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The man who watched the fall of Europe

Looking at the blurred and bloody borders of Habsburg history through the writings of Joseph Roth

Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth in Ostende, Belgium in 1936. Photo: Imagno/Getty Images

The empire of Franz Joseph Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary contained 50 million inhabitants. These included not only Austrians and Hungarians, but also Czechs, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, Romanians, Italians, Poles, Jews, and Ruthenians. Jews were given unique opportunities for self-definition and were known to be the emperor’s most fervently loyal subjects. The novelist Joseph Roth was among them. “Jews don’t have a home anywhere,” he wrote in his 1927 book The Wandering Jews, “but they have graves in every cemetery”.  

Roth was a peripatetic European man of letters: “The years I have put behind me are the roads I have travelled,” he wrote in 1930. “Nowhere, in no parish register or cadastre is there a record of my name or date of birth. I have no home, aside from being at home in myself.”  

He was born in September 1894, in Brody, a small town in East Galicia, on the edges of his beloved Austro-Hungarian empire. Most of Brody’s impoverished population spoke Yiddish, which was then the lingua franca of Jewish Europe. Today, it’s located in western Ukraine, and no Jews reside there. In Roth’s childhood, 72% of the town were Jewish. As Keiron Pim writes in Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, “The town became known as the Polish Jerusalem and three times a day, three-quarters of Brody’s population turned to face the real Jerusalem and pray.”

Roth never met his own father, Nachum Roth. He was, apparently, committed to a sanatorium before he even knew he had a son. Joseph Roth’s wife, Friedl Reichler, met a similar fate, spending the 1930s in psychiatric asylums in Germany and Austria. She was killed in the Nazi euthanasia programme in 1940.

Roth was restless, difficult to like and an alcoholic. And so he became a journalist. His work took him to Lwów, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris among other places, where he stayed in expensive hotels he couldn’t afford and in 1925, Roth was appointed Paris correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung.

His lyrical and poetic journalism was usually found in a part of the newspaper called the feuilleton. Urbane, sophisticated, witty, and brief, the reports and criticism of the feuilleton section featured on the lower half of the paper’s first page. 

Roth wrote his small articles with all the feel and style of a literary novel, as reported by a sharp-eyed Flâneur. But Roth was politically savvy in a way that exceeded the bounds of this tight newspaper section, and he was acutely aware of the wider historical changes that were occurring. He witnessed the disastrous consequences of the newly formed, centrally planned economy in the Soviet Union when he travelled there as a reporter in the 1920s. The following decade he observed the rise of German fascism. 

Roth had been warning his Jewish friends across the continent of the fate that lay in store for them as early as 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. That year, after he took a one-way train from Berlin to Paris, Roth wrote a letter to his good friend, the novelist Stefan Zweig. “Do not deceive yourself,” he wrote. “Hell reigns.”

Nostalgia for a more compassionate and tolerant world lies at the core of Roth’s 17 novels and novellas, which including Flight Without End, Tarabas, Job and, perhaps his best known work, The Radetzky March. Published in 1932, this elegy to a fading empire follows the Trotta family across three generations, in a narrative that tracks through garrisons, brothels, and bars in the Kingdom of Galicia. 

Roth was suspicious of all forms of nationalism. He reflected on these ideas in a letter dated October 1932, which described the first world war and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire as “the most powerful experience of my life and the end of my fatherland, the only one I have ever had.” 

And yet this sentimental nostalgia for a fallen Europe could lead him to exaggeration. In his final novel, The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), his central character, Franz Trotta, ponders the favourable life he led under the reign of the Habsburg empire: 

“I lived in the cheerful, carefree company of young aristocrats whose company, second only to that of artists, I loved best under the old empire. With them I shared a sceptical frivolity, a melancholy curiosity, a wicked insouciance, and the pride of the doomed, all signs of the disintegration which at that time we still did not see coming. Above the ebullient glasses from which we drank, invisible Death was already crossing his bony hands.”

Lines like these were often constructed after dark, when Roth was plastered on cheap schnaps in some late-night bar. He liked to write and drink in public places, sometimes at the same time. Still, the mythmaking made for great poetic prose. In a novel he penned in 1936-37 (which was published posthumously) called The Tale of the 1002nd Night, Roth wrote: “The father is called Franz Joseph, the First: The Emperor’s arm stretches a very long way. From Trieste, Sarajevo, Mostar by way of Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Cracow, Lemberg all the way to Tarnopol and Czernowitz and beyond… In all languages and peoples he lives in a variety of forms, and his private, improbable misfortune which already seems unreal makes him seem all the more legendary in the eyes of the simpler, geographically remote people.”

Roth did not live to see the Nazi onslaught. He died in January 1939, aged 45. The official cause of death was pneumonia, but the poor health he suffered due to his chronic alcoholism meant he never stood a chance of recovering. 
I’m writing these words on a train on my way to Lviv, returning for the first time in over 12 months. A Ukrainian soldier is sitting next to me, looking through his phone. Gazing into the darkness outside the window, I remember the words Roth wrote for Frankfurter Zeitung in November 1924. “Has Europe come to an end here?” Roth asked in the opening paragraph. “No, it hasn’t,” he continued. “The connection between Europe and this half-banished land is vital and unbroken.”

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