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A Prophet of Decline

The Viennese still clap and stomp during the chorus of the Radetzkymarsch, the ebullient martial tune by Johann Strauss, from which the underappreciated author Joseph Roth took the title of his most-celebrated book. (Go here to watch Herbert von Karajan hamming it up as he conducts the March at the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert.) The novel is a magisterial text, moving from the high noon of empire in Austria to the evening, following the lives of three generations of the Trotta family through their ennoblement to the crushing demise of their homeland. Roth shows the reader how great fiction can make history clear better than most historical writing. Militarism and the sins and temptations of myth-making are central to this story that so eloquently chronicles a great power’s decline.

We here at Via Meadia are fans—Roth was one of the greats, and his legacy as an important German writer of the twentieth century deserves the recent upsurge in attention and praise paid to his works.

The New York Times recently reviewed a new collection of correspondence from Roth’s productive period, titled Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters. The ever-travelling Roth succumbed to illness in 1939, before the Second World War truly got underway, but his observations about the rise of fascism and war-mongering in Europe offer insight into his keen sense of his times. Two weeks after Hitler took power, Roth wrote to one of his contemporaries: “we are heading for a great catastrophe,” adding: “the barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”

Roth is a great and under appreciated writer. Do yourselves a favor and read The Radetzky March.

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  • WigWag

    One of the best things about Professor Mead’s blog are his book recommendations which are invariably great. Professor Mead should make more of them and I wish he wrote book reviews for Via Meadia as well.

    I look forward to reading the “Radetzky March.” The only book by Roth that I’ve read is “What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933.” It was excellent. To get a birds eye view of what Weimar Germany was like in the years leading up to World War II “What I Saw” should be read in conjunction with Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” Reading these books together is as good as (or if your Jewish as bad as) being there.

    Always great to get a book recommendation from Via Meadia.

  • joe

    Roth like Musil or Schnitzler have been criminally neglected by the Americans and the English. Roth actually wasn’t much of an defeatist or an absolute believer in the inevitableness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s decline. His life was a testament to his personal faith in German culture and the Jews’ inclusion within that culture and German society. He was a Galician Jew who thrived professionally in Vienna and Berlin at a time when a President of the U.S. could say: ‘America is a Protestant country. The Jews and Catholics are here at our sufferance.’ and Walter von Rathenau was Foreign Minister for the Weimar Republic.

    People bookend Roth by Hotel Savoy and the Radetzky March and overlook his other publications which weren’t dirges for a lost time, but cautiously optimistic about an uncertain future.

  • Luke Lea

    “Two weeks after Hitler took power, Roth wrote to one of his contemporaries: “we are heading for a great catastrophe,” adding: “the barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”

    Something similar could be said about the forces that rule in China today. Yet we continue to do business with them. Why?

  • Lexington Green

    The Radetzky March is an all-time top-ten.

    I have read several of his other books and they are all good.

    Two other excellent books about that era that are great favorites:

    1. Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear.
    2. Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday.

    I will have to read the Life in Letters.

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