by Joseph Roth
Not sure how I came to download this book, but it is a classic of German twentieth-century literature that completely passed me by during my studies. Perhaps because it is Austrian, and not technically German. It deals with the decaying Austro-Hungarian empire, as told through the decline of a family through three generations.
The first of the von Trotta’s to appear in the book – indeed, the first Trotta entitled to put ‘von’ in front of his name – is the ‘Hero of Soferino’, ennobled by Kaiser Franz Josef I when he saves the Kaiser’s life. His memory haunts both his son and his grandson. The Hero of Solferino is shocked to find his heroic act misrepresented in a school history book, and after complaining to the authorities and ultimately to the Kaiser himself, decides to have nothing more to do with the military life. His estate (presented to him by the Kaiser) is not passed on to his son, whom he also forbids to enter the military – thus obliging him to become a civil servant.
The last days of empire are shown through the two organs of army and civil service and their gradual loss of influence in the dispersed territories of an inherently disparate empire. I came away from reading this novel with a much clearer view of how the empire probably worked – and how and why it ceased to work. For the earlier generations, loyalty to Kaiser and country, upright character and hard work were essential. The Hero’s grandson, on the other hand, though not dissolute in himself, is weak, and surrounded by men who do not share these values. He does enter the army, but becomes increasingly alienated from it as he involves himself in one disgrace after another.
Eventually, the decline of the elderly Kaiser, the disintegration of the Empire and the degeneration of the von Trottas are all overtaken by the cataclysmic event that is the First World War. And there is no going back.