniper, pulls the Emperor to the ground, takes a bullet in the shoulder, and is subsequently ennobled for his bravery. The book follows him, his son and finally his grandson as the three military men become a lens through which the decline of the empire can be observed.

It could have been a dreary exploration of decline and fall but Roth’s affection for the empire and its rituals, from the workings of the post office to a particular way the Imperial family had of descending from railway carriages, lift the book out of mere elegy. Franz Joseph himself appears regularly, portrayed as a kindly old duffer who was cannier than he appeared, the embodiment for Roth of the regime he’d loved and lost.

Roth’s yearning for the empire was rooted in his Jewishness. Under the Habsburgs Jews enjoyed unprecedented tolerance and freedom from prejudice, a golden age in their European history. When war brought the break-up of empire to create nations based on ethnic identities it left the Jews displaced again.

He was born in Brody, a town in the east of the empire with a substantial Jewish population located in what is now Ukraine. After studying in Vienna Roth enlisted in the army in 1916, later telling tall tales of serving on the Eastern Front and being captured by the Russians when in truth he had a desk job in the army press office.

The end of the war meant the end of the empire, new nations springing up and more people displaced. Roth may have had a rose-tinted view of the old regime, although he was critical of it when he needed to be, but with its size and its structure it represented almost the antithesis of state nationalism. A passionate European throughout his life, nationalism left Roth both appalled and fearful of its consequences.

In the fractured, post-imperial Europe of the 1920s it was in France, sent by his newspaper, that Roth came closest to belonging. He experienced less anti-Semitism there than he had in Germany, a more accepting society.

“Here everyone smiles at me,” he wrote to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1925. “The cattlemen with whom I eat breakfast are more aristocratic and refined than our cabinet ministers, patriotism is justified here, nationalism is a demonstration of a European conscience.”

If by 1932 Radetsky March allowed him a little optimism about the future at least in terms of his career, when in January 1933 Hitler became German chancellor everything changed. Roth’s books were banned and burned in the streets, he was forcibly dropped by his German publisher and could no longer write for German newspapers. Although he was based mainly in Paris his hotel-hopping continued and combined with his voracious appetite for alcohol ensured he spent the rest of his life under constant financial pressure.

Somehow, he kept writing. Novels still appeared, some undoubtedly better than others, and he still wrote for non-German newspapers, but demand for his journalism was nothing like what it had been. Away from his typewriter he was in physical and mental decline. He’d married Friedl Reichler in 1922, but as the decade progressed she suffered from increasingly severe schizophrenia. Roth did his best but eventually he had no choice but to commit her to an institution, from where she would be taken and murdered by the Nazis as part of their Aktion T4 euthanasia campaign during the Second World War.

As he watched Friedl deteriorate he must have feared for his own mental health. He’d grown up with stories of his father Nachum, a grain buyer for a Hamburg company, who had suffered a breakdown before Roth was born and departed for Poland to live with a faith healer who he claimed would aid his recovery. He never returned.

“His speciality was the melancholy that I inherited from him,” Roth wrote. He became a forlorn figure weighed down by the baggage of lifelong ennui, watching a murderous regime crush the unity and tolerance of the Europe he loved.

“You could say that patriotism has killed Europe,” he wrote in December 1934. “This idiotic love for the ‘soil’ kills off a love for the earth. The pride of being born in a particular country, within a particular nation, annihilates the feeling of European universality.”

He could have got out, the way Toller and Zweig had got out. Among his papers after his death was a letter from the American PEN Club, inviting him to New York.

“We would like you to be present and hope your plans will allow a visit at this time,” it read. “May we have your early acceptance?”

The letter had gone unanswered. After all, if there was one thing with which Joseph Roth hadn’t been blessed it was the capacity for early acceptance.