Joseph Roth, assimilation, territorial nationalism and finding a sense of belonging

We are all familiar with the novelists F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell – you get the idea. Another novelist who should be better known and deserves worldwide recognition is Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939). A Galician Jew by birth, but Austrian by nationality, his story is one of a restless and constant search for homeland and belonging.

Roth was a perceptive observer, gaining a feel for the streets of 1920s Europe. He was not a professor or scholar, he never submitted papers for academic journals. He was however, a literary journalist, and he accurately portrayed the reflections, people and events that transpired in the rising tide of nationalist sentiment. As Paul Scraton wrote in the New Statesman, Roth captured the mood of ascendant nationalism, and foresaw the looming contours of the Second World War.

Roth denounced nationalism, and political ideologies generally, because he remained loyal to the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, a theoretically multicultural entity which absorbed numerous ethnic groups. Defeated at the end of World War One, Roth was traumatised by the experience. The empire’s territories were mostly divided up among the victorious powers, creating numerous independent states in Eastern and Central Europe.

While he was a pacifist before WW1, and sympathetic to socialism, he nevertheless joined the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916. Fighting for the Hapsburg monarchy, the subsequent defeat of that political and multicultural empire was disorienting for Roth.

He lost a sense of belonging, and lead a peripatetic existence for the rest of his life. He also became an alcoholic, and that condition would eventually result in his premature death at the age of 44. His birthplace, the province of Galicia, reflected the changing dynamics of Eastern European nationalism in the twenties and thirties.

Eastern Galicia, (the town of Brody, where Roth was born in 1894), was located in the most easterly territories of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was also home to a lively centre of Jewish culture and community. The shtetls, Jewish communities and settlements, bustled with activity across Eastern Europe in the Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist Russian empires. But that all changed with the defeat of both those empires in WW1.

The part of Galicia where Roth was born changed hands several times between the short-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic, emerging as a breakaway from the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. That was quickly contested by the ultranationalist Polish republic, who incorporated territory in 1919. Both sides, in the shifting territorial dynamics, committed massacres of Jews as well as their rival ethnic groups. Roth witnessed such developments with increasing alarm, as the shtetl life was being shattered.

Monocultural nationalism and fascism

Roth’s writings, whether his journalistic pieces or his novels, contained the recurring themes of monocultural nationalism as a menace, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the homicidal kernel of rising European nationalisms. For instance, his novel The Radetzky March, chronicles the rise and fall of the Trotta family, an Austro-Hungarian family. The action occurs through the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s.

The title of the novel refers to an Austro-Hungarian field marshal who led his armies against the empire’s enemies. Radetzky was celebrated in music by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss, who composed a celebratory piece in honour of his hero. Roth is longing for such a similarly triumphant return of the Hapsburg empire.

Roth, while born Jewish, was raised Catholic. While he never advocated the Hebraic tradition, he maintained a basic identification with Eastern European Jewry. There were times however, when he expressed hostility to Jewish people; during one of his frequent disputes with his publishers, he expressed contempt for ‘piggish Jews’ who had allegedly failed to pay him. In one of his novels, a spy character is referred to as a ‘duplicitous Jew’.

He wrote a nonfiction book, The Wandering Jews, dedicated to the long suffered and dispossessed Jews of Eastern Europe. Opposing the increasingly materialistic, selfish bourgeoisie of Western European nations, he demonstrated his compassion for the poor and displaced refugees of Eastern Europe. He objected to the creeping colonisation of Palestine by the incipient Zionist movement. Roth stated that the halutz – the Jewish emigrant settler in the Middle East, while Jewish, takes the values of the European to that part of the world.

Shortly before his death, he expressed his opposition to Zionism, equating that movement with German Nazism – he was not wrong on that score. Does that make Roth an antisemite? No, it makes him a fallible, flawed, brilliant yet troubled human being. He was not an easy person to get on with. He was quarrelsome, broke off friendships, had extramarital affairs. His longing for Austrian patriotism gave him a permanent sense of transience, never truly settling in one location.

His unswerving loyalty to the restoration of the Hapsburg monarchy was quixotic. He spent his days and nights in the cafes of Paris and Berlin, drinking and trading exchanges with other exiles. He has no fixed political outlook. However, his warnings against the rising tide of ultranationalism in 1920s and 30s Europe was not only eerily prophetic, but contains lessons for our current times.

The partisans of Eastern European nationalism like to portray their patriotism as a simple and justifiable reaction in confronting the colossus of Russia to the east, and Germany to the west. This partial truth, while important, has served to obscure the crimes and massacres committed by ultranationalist East European forces over the shifting course of the twentieth century. Roth was a direct witness to the ardent ultranationalism of his time and circumstances.

As for the new biography of Roth, called Endless Flight by Keiron Pim – I am looking forward to reading it.

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