Thursday, June 19, 2014

Great War Read: The Radetzky March

That feeling hangs heavy in the air. Decline. Decline and an inability to arrest it. There is a theme of inevitability to the decline and looming crisis when people talk. Are we in the crisis already? I would say yes, but that the "There Will Be Blood" period of the crisis is still a ways out. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved after the Great War, it was easy to see the end of the empire as inevitable. Maybe there were fixes possible but not executed. The literature and historical works about the empire right after the end portray the decline as a slow one with an inevitable finish. One such work is The Radetsky March. If looking for a story that may echo what you feel is the American decline, read it.

I am digging deep into the way back machine as it is a book I had to read in college hen taking a history of the German peoples course. It was one of those literature assignments where the professor assigns a book over 300 pages to read on Wednesday and expects it read by Monday for class discussion. This is not just about the Great War, and it actually barely touches it. Its' about a great power's decline thru one family. It is also male centric with two characters' mothers dying leaving them to be raised solely by men. It felt like reading An American Tragedy with the detailed descriptions and heavy handed symbolism and mood.

It focuses on one family. Grampa saves the Emperor on the battlefield in a slightly blundering way. He is elevated to the nobility, and this pushes the family up the social ladder. He does not allow his son to become a military man, but his son pushes his grandson into the army to emulate Grampa. Decline is evident from the way the empire works to formalities to the simple way people behave. Sound familiar? Grampa saves the Emperor and all the grandson can do is save a portrait of the Emperor from a brothel. The elderly soldier of formalities has a grandson who drinks, duels and gambles his way serving his nation.

The author is an interesting story as Joseph Roth is an Austrian Jew who left the nation to be a socialist writer elsewhere, and then after Hitler came to power, he left for France to be a bit of a monarchist and apologist for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Read this book and see if some of the themes of decline and comparing your life as a man versus your grandfather do not sound familiar. There is not  a lot of action in the book, and as I referenced Dreiser's "Tragedy", it is a bit slow and boring at times. The very end has the section with actual military exploits, but by then, you know the ending that is coming. This was written after the end of the empire. There is only one way a nostalgic, depressing tale about a dead empire can end.

Far superior, multi-post review of the book is here.

1 comment:

peterike said...

"The Radetzky March" has long been on my to-read list. I recently picked up a bargain bin copy of the very short follow-up novel, "The Emperor's Tomb," but I don't want to read that until I read "Radetzky."

Another interesting novel set in the same time and place is "An Ermine in Czernopol" by Gregor von Rezzori. Czernopol being a thinly disguised Czernowitz, one of those bustling multi-ethnic cities in the Hapsburg empire. I think such multi-culti centers were sustainable then for two reasons.

It was "multi-culti" but only ethnically. Everybody was pretty much white, so unlike America's stew pot. And it was under royalty. Royalty has the ability to cut across political differences, something America lacks. Imagine if we had a King, even a king that did little politically. He would be a figurehead that could at some level unite the increasingly warring tribes of Blue State/Red State, unlike the violently polarizing figures we've had as President lately, either Bush or Obama. By definition, our Presidents immediately alienate about half the population (though of course that's becoming ever more titled to Democrats). And with racial and ethnic unity shattered into a million pieces, what's left to unite the nation? Football? Taylor Swift?

We never should have rebelled against England.