The Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an elegiast of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and arguably one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. One of his most famous novels is Radetzymarsch (The Radetzky March) published in 1932.  It is the saga of three generations of the noble Trotta family, and its setting in a declining empire has a thematic importance that remains true and relevant today.

Joseph, a descendant of Slovenian peasants and the son of a sergeant, is a young lieutenant when the Emperor Franz Joseph visits the front lines.  Realizing the emperor may well become a target for the enemy, he pushes him to the ground and is wounded by the bullet aimed at the emperor.

For this deed, he is eventually made a baron, but he becomes disillusioned when he notices how this incident is exaggerated in a school history book.  The emperor, at the request of  Joseph Trotta, has the book withdrawn, though somewhat reluctantly. Joseph’s disillusionment remains and casts a pall over the remainder of his life. Roth writes, “He had been driven from the paradise of simple faith in Emperor and Virtue, Truth, and  Justice, and … he may have realized that the stability of the world, the power of laws, and the glory of majesties were all based on deviousness.”

Joseph’s son, Franz, has no such doubts and becomes a devoted servant of the emperor and empire as a high civil servant in a small town in Moravia.  His son, the third baron Carol Joseph, resembles his his father and grandfather in being an essentially simple man. He becomes a lieutenant like his grandfather. But eventually, Carol Joseph “resembled a man who has lost not only his homeland but also his homesickness for his homeland.”

The emperor plays no small role in the novel. According to Roth’s depiction, ”He had lived long enough to know that it is foolish to tell the truth. So he allowed people their errors, and he believed less in the permanence of the world than did the wags who told jokes about him in his vast empire.”

I have said that Roth was an elegiast, and certainly the coming dissolution of the empire is foreshadowed. Nonetheless, a very subtle, very dry humor pervades the novel and pleases the palate (at least mine), making the tale not simply melancholic. Neither the emperor nor the empire is sentimentalized, much less romanticized (nor are they simply mocked). It is clear that the multinational empire is coming to its end, at least in part because  the loyalty to it has eroded because of a rising nationalistic consciousness.

The baronial Trotta line is a phenomenon of the empire in its late stages. Just as Carol Joseph, almost without thinking, is swept into two adulterous relationships, so is the noble Trotta line swept into irrelevance without thoroughly understanding why. Roth is an intriguing guide to the mysteries of impermanence and decline. The Radetzky March is a tale of a particular time and place that nudges the reader away from the common human  illusion of permanence.