The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

A timely book to read, as Europe seems once again to be flirting with the notion that national interests – or interests defined by political boundaries, primarily – should be the chief determinants of how we manage our affairs. The pacy narrative of this book does not disguise the elegiac and allegorical nature of its real meaning. Roth was a leading figure in the final years of the great cosmopolitan culture of Vienna in the 1930s, with people like Egon Friedell and Sigmund Freud. The latter famously entered in his diary on Saturday, March 12, 1938, “Finis Austriae”. He was noting the end of Austria and the culture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Of course, the culture of any empire is open to question, not least because it is, by definition, imperial in nature. But the advent of the Second World War also brought the curtain down on what was, truly, an internationalist culture; that is, a culture that was not constrained by national boundaries. The Jews were a big part of this culture – families in many countries, speaking many languages. As noted earlier in this blog (see the post on Postwar), one of the enduring and, in my opinion, saddest legacies of Hitler and Stalin is the creation of national boundaries more coterminous with the ethnic than previously existed.

We all know the kind of crazy beliefs behind that outcome. But the European Union, for all its faults, is a way of approaching the governance of Europe that transcends the national and I think, for that alone, it should be cherished, reformed where necessary, and invigorated.

But this book is about the period immediately before 1914, when the assassination of the heir to the imperial throne, Franz Ferdinand, kicked off the First World War. It charts the rise of the Trotta family, which might make it sound like one of those sprawling, dynastic novels, which it emphatically isn’t. The characters are few and tightly crafted.

The story is intertwined with that of the dying Emperor and the social changes that come over the Eastern border of the Empire. It traces, with a few pencil strokes, the effect on individuals of huge historic trends perhaps only visible with hindsight – the rise of nationalism, the arrival of mass communications, the mechanisation of war.

The last thought of the main character, the high-ranking imperial civil servant, is “His son was dead. His job was over. His world had ended.”.

I wonder how easy it is to realize and understand that a world is ending.


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