At the apogee of a reign that commenced in 1848 and ran until 1916, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled over some fifty million subjects. Of these fewer than a quarter spoke German as a first language. Even within Austria itself every second person was a Slav of one kind or another—Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Serb, Croat, Slovene. Each of these ethnic groups had aspirations to become a nation in its own right, with all the appurtenances of nationhood, including a national language and a national literature.
The mistake of the imperial government, we can see with hindsight, was to take these aspirations too lightly, to believe that the advantages of belonging to an enlightened, prosperous, peaceful, multiethnic state would always outweigh the pull of separatism and the push of anti-German (or, in the case of the Slovaks, anti-Magyar) prejudice. When war—precipitated by a spectacular act of terrorism by ethnic nationalists—broke out in 1914, the empire found itself too weak to withstand the armies of Russia, Serbia, and Italy on its borders, and fell to pieces.
“Austro-Hungary is no more,” wrote Sigmund Freud to himself on Armistice Day, 1918. “I do not want to live anywhere else…. I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.” Freud spoke for many Jews of Austro-German culture. The dismemberment of the old empire, and the redrawing of the map of Eastern Europe to create new homelands based on ethnicity, worked to the detriment of Jews most of all, since there was no territory they could point to as ancestrally their own. The old supranational imperial state had suited them; the postwar settlement was a calamity. The first years of the new, stripped-down, barely viable Austrian state, with food shortages followed by levels of inflation that wiped out the savings of the middle class and violence on the streets between paramilitary forces of left and right, only intensified their unease. Some began to look to Palestine as a national home; others turned to the supranational creed of communism.
Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria, composed by a subject from an outlying imperial territory; a great German novel by a writer with barely a toehold in the German community of letters.
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