[This page by Malcolm Spencer]
Radetzkymarsch; The Radetzky March (1932)
Roth was normally a ‘Vielschreiber’ – a man who wrote quickly and prolifically. By contrast, the writing of his most ambitious and best-known novel took him two years of sustained effort. Its working title in 1930 had been simply ‘Altösterreich von 1890-1914’ (Old Austria from 1890-1914), then it became ‘Der Radetzky Marsch’, and finally Roth dropped the article, giving the title a metaphorical quality lost in the English translation. It derives from the rousing march composed by Johann Strauss the Elder (Op. 228) to celebrate the Austrian victory over the Italians in 1848 – but Roth begins his novel with an Austrian defeat – at Solferino in 1859. The march is ‘heard’ at key moments in the narrative: played by the military band in the small provincial town where the von Trotta family lives, it inspires the young Carl Joseph to a life of devotion to the Emperor; then it is heard in contexts that seem to presage the decline and fall of the monarchy – on the piano of a brothel in Moravia visited by officers stationed there, and its opening drum-beat on the music-box of a tavern just before the death of the regimental doctor Dr. Demant in a senseless duel. Finally, it is heard in the imagination of Carl Joseph as he dies on the Eastern Front in the First World War.
The historical detail which Roth includes in his novel – daily provincial life in the Imperial era, regimental service in Moravia and Galicia, the Corpus Christi procession in Vienna and an audience with the Emperor Franz Josef himself – together with the cover art publishers often choose for their editions (paintings of Austrian soldiers in their beautiful uniforms are preferred) – tend to mislead readers into thinking that Roth’s aim in this work is to evoke nostalgically the Austrian past. This is not his main intention. In fact, Radetzkymarsch deals with many of the same themes as Roth’s fiction set in his own time: the gap between generations, the failure of language as a medium of communication, the breakdown of a secure sense of identity and the collapse of order in society. Roth is however not a modernist like Musil or Kafka, who challenge the reader with experimental or perplexing texts. His novel has a linear narrative and contains a range of fairly simple characters who are credible inhabitants of the epoch in which they ostensibly live. Nonetheless, the more you read of this novel, the more you realise that Roth is writing from the perspective of 1930-32 – in other words, in a time of imminent dictatorship and destruction, this ‘hidden’ perspective of the novel (which Roth never makes explicit) was well brought out in a BBC radio adaptation in 2006, which used the figure of Roth as a narrator, drinking in a café in the 1930s, with a radio in the background broadcasting ever more alarming news of Europe’s descent into war.
The novel is divided into three parts, each of seven chapters, together with an epilogue. The opening chapter establishes the founding ‘myth’ of the story, one that resembles the expulsion from paradise: Lieutenant Joseph Trotta, a Slovene by origin saves the Emperor’s life at the Battle of Solferino and is ennobled – he becomes Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje. (A sudden change in identity is a frequent theme in Roth’s fiction: the opening idea could also be seen as a variant of his own life story, of Eastern Jews leaving their communities to be assimilated as loyal Austrians.) But in becoming a servant of the dynasty, Joseph Trotta is uprooted from his native soil and from the world of his peasant ancestors. The Trottas are not ‘real’ aristocrats – their ennobled identity is foreign, artificial and unnatural. Roth’s suggestion that the ‘Habsburg Myth’ is not all it claims to be is elaborated in the episode of the school textbook, in which Trotta’s heroic deed is rewritten to glorify the Emperor. When the authorities refuse to change the book, Trotta retires from the army and brings up his son Franz on his father-in-law’s estate in Bohemia in a strict, unrelenting way. He has already decided that his son will study law and become an imperial bureaucrat. The opening chapter ends with the quiet death of the ‘Hero of Solferino’, who is immortalized only in his portrait that will hang for decades in the Trottas’ house and will become an object of veneration for the grandson, Carl Joseph. This portrait symbolizes for Roth a society that is directed towards a mythologised past and which cannot develop.
Later chapters present the highly regimented world of the son Franz, who has now become a Bezirkshauptmann (District Commissioner, a high administrative position in the Habsburg Empire) in a small town in Moravia. His own teenage son, Carl Joseph, is clearly unsuited to the military career for which he is destined – he is rather weak-willed. We are given some of the key moments in his youth and military training, such as his sexual initiation by the wife of Wachtmeister (Sergeant) Slama and the life of his regiment in a barracks in Moravia. In a 19th-century French novel, these episodes would form part of Carl Joseph’s ‘éducation sentimentale’ – his emotional development. But throughout the novel, Carl Joseph does not develop and remains a childlike person, subject to the inhibiting cult of his heroic grandfather, whose example he can never match. Roth is using this narrative as a metaphor for Austria-Hungary’s inability to survive; the father-son relationship depicted here may have been based on the lack of understanding between the Emperor Franz Josef and his son Rudolf, with the son dying before the father as a symbol for the end of the dynasty. Roth’s characters are skilful caricatures, his women (as elsewhere in his fiction) especially so: we are shown a Slav seductress, a prim housekeeper and an older woman addicted to young lovers. The cast of male characters predominate here: the Trottas’ faithful old servant, Jacques, the Jewish doctor, Dr. Demant and Carl Joseph’s trusted Ukrainian batman, Onufrij.
Depth of characterization is not, then, the strength of Radetzkymarsch. The power of the novel lies in Roth’s ability to evoke in compelling detail the world in which he grew up from 1894 until 1914, alternating lyrical intensity with sardonic humour. On this website, Wolfgang Koeppen’s judgement can be found that Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig is his best work ‘because of the pain of love which it communicates’. Radetzkymarsch is Roth’s best work because it communicates pain, no less intensely, but of a different sort: the pain of knowing that everything that was precious about the world you grew up in is going, going – gone for ever. In his head, Roth knows that the ‘world of yesterday’ was doomed, but in his heart it remains a far better, more human place.
Further Reading in English
Ian Foster, ‘Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch as a Historical Novel’, in Osman Durrani & Julian Preece (eds.), Travellers in Time and Space: The German Historical Novel (Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2001), pp. 357-70
Ritchie Robertson & Edward Timms (eds.), The Habsburg Legacy: National Identity in Historical Perspective (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994)
Marjorie Perloff, Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), Chapter 2 on The Radetzky March
Malcolm Spencer, In the Shadow of Empire: Austrian Experiences of Modernity in the Writings of Musil, Roth and Bachmann (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2010)
Bruce Thompson, ‘Joseph Roth’s Satire on the Emperor Franz Joseph in his Novel Radetzkymarsch’, Neophilologus 81 (1997), 253-67
C.E. Williams, The Broken Eagle: The Politics of Austrian Literature from Empire to Anschluß (London: Elek, 1974)
Martha Wörsching, ‘Misogyny and the Myth of Masculinity in Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch’, in Gender and Politics in Austrian Fiction. Austrian Studies VII, ed. by Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), pp. 118-33
Further Reading in German
Peter Branscombe, ‘Symbolik in Radetzkymarsch’, in Alexander Stillmark (ed.), Joseph Roth. Der Sieg über die Zeit (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1996), pp. 96-111
David Bronsen (ed.), Joseph Roth und die Tradition (Darmstadt: Agora, 1975)
Claudio Magris, Weit von Wo: Verlorene Welt des Ostjudentums (Vienna: Europa, 1974)
Klaus-Detlef Müller, ‘Joseph Roth: Radetzkymarsch; ein historischer Roman’, in Interpretationen: Romane des 20. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1993), pp. 298-321
W.G. Sebald, ‘Ein Kaddisch für Österreich – über Joseph Roth’ in Unheimliche Heimat: Essays zur österreichischen Literatur (Salzburg and Vienna: Residenz, 1991), pp. 104-18