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Joseph Roth: Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March)

With four different English editions, you can tell that this is an important novel. It is generally considered to be Roth’s best. We follow several generations of the Trotta family, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, i.e. beginning of the 1930s. The first Trotta is a simple Slovenian peasant, His son becomes an army sergeant but, when he retires, he becomes a groundskeeper. It is with the third Trotta we meet that things start to take off. Lieutenant Joseph Trotta is fighting for Emperor and country at the Battle of Solferino. The Austrians go on to lose but that it is not important for this story.

Solferino’s real claim to fame is that it is the last time monarchs lead their troops in person. Though he would live to the age of eighty-six, Emperor Franz Joseph I was an inexperienced twenty-nine at this battle. He made the mistake of coming to the front line with his binoculars to check on the enemy, making him a perfect target. Lieutenant Trotta is aware of the danger to his beloved monarch and tackles him to the ground as the bullet comes flying in, smashing Lieutenant Trotta in the shoulder. The Emperor is saved for another fifty-seven years, long outliving his rescuer, while Trotta is rewarded with promotion, a barony and a generous reward. His deed, resulting in him being known as the Hero of Solferino, will stand not only him but his descendants in good stead.

All goes well with his career. He marries the colonel’s daughter and they have a son, Franz. She is too sickly to have another child. One day, Franz is examining his son’s reader. He notices that it has an account of his heroic deed but all massively exaggerated and wildly inaccurate. He is furious. He complains wherever he can, even directly to the Emperor but to no avail. He may have realized that the stability of the world, the power of laws, and the glory of majesties were all based on deviousness. He resigns his commission. He is rewarded with a promotion and generous stipend but more or less reverts to being a Slovenian peasant like his grandfather.

Franz is encouraged not to join the army but becomes a district official. Thanks to the name, he becomes a district captain. He, too, has one son, Carl Joseph. Carl Joseph is destined to become a soldier even though he is hopeless at his studies. No matter. The name, again, helps. He becomes a lieutenant in the Tenth Lancers.

Carl Joseph is not very bright and, in particular, not very sociable. However, while at home, he does have an affair with a married woman. It does not go well. With the Lancers, he remains solitary, till Dr Demant, the army surgeon, returns from sick leave. They become friends, the only friend the other has. Dr Demant is married and he starts to suspect Carl Joseph and his wife. When a fellow officer makes a mocking comment on this to Dr Demant, there is only one way out for an honourable man.

As a result of this story, Carl Joseph has to leave and transfers to the infantry close to the Russian border, in what is now Poland. It is very remote. Not even generals on tours of inspection cared to come this far. They did not come. Nobody came. However, Joseph’s father visits. He is somewhat horrified by what he sees, his son, formerly a teetotaller is now a drunk. When a casino opens up, Joseph resists but gets caught up helping a fellow officer.

While this is going in Roth skilfully shows us the impending disaster that World War I will be. Various political and ethnic groups are causing trouble and, though they are repressed, they do not go away. Carl Joseph’s friend Count Chojnicki comments the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? He forecasts doom and destruction.

Things go wrong for Trotta as his debts pile up and, as an Austrian soldier, he cannot avoid paying them. Not to do so would be dishonourable, the worst of crimes.Meanwhile, as the regiment celebrates its anniversary, the colonel receives a letter. The heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, has been assassinated. Things do not go well for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Trotta family or the Emperor, whose death in November 1916 ends the book.

Roth brilliantly portrays the gradual downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the various nationalities claiming independence and the workers claiming improved working conditions. In both cases, both Franz and Carl Joseph are directly involved. Many of those in power foresee the end but are incapable of doing anything about it.

The downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire started with the Battle of Solferino, with the Austrians not only losing to their rivals, the French, but also losing their Italian possessions, leading to other nationalities wanting their independence. It was, however, the high water mark for the Trotta family, with Lieutenant Joseph Trotta being promoted and made a baron. His heroic deed stands not only him in good stead but also very much helps his son and grandson. All three men get to meet the Emperor, who comes across as a genial person though, by the end, increasingly showing signs of senility.(He was eighty-six when he died.)

The Trotta family, as with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, may feel that in the mid 19th century, everything is going well. However, Roth makes it clear that, for both, the slippery side down has started. By the time Carl Joseph is an adult, this becomes more apparent as he clearly does not have what it takes to be a soldier and more than once thinks of resigning his commission, though he is not clear what he could do. His father gives the appearance of being rich but, in fact, is not.

Carl Joseph should be thinking of finding a wife and continuing the Trotta line but, instead, he has two affairs with married women, neither of which turns out well. Initially, he seems to be well behaved, apart from the women, eschewing alcohol and gambling but takes up both on the Russian border. Gradually, like his country and Emperor, the downward path beckons. Lieutenant Trotta, the grandson of the Hero of Solferino, in part caused the doom of others and in part was drawn along by the doomed, and that in any case he was one of those ill-fated persons on whom an evil power had cast an evil eye.

It is not difficult to see why this book is considered a classic. Roth tells his story very well. The Trotta family never quite fits in, perhaps because they are still peasants at heart and out of place in more elevated society. In terms of brainpower, imagination, sociability, fertility and, indeed, any skills, they seem to be sorely lacking. Essentially, they are doomed, like their country.

And the Radetzky March? It is, if you will, the theme music for the book, popping up at various times throughout the book, as various bands play it.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
First English translation in 1933 by Viking Press
Translated by Geoffrey Dunlop (Viking Press/Heinemann editions), Eva Tucker (Penguin/Overlook Press editions), Joachim Neugroschel (Everyman edition), Michael Hofmann (Granta edition)