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The Radetzky March At Liberalism’s End

Joseph Roth's 1932 masterpiece about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has lessons for us today

I finished Joseph Roth’s novel TheRadetzky March yesterday. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. The novel examines the slow decay and final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the eyes of three generations of the von Trotta family. To be precise, it’s through the eyes of three von Trotta men, all of them military officers. I’ll try to write about it below without spoilers. The book has left me with so many thoughts, not all of them coherent. This is one I’ll be thinking about for a long time. What follows is a sketch of initial impressions.

The story begins at the 1859 Battle of Solferino, a turning point in the Empire’s history; its loss at Solferino marks the beginning of the Empire’s decline, completed by its destruction in World War I. The musical piece titled “The Radetzky March” (you’ve heard it) was composed in 1848 by Johann Strauss the elder, to celebrate a military victory by Field Marshal Radetzky. It became a favorite of the Austrians. In the novel, it symbolizes the glory days of the fading Empire. Whenever the characters hear it, they are filled with warm, patriotic nostalgia.

In the opening scene, the young Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph, who was the last European monarch to lead his troops in battle, is saved from an enemy sniper by the quick thinking of Lieutenant Joseph Trotta, an infantry lieutenant. The grateful monarch awards Trotta the highest Imperial honors, and ennobles him. Baron von Trotta, who comes from Slovenian peasant stock, is uncomfortable as a nobleman. Even his elderly father treats him differently. When he discovers that official Austrian school textbooks embellish the act of the “Hero of Solferino,” the baron requests an audience with the Kaiser, and personally protests the dishonesty. The Kaiser doesn’t understand his objection. Sure, the historians are exaggerating, but it’s a noble lie, one designed to bolster the patriotism of the young. The baron leaves angry.

His only son, Franz von Trotta, on orders from his father, foregoes a military career, and becomes a civil servant, a highly respected position in the Empire. The junior von Trotta hero-worships the Kaiser and everything about the Empire. He is a stickler for protocol. His son, Carl Joseph, enters the cavalry as an officer. Most of the novel has to do with the two von Trotta men raised in nobility. The elder, the founder of the young dynasty, exists mostly as a portrait hanging on the wall, which functions as a sort of family icon.

Joseph Roth was a self-described conservative, a Jew who, late in life, converted to Catholicism, though I read somewhere that his conversion was more of an attempt to regain the lost Empire that he loved than an act of true religion. The Radetzky March is a kind of autopsy of that Empire’s decline and fall. I say “kind” of autopsy because nowhere does Roth contemplate geopolitical causes for the Empire’s collapse. He only observes, with profound social and psychological insight, the fact of its collapse, as lived by the von Trotta men. Remember, Roth, who wrote the book in 1932, mourned for the Empire, but who diagnosed the inner sickness that made it so fragile.

From a 2004 New Yorker essay:

In one of Roth’s late novels, “The Emperor’s Tomb,” a character says that Austria-Hungary was never a political state; it was a religion. James Wood, in an excellent essay on Roth, says yes, that’s how Roth saw it, and he made it profound by showing that the state disappoints as God does, “by being indescribable, by being too much.” I would put it a little differently. For Roth, the state is a myth, which, like other myths (Christianity, Judaism, the Austrian Idea), is an organizer of experience, a net of stories and images in which we catch our lives, and understand them. When such a myth fails, nothing is left: no meaning, no emotion, even. Disasters in Roth’s books tend to occur quietly, modestly. In “The Emperor’s Tomb,” the street lights long for morning, so that they can be extinguished.

The Radetzky March novelizes the death of the Imperial myth — and, as the New Yorker essay avers, the way in which most myths die. More on this in a moment.

Having read Stefan Zweig’s 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday, I understood Radetzky better. Zweig was a friend of Roth’s, and a bit older than he. In his memoir, Zweig hymns the stability and beauty of fin de siècle Hapsburg Vienna, but then he also laments how its rigid rules and old-fashioned ethos deeply frustrated the young, and, in the early 20th century, became a dam that could barely hold back the combustible energies of the rising generation. As we know, the Great War unleashed them all, and destroyed that world.

Radetzky is set mostly in the period in which the young chafed under the pointlessness of traditions. In the most painful episode of the book, two young men are bound by the military’s code of honor to fight a duel to the death over an insulting remark one made to the other. Honor is everything in that hierarchical, monarchical world. Baron von Trotta, a hidebound state bureaucrat, lives his life in the strictest observation of protocol and social etiquette — to the point where he only sees others, including his son, according to their assigned roles in the system.

His son, Carl Joseph, is also part of this world, but not a good fit for it. What stands out about both men is how inauthentic they are, how little imagination or agency they have. They are both conformists, believers in a system whose perpetuation requires stifling ordinary human feeling, and even lying to oneself about reality to keep the myth alive. One effect of this is that they were unable to anticipate and to accommodate revolutionary changes roiling European societies as the age of mass democracy rose. I recall that Zweig emphasized in his memoir that nobody saw the disaster of the Great War coming, and that everybody (well, “everybody” he knew in his prosperous Viennese circles) felt quite certain that peace, prosperity, and progress would last forever.

The Empire would be eternal because, for Roth’s protagonists, it had to be eternal. It was all they knew, and its story was the story by which the understood themselves, and how to live. James Wood, in a 1999 review of one of Roth’s other novels:

Roth’s heroes are victims of the Hapsburg Empire, contaminated by what they so love, which is the paternal security and presence of the Empire. Because the Empire is everything to them, they tend to convert metaphysics into the terms of the Empire; they make a religion of the Hapsburgs. This is constantly hinted at in Rebellion: “Then he remembered he didn’t have his permit anymore. All at once he felt he was alive, but without any authority to live. He was nothing anymore!” So reflects Andreas; it is the Empire that gives him authority to exist, that tells him what to do, and promises to look after him. In The Radetzky March, Lieutenant Trotta vainly looks to the army, and to the Emperor, to instruct him in the skirmishes of life. In Roth’s novels, marching orders are more than merely figurative. They are everything.

But just as God is the source of both good and evil, then if the Empire has truly been made into a religion, it is responsible for all that is wicked as well as what is fine in the world. And correspondingly, this religion produces both devotion and secular rebellion against itself. This is Roth’s political theodicy, and the source of his complexity.

What makes Radetzky resonate so deeply is that the story it tells is a universal one, though it happens to be set in a particular time and place. It is a story about the effect of time on all human institutions and ways of seeing the world. It’s impossible to read Radetzky without wondering if our own liberal democratic institutions and ways of ordering our experiences are declining as surely as the Austro-Hungarian monarchy — and we can’t see it clearly because we are caught up inside it, and we have powerful internal confirmation biases telling us that something this fine should be eternal.

Reading Radetzky with historical awareness, we know that what is to succeed the Empire will be much, much worse. The Versailles Treaty broke the Empire up into smaller nations, and established them as democracies, but democracy was far too weak to subdue the roiling passions of the peoples, especially amid the defeated nations’ long economic crisis following the war. Into the void, eventually, stepped Hitler, and then, after the Second World War, for all the former Imperial lands save for Austria, came Soviet communism.

Still, it would have taken an army of geniuses to have figured out how to save the monarchy. Roth has one of his characters say that war would be the end of the monarchy — yet the Austro-Hungarian empire was built on militarism. Without something to do, the army stagnates; this is the meaning of Carl Joseph’s moral dissolution at a grim border posting. The Empire’s doom, in this sense, is tragic, almost inevitable. I say “almost,” because it is conceivable that something could have been done to have averted the cataclysm, though heaven knows what.

The problem is that the people who would have been capable of making the kinds of changes that might have saved the system in some form were incapable of thinking outside the system. Consider how hard this would be for anybody, in any place and time. As Kierkegaard said, life has to be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.

Think about how the Republican Party, for example, could not see Trump coming, even though the signs were there. Think about how incapable its leaders were of making the kinds of changes that might have preserved its order and their power — this, because they were creatures of the system (including a system of thought) that created them. The memory of Ronald Reagan played the mythic role of the Kaiser. Or think beyond the GOP, to the entire system. We can see that big, big changes need to be made, especially economically. But where is the will to make the changes? And who knows exactly what to do? We should also see, but many do not, that the way we are living in general is unsustainable. But we aren’t at the crisis point yet. I talked recently about Patrick Deneen’s excellent new book, Why Liberalism Failed, with a sympathetic conservative critic, and he said that the crisis won’t come until Western people can imagine an alternative to liberal democracy.

Deneen’s book — which will be released on Jan. 9; you can order it on Amazon today at a greatly reduced price — explores with convincing force why we cannot go on like this for much longer. I’ll save my blogging about that book for its release date. The point is, Deneen diagnoses pitilessly the defects in our system, and demonstrates how it’s not because our system has failed to be sufficiently liberal and democratic, but because it has succeeded so well at liberating the autonomous individual. Trouble is, you can’t run a country that way.

Reading Radetzky, you notice the stark difference between the worldview of Franz von Trotta, the father, and his son Carl Joseph. Franz has not lost faith in the monarchy and the way of life it fosters. Carl Joseph’s faith slowly abandons him, but he has nothing with which to replace it. We readers know that the world of the fathers, who believed so strongly in the old order, will condemn their sons to death in the trenches. They did not meet their fate in spite of the old order, but to a great degree because of it.

I wonder if we are seeing something like this emerge today, in our country, and in the West more broadly. Earlier this year, Bill Bishop wrote in The Washington Post that modern life itself is working to rob us of our ability to trust our institutions. Excerpts:

You can hear similarly fretful discussions in dozens of other professions. The president has maligned politicians, scientistsjudgesteacherslabor union leaders and intelligence officials, among others. “Donald Trump’s most damaging legacy may be a lower-trust America,” the Economist’s Lexington column predicted. Trust in American institutions, however, has been in decline for some time. Trump is merely feeding on that sentiment.

The leaders of once-powerful institutions are desperate to resurrect the faith of the people they serve. They act like they have misplaced a credit card and must find the number so that a replacement can be ordered and then FedEx-ed, if possible overnight.

But that delivery truck is never coming. The decline in trust isn’t because of what the press (or politicians or scientists) did or didn’t do. Americans didn’t lose their trust because of some particular event or scandal. And trust can’t be regained with a new app or even an outbreak of competence. To believe so is to misunderstand what was lost.

Bishop explains that you can’t simply blame Vietnam, Watergate, “the Sixties,” or other discrete events for this loss of trust. It’s liquid modernity itself:

Everything about modern life works against community and trust. Globalization and urbanization put people in touch with the different and the novel. Our economy rewards initiative over conformity, so that the weight of convention and tradition doesn’t squelch the latest gizmo from coming to the attention of the next Bill Gates. Whereas parents in the 1920s said it was most important for their children to be obedient, that quality has declined in importance, replaced by a desire for independence and autonomy. Widespread education gives people the tools to make up their own minds. And technology offers everyone the chance to be one’s own reporter, broadcaster and commentator.

We have become, in Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s description, “artists of our own lives,” ignoring authorities and booting traditions while turning power over to the self. The shift in outlook has been all-encompassing. It has changed the purpose of marriage (once a practical arrangement, now a means of personal fulfillment). It has altered the relationship between citizens and the state (an all-volunteer fighting force replacing the military draft). It has transformed the understanding of art (craftsmanship and assessment are out; free-range creativity and self-promotion are in). It has even inverted the orders of humanity and divinity (instead of obeying a god, now we choose one).

People enjoy their freedoms. There’s no clamoring for a return to gray flannel suits and deferential housewives. Constant social retooling and choice come with costs, however. Without the authority and guidance of institutions to help order their lives, many people feel overwhelmed and adrift. “Depression is truly our modern illness,” writes French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, with rates 20 to 30 times what they were just two generations ago.

This phenomenon is what Deneen writes about. It’s what I write about, in a much smaller sense, in The Benedict Option. Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, concludes his piece by saying that there’s really not much that can be done about it. Deneen’s conclusion is more or less the same as my own: that we need to focus on building strong local communities that will enable us to ride out whatever is coming next. He prescribes three basic approaches:

  1. Acknowledge liberalism’s achievements and reject the idea that we can return to a pre-liberal age.
  2. “Outgrow the age of ideology.” That is, put aside beliefs in grand ideological narratives (communism, fascism, liberalism), and instead “focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.”
  3. Be patient as we wait for a “better theory of politics and society” to emerge out of practical experience of post-liberal life. Deneen predicts that the future of our politics will emerge out of countercultural “options” — his word — that, as the liberal order further declines, will be seen increasingly as “necessities”.

Lots of people don’t really want to hear this, because it lacks the certainty and ardor they’ve come to expect from the age of ideology. But it has the virtue of being realistic. How are you going to convince people to live and die for a social and political order that they don’t really believe in? (See Bill Bishop’s graphs if you doubt me.) Remember these lines from Alasdair MacIntyre:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

Peter Leithart observes:

Mutatis muntandis, this is the intellectual and practical transformation that has to take place before we can begin to construct “local forms of community” for the flourishing of civility and intellectual life. We need to acknowledge that our task isn’t to shore up America, or the West, or whatever. If we promote local communities of virtue as a tactic for shoring up the imperium, we haven’t really grasped MacIntyre’s point, or the depth of the crisis he described.

That renunciation is as emotionally difficult as the project of forming local communities is practically difficult.

This is a profound truth. Anybody who mischaracterizes the Benedict Option as escapism should reflect on Leithart’s point. The real escapism is manifested by people who want to believe that we can keep on living like this forever. The real escapists are the Franz von Trottas, who can’t imagine the social and political order falling apart, and the Carl Joseph von Trottas, who have no real faith in the current order, but who are just mindlessly moving through life, waiting to see what’s coming next. The latter is the kind of people who will be chewed to bits by the dissolution.

I know this is a scattershot post, but then, my reactions to Radetzky a day after finishing it are like that. As I said, this is going to be a book that takes time to absorb. I cannot recommend it to you strongly enough, and I thank the reader of this blog who told me I really needed to read it. Yesterday I ran across these 1996 comments about the novel from a (now-retired) philosophy professor named Bob Corbett. This is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to an Austrian friend about the novel:

The way I read the book, something much bigger is going on, and the death of the Habsburg empire is merely the actual historical event that he uses to get to something at it. Let me try that analysis and see what you think.

On this view, Roth sees a very orderly world dying. It need not be the world of the best of all possible orders, but it is nonetheless a world of clear order and clear rules and regulations for living. People know who they are, where they fit and how to behave and what their lives mean and so on. This is lost on Carl Joseph (the third and last of the Trottas). He doesn’t fall into the politically charged Socialists or Communists, but he is some sort of free floating individualist (albeit one without a clear consciousness of who he is, just someone for whom the old order ceases to mean anything).

His father, the district captain — that’s important, throughout the book; that IS his identity, to the be district captain — is someone who defines his life in terms of the social order, not in terms of his own being. Carl Joseph doesn’t even define himself, he simply floats, but nothing means much to him except himself, he’s just not very self-reflective about it.

Yet Roth’s message is clear. Live like this and you will ruin your life like Carl Joseph did, both in meaninglessness and pettiness.

We are in a difficult place in history, you and I. The world of clear order, or preordained “places” began a very slow death in the 17th century, but was hastened by the doctrine of the rights of man, the French and American revolutions and the birth of both democracy and capitalism. In our western world the major collapse of that world seems to me to have been the First World War and the collapse of the order which Roth speaks of.

Since then there has been a tremendous struggle for “how to be in the world.” Some of the dominant choices are and have been:

  • the greedy capitalist who defines human meaning in terms of material gain.
  • the Socialist or Communist
  • those, like Roth, would like to retreat back into the old world or order. (This is represented in my country today by those who would retreat into the concept of “family values” which is an extremely authoritarian and male centered world.)
  • the reflectively aware radical individualists, like myself , I guess, who value virtually nothing that each of us doesn’t validate for him or her self and who tries to tolerate as much of the others’ individuality as one possible can.
  • the non-reflective radical individualist (like Carl Joseph) who simply doesn’t have a meaning for human existence and who sort of limps along, trying to figure out how to be, living a curious contradiction between old, new, and undefined future.

Each of these forms has practical difficulties. The former, the world of order, has the great advantage of ORDER at the heavy expense of the individual. The individualists (of either sort) have the difficulty of how to get along in society and how to deal with other people. The various forms of utopian new social orders simply have a most difficult time in organizing the world.

Add to this an entire century of mind-numbing technology which has made the whole problematic more complex and difficult that before, and it is no wonder that we lived in such very difficult and trouble times.

I don’t have the answer. I prefer reflective radical individualism, but I’m not convinced that this is the long-term answer for the species. On the other hand I do find that people who represent the view that I pin on Roth — the desire to return to OLD systems of order that have simply passed their period of historical success — well, that seems to me less hopeful than almost any other the other options.

In my several visits to Austria in the past 25 years I’ve come to see Austria as a place where there is a phenomenal nostalgia for the past, and an astonishing degree of local success in retreating or remaining in a world that has died in most other places. Perhaps such a form of life can hang on in some residual manner in a rather small country, but I can’t imagine such a form of life surviving the early part of the coming century given the rapid increasing and relentless globalization of the world. I just don’t see this living in retreat as much of an option.

Corbett, as a Baby Boomer, can’t grasp (or couldn’t back then) that his “reflective radical individualism” is unsustainable at a society-wide level. There is much less difference between his radical individualism and Carl Joseph’s than he cares to see. And he is ideologically unable to see value in the old order that his generation consciously rejected. Still, there’s value in his observation that we are trying to figure out “how to be in the world” in the absence of clear direction and shared belief, most especially the belief that there is a point to life.

Obviously the megatrends that Corbett saw in 1996 have only gotten stronger and faster. I would love to see the “astonishing degree of local success” that he observed in Austria at the end of the last century. Success by what standards? How have they done it? Twenty-one years after Corbett wrote those lines, what do things look like in those places now?

“Retreat” is a viable option if it is not solely a defensive move, but it is a retreat towards something more truthful and more life-giving. But you’ve heard that from me a lot this year.

(Say, readers, thanks for your patience with my light posting this week. I’m trying to force myself to take a holiday. I’m enjoying it immensely!)