Emperor Franz Joseph I, 1898 (b/w photo)

(Autro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)

At the turn of the 20th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire resembled a major power.  It had gone under major industrial changes in the previous decades, had a large standing army, and had reached a political compromise in 1867 that fostered the creation of the Dual Monarchy.  However, beneath the surface there were key issues that would contribute to its decline.  First, the empire consisted of eleven major ethno-language groups scattered across the empire: Germans, Hungarians, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovak, Slovene, Croatians, Serbs, Italians and Romanians, some loyal, but most with their own agendas particularly those of Slavic descent.  The military, though large, was partially a caste system with Austrian officers and soldiers from a diverse population.  The empire was split between an industrialized west and a rural east that produced a great deal of conflict. 

Leading this “house of cards” was Franz Joseph who came to the Austrian throne in 1848 and was a weak leader who deferred to others in decision-making.  After 1905 the empire was tied to Germany which nine years later would lead them into World War I and its final demise.  For some the history of the empire may seem boring, but through the use of historical fiction one can get an accurate portrait of Austro-Hungarian society, political upheavals, and an overall lack of unity.  Perhaps the best novel written that conveys the true nature of the empire was authored by Joseph Roth who has often been overlooked as a writer by Anglo-Saxon critics.  I came across the book, THE RADETZKY MARCH while visiting a Viennese bookstore a few years ago and learned it was considered a classic by many literary scholars with a story that follows the Slovenian Trotta dynasty through three generations emblematic of the fate of the empire itself.  The novel is about identity and belonging encompassing as Roth writes “those days before the Great War.”

(Author, Joseph Roth)

The genius of Roth’s work is his ability to capture the “bars, houses, railways, and dusty roads of Austria-Hungary through highly distinct individuals.”  Roth himself was a strong believer in the empire and made his living as a novelist and newspaper writer.  He produced sixteen novels, his best being THE RADETZKY MARCH.  When reading the book one major question struck me; how can the mundane existence of an officer in the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire be part of one of the greatest European novels of the 20th century?  After reading Roth’s work I know why.

The title itself is interesting.  The concept of the Radetzky March stems from Johann Strauss’ 1848 composition that celebrated the victory of Field Marshal Radetzky at the Battle of Custoza.  Along with the Blue Danube waltz, the piece became an unofficial Austrian national anthem.  In the novel it symbolizes the glory days of the decaying multinational empire.

The novel begins in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino, the last engagement of the second War of Italian Independence.  During the fighting the founder of the Trotta family, an infantry Lieutenant emerges as a hero for saving the life of the young Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph.  As a result of this display of bravery the wounded officer was elevated to the Order of Maria Theresa, and ennobled.  From that point on he was known as Captain Joseph Trotta of Sipolje, a Slovenian village.  Despite this honor Trotta found it difficult to adapt to his new station in life as he was now cut off from a lengthy line of his peasant ancestry.  From Roth’s description he became a competent officer, a good and loyal husband, and rejected all forms of ambition and pretense.  These attributes would dominate the Trotta dynasty in the future.

Roth applies humor, sarcasm, and insightful details into the psyche of each character.  A case in point is Joseph Trotta’s anger over his role in saving the Emperor as being inaccurate in its portrayal in children’s books.  He felt he was not the hero he was made out to be, and when he complained to the War Ministry, including the Emperor he was told to accept his portrayal whether accurate or not.  He would resign from the army, miss the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and accept a generous sum of money and a barony from the Emperor and return to working the soil, his chosen path in life.  He would go as far as discouraging his son Franz from a military career and study for a law degree instead.

Franz would go on to become a District Commissioner and his relationship with his son, Carl Joseph, would form a window into the decline of the Empire itself.  Carl Joseph’s relationship with his father is a convoluted one.  At first it appears to be founded on traditional Victorian values relating to father and son.  At times little communication or contact, but deep respect for each other persists.  As it evolves Carl Joseph becomes more autonomous and his father moves on from his duties as a parent, especially when his son contemplates leaving the army.  However, by the novels’ end they came to rely on each other for emotional support.

The Graben in the 1860s

(Vienna circa 1860-1866)

The conservative empire is exemplified by the relationship between Franz and Carl Joseph.  Strict observance, conformity, and lack of emotion would dominate their interactions throughout the novel until Carl Joseph’s crisis of conscience toward the end of the story.  In discussing this relationship Roth develops the most mundane details which in reality are signals that point to Austro-Hungarian society ranging from extra-marital affairs, the lack of letters between father and son, the portrait of Joseph Trotta that  dominates the District Commissioner’s home, to the ingredients of soup served each week at Sunday dinner. 

Roth develops a theme that subtly compares the differences in the different Trotta generations as it evolved from a conservative approach to society with all its proprieties and its ills to one of individualism and nationalism which would contribute to the weakening of the empire.  When Franz Joseph was a young Emperor and the District Commissioner’s father saved the monarch, a certain correctness was accepted by all.  In the most painful episode in the book highlighting accepted behavior, two young men are bound by the military code of honor to fight a duel to the death over an insulting remark as honor is everything in that hierarchal, monarchical world, resulting in the death of the two men.  Another stunning example of the importance of tradition occurs as officers learn of a rumor that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Bosnia.  The news encroaches upon a gathering of officers and aristocrats who elect to continue their celebration rather than consider the implications of the news.  This provoked a split among the Austrian and Hungarian officers highlighted by comments by Lieutenant Charles Joseph that they should be ashamed of their actions in such circumstances.    As time progressed and the Great War was on the horizon, the younger generation exemplified by Carl Joseph sought greater freedoms and autonomy that the older generation had difficulty coming to grips with.   Carl Joseph, against his own wishes, is part of that world, but not a good fit for it.  The conformers who believe in the system and its perpetuation require stifling human feeling and the result is the rejection of any social change which Roth presents as the brush workers problem who want revolution if conditions of employment are not improved.  In fact, by the end of the novel Carl Joseph rejected tradition by engaging in affairs with the wives of compatriots, found himself in debt from gambling at a casino at his frontier post, and resigning from the army.

(Vienna, circa, 1900)

No matter the scene or situation Roth presents characters that always seem to relate to the Trotta dynasty and how they rose from their peasant background to a barony.  The characters that Roth develops are interesting and their fundamental place in the novel is how they affect Franz and Carl Joseph.  These individuals include, Dr. Max Demant, a Jew who hated the military who was a close friend of Carl Joseph who was unaware of the affair his wife had with the youngest Trotta.  Count Wojoiech Chojnicki, a Trotta family friend who believed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had already fallen apart.  Frau Valerie von Taussig, a former beauty who ages gracefully and was romantically involved with the younger Carl Joseph.  “Old Jacque,” Franz’s manservant who served for decades as a slave and confidant.  Dr. Skovonnek, Franz’ everyday chess partner. Professor Moser, a poor artist who painted the portrait of Joseph Trotta and the Emperor who were Franz’s closest friends.

Roth’s description of the aging Franz Joseph is marvelous.  It delves deeply into the Emperor’s mindset, particularly in old age as he insists on participating and observing army maneuvers at the Russian border where Carl Joseph is posted.  Roth’s wording is precise as we witness an old man trying to evaluate his life’s work.  Commentary related to church services are indicative of Roth’s thought process and its application to the Emperor; “He had the feelings of having to pull himself together in God’s presence, as before some superior, and he was already so old!  He could have made it a little easier for me!  Thought the Emperor.  But God is even older than I am, and his ways are just as mysterious to me as maybe to all the men in my army.”

Roth loved the empire and its stagnating military.  The condition of the military is brought out by Carl Joseph’s posting to the Russian border and that and the overall plight of the empire becomes a tragedy in Roth’s mind because he believes that something could have been done to avoid the cataclysm that was approaching and in the end would result in the dissolution of the empire at Versailles.

Roth has authored a novel of the life of an officer in the Austro-Hungarian empire that must have been boring.  But it is the virtue of Roth’s style that boredom becomes interesting as a spiritual state.  It is this state that has a nostalgic charm of its own and the novel itself explains much about Europe’s past which would succumb to the battlefields of World War I.

File:Portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph in Ljubljana.JPG

(Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)


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