The Habsburg empire, that awkward and anachronistic multiethnic conglomeration sometimes called Austria-Hungary, produced some of 20th-century Jewry’s most outstanding figures: Theodor Herzl, S.Y. Agnon, Martin Buber, Sigmund Freud, and a bevy of ḥasidic rabbis, like the first Satmar rebbe Joel Teitelbaum—to name but a few. Thus it may not be surprising that this empire’s greatest elegist, the novelist Joseph Roth, was himself a Jew. Considering several recent books about the Habsburgs and their domain, David Pryce-Jones turns his attention to Roth:
“The empire is doomed,” says a cynical Polish count, [in the 1932 novel The Radetzky March], evidently speaking for Roth, “The instant the Kaiser shuts his eyes, we’ll crumble into a hundred pieces. The Balkans will be more powerful than we. All the nations will set up their own filthy little states, and even the Jews are going to proclaim a king in Palestine. Vienna already stinks of the sweat of the Democrats.” Or again, “This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states. People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism.”
A lesser writer might have been nostalgic evoking the past [as he does], but Roth is making use of this particular story for what it has to say about authority and obedience. “I hate good books by godless fellows,” and perhaps Roth was tilting at himself when he goes on, “and I love bad books by reactionaries.” What I Saw is a collection of the feuilletons Roth wrote in Berlin from 1920 to 1933. In May that year, Goebbels organized a ceremonial burning of books the Nazis took against, The Radetzky March among them. Roth moved to Paris, where his health broke down as he became an alcoholic and had to deal with his wife’s schizophrenia and earn a living as well.
“The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns,” Roth wrote to [his friend, frequent correspondent, and fellow Jewish elegist of old Austria, Stefan] Zweig. Or, in another agonized letter, “National Socialism will strike at the core of my existence.” Roth, the last freakish defender of the Habsburgs, was rebuking Zweig, literature’s playboy, for hesitating to take a public position against Nazism. “I fear for your immortal soul. . . . I am afraid you don’t quite see events straight.” Yet another letter is an outright accusation, “I am no agitator. But if you have something on your conscience write it down. It will do you good.”