Emperor of Nostalgia - Joseph Roth

At the apogee of a reign that commenced in 1848 and ran until 1916, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled over some fifty million subjects. Of these fewer than a quarter spoke German as a first language. Even within Austria itself every second person was a Slav of one kind or another—Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Serb, Croat, Slovene. Each of these ethnic groups had aspirations to become a nation in its own right, with all the appurtenances of nationhood, including a national language and a national literature.

The mistake of the imperial government, we can see with hindsight, was to take these aspirations too lightly, to believe that the advantages of belonging to an enlightened, prosperous, peaceful, multiethnic state would always outweigh the pull of separatism and the push of anti-German (or, in the case of the Slovaks, anti-Magyar) prejudice. When war—precipitated by a spectacular act of terrorism by ethnic nationalists—broke out in 1914, the empire found itself too weak to withstand the armies of Russia, Serbia, and Italy on its borders, and fell to pieces.

“Austro-Hungary is no more,” wrote Sigmund Freud to himself on Armistice Day, 1918. “I do not want to live anywhere else…. I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.” Freud spoke for many Jews of Austro-German culture. The dismemberment of the old empire, and the redrawing of the map of Eastern Europe to create new homelands based on ethnicity, worked to the detriment of Jews most of all, since there was no territory they could point to as ancestrally their own. The old supranational imperial state had suited them; the postwar settlement was a calamity. The first years of the new, stripped-down, barely viable Austrian state, with food shortages followed by levels of inflation that wiped out the savings of the middle class and violence on the streets between paramilitary forces of left and right, only intensified their unease. Some began to look to Palestine as a national home; others turned to the supranational creed of communism.

Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria, composed by a subject from an outlying imperial territory; a great German novel by a writer with barely a toehold in the German community of letters.

Moses Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in Brody, a middle-sized city a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (known in Austria as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. Brody itself had been a center of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment. In the 1890s, two thirds of its people were Jewish.

In German-speaking parts of the empire, Galician Jews were held in low esteem. As a young man making his way in Vienna, Roth played down his origins, claiming to have been born in Schwabendorf, a predominantly German town (this fiction appears in his official papers). His father, he claimed, had been (variously) a factory owner, an army officer, a high state official, a painter, a Polish aristocrat. In fact Nachum Roth worked in Brody as agent for a firm of German grain merchants. Moses Joseph never knew him: in 1893, shortly after his marriage, Nachum suffered a brainstorm of some kind on a train journey to Hamburg. He was taken to a sanatorium and from there passed into the hands of a wonder-working rabbi. He never recovered, never returned to Brody.

Moses Joseph was brought up by his mother in the home of her parents, prosperous assimilated Jews. He went to a Jewish community school where the language of instruction was German, then to the German-language gymnasium in Brody. Half his fellow students were Jewish: to young Jews from the East, a German education opened the doors to commerce and to the dominant culture.

In 1914 Roth enrolled at the University of Vienna. Vienna at this time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 souls living in what amounted to a ghetto of a voluntary kind. “It is hard enough being an Ostjude,” a Jew from the East, remarked Roth; but “there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.” Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews.

Roth was an outstanding student, particularly of German literature, though for the most part he looked down on his teachers, finding them servile and pedantic. This disdain is reflected in his early writings, in which the state-run education system appears as the preserve of careerists or else timid, uninspired plodders. He worked at a part-time job as a tutor to the young sons of a countess, and in the process picked up such dandyish mannerisms as kissing the hands of ladies, carrying a cane, wearing a monocle. He began to publish poems.

His education, which was leading him toward an academic career, was terminated by the war. Overcoming pacifist inclinations, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. Ethnic tensions ran high enough in the imperial army for him to be transferred out of a German-speaking unit; he spent 1917–1918 in a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia. His period of service became the subject of further fanciful stories, notably that he had been an officer and a prisoner of war in Russia. Years later he was still peppering his speech with officer-caste slang.

After the war Roth began to write for newspapers, and soon gained a following among the Viennese. Before the war Vienna had been the capital of a great empire; now it was an impoverished city of two million in a country of a bare seven million. Seeking better opportunities, Roth and his new wife, Friederike, moved to Berlin. There he wrote for liberal newspapers but also for the left-wing Vorwärts, signing his pieces “Der rote Joseph,” Joseph the Red. The first of his Zeitungromane, “newspaper novels,” came out, so called not only because they shared the themes of his journalism but also because he broke his text into short, snappy sections. The Spider’s Web (1923) deals presciently with the moral and spiritual menace of the fascist right. It appeared three days before Hitler’s first putsch.

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