A hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War we often wonder how the light and merry belle époque could lead the world into a barbaric carnage of unprecedented dimensions. Taking into account that propaganda was running wild at the time, it is difficult to say if people, above all military and bourgeoisie, really welcomed the war with as much patriotic fervour as is reported, but it seems that the atmosphere in the early twentieth century was very peculiar. In the realm of fiction one of the most succeeded and important depictions of life in the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy during the decades before its fall is The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth which I’m reviewing today. It’s the chronicle of three Barons Trotta von Sipolje, descendants of poor Slovenian farmers, whose lives are determined by their instilled devotion to Emperor Francis Joseph I and to Austria-Hungary.
Joseph Roth, full name Moses Joseph Roth, was born in Lemberg (today: Lwow), Galicia, Austria-Hungary (today: Ukraine) in September 1894. Until the outbreak of World War I he studied philosophy, German philology and literature at the universities of Lemberg and Vienna. In 1915 his first novella Der Vorzugsschüler (The Honours Student), was published. While working in the news service of the Austro-Hungarian army from 1916 on, he began his career as a journalist and continued writing fiction. The most important literary works of the prolific writer are The Spider’s Web (Das Spinnennetz: 1923), Job: The Story of a Simple Man (Hiob. Roman eines einfachen Mannes: 1930) and above all The Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch: 1932) as well as its sequel The Emperor’s Tomb (Kapuzinergruft: 1938). Following complications caused by chronic abuse of alcohol, which he dealt with in his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom Heiligen Trinker: 1939), Joseph Roth died in Paris, France, in May 1939.
The main scene of The Radetzky March is Austria-Hungary in the early twentieth century through the first years of World War I although the chronicle actually begins in the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Inexperienced as the young Emperor Francis Joseph I is in war matters (he is not yet thirty), he lifts his field glasses before the enemy has fully withdrawn. Infantry Lieutenant Joseph Trotta knows the danger from snipers and dives at the Emperor to save him. His rewards are promotion to the rank of Captain, ennoblement to Baron Trotta von Sipolje… and a bullet in his collarbone. Inevitably life changes for the hero of Solferino who finds himself sort of uprooted because he no longer belongs to the class of ordinary soldiers and citizens, nor feels comfortable among aristocrats. Eventually, he marries and has a son, Franz, whom he sends to cadet school in Vienna as becomes his station. When he finds out that his act of heroism in the battle of Soferino is exaggerated in his son’s school books, he asks that facts are set right. After his audience with the Emperor he retires to his wife’s country estate where he takes to managing the farm and requires his son to promise him to never join the army. As is a good son’s duty, he obeys and successfully pursues a career as a lawyer in the civil service. Two years after the death of his father, Franz Baron Trotta of Sipolje is appointed District Administrator in W., a small town in Moravia. He marries and has a son, Carl Joseph, whom he sends away to cadet school in Vienna. Carl Joseph grows up in an atmosphere of strict routines both in school and at home. At the age of eighteen, he joins the cavalry as his father wishes because for the grandson of the hero of Solferino a military career is the only suitable choice. Carl Joseph feels out of place and he is bored like all his comrades, but he is quickly dragged into the typical life of a soldier in peacetime which involves streams of alcohol, gambling, duelling with pistols, visits to the brothel and passionate love. Serious trouble is predestined and behind the horizon war is looming.
Life in The Radetzky March passes under the eyes of two great father figures who look down on all three Trottas from their canvases and determine their lives. One is the hero of Solferino who would much rather have remained an anonymous soldier in his Emperor’s army and the other is Emperor Francis Joseph I himself who rules multiethnic Austria-Hungary during sixty-eight years. Both idols are fixed stars in the universe of the Trotta family around which each generation revolves. Also the melody of the Radetzky March, which Johann Strauss Sr. composed in honour of the heroic Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Count Radetzky von Radetz (1766–1858) in 1848, thus the year of Francis Joseph’s accession to the throne, is a red thread running through the entire novel and like life in the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy it always goes on unchanged in the way of a haunting tune. The author’s focus is on Carl Joseph Baron Trotta von Sipolje whose story not just shows his tragic fate, but at the same time reflects in great detail social and military life in the early twentieth century. As always, the language in which Joseph Roth told his novel is a mere delight to read – it’s elegant, precise, poetic and powerful from beginning to end. If the English translation is only half so good, it’s still excellent.
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth is one of my all-time favourite novels and I’m glad that an English translation is available. To my great satisfaction I found out recently that the late German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranitzky included it into his canon of the most important literary novels in German language, and quite on top of the list. I shouldn’t be surprised. Not without reason scores of German teachers have read it with their students since it first appeared in 1932. It certainly deserves the popularity and I join them with my recommendation.