Truth in the Trivialities – The Radetzky March: Chapter 18 (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #3)

I hate nationalism and nation states. My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. The mansion has been divided up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for. – Joseph Roth

There is scarcely a better explanation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s implosion than Chapter 18 of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. It centers on a grand summer festival put on by an imperial dragoon regiment stationed in the eastern part of the province of Galicia. In a remote and insipid imperial army outpost, one of the most fantastic scenes in the whole of literature transpires as the officers of the regiment plan and then put on the festival, only to have it interrupted by a ferocious natural and geopolitical storm. During an ethereal thunderstorm they suddenly learn the news that the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Sarajevo. The shock of the news causes them to lose all inhibitions. The nationalistic instincts of the officers gush forth. The fault lines between the competing nationalities and dual loyalties of these men undergo a seismic shift in a matter of minutes after hearing the news. It all breaks apart and the world will never be the same.

Joseph Roth's classic work - The Radetzky March illuminates the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Joseph Roth’s classic work – The Radetzky March illuminates the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

A Motley Crew of Multinationals
Roth created a motley multi-national cast, representative of the empire’s conflicting ethnic identities. It is through these characters that we witness the empire’s disintegration. The Dual Monarchy had loosely knit together peoples of widely varying ethnic backgrounds for centuries. It had ten different national groups numbering at least a million, with the largest single ethnic group, Germans, less than a quarter of the population. The empire finally disintegrated under the pressure of a singular, transforming historical event. The final implosion occurred due to the internal contradictions of many different nationalities competing for autonomy or independence.

All the characters present in the chapter reflect an ethnic group which had either a sense of privilege or grievance that is offensive to another one.  Two of the characters in the scene are so brilliantly rendered that critiquing one of their seemingly, minor interactions, illuminates the tension at the heart of the Dual Monarchy’s most important relationship, namely that between the Austrians and Hungarians. Each is representative of national traits that cause even the most trivial of details to require delicate negotiation.

Violent arguments over stylistic niceties”
Rittmaster Count Zschoch is the man who had originally come up with the idea for the festival. An Austrian who spends many hours at a time in “violent arguments about stylistic niceties” regarding an invitation to the festival for the “honorary commander of the regiment, a minor German prince from an, alas, neglected collateral branch.” These arguments take place with Colonel Festetics, who comes from a family that is “one of the best in Hungary.”  The two work together, yet underlying tension exists over even the most trivial of matters.

An illuminating example is their dispute concerning the order in which invitations should be sent out to the invitees of the festival.  Zschoch wants the invitations dispatched in sequence of noble rank, while Festetics demands that they be sent out all at the same time. Zschoch is suspicious that Festetics wants it done this way, due to “a democratic leaning inspired by his Hungarian blood.”

Here Roth has given us the Austria-Hungary relationship in a nutshell. Trivial disputes plague everything, from the invitations wording to the order in which they must be dispatched. But these disputes are only superficially trivial. In actuality, they are rooted in the troubled history of the two protagonists. In this case, Festetics represents the rebellious spirit of the Hungarians who had revolted – most recently in 1848 – in numerous attempts to throw off the yoke of Habsburg rule.

A Swarm of Trivalities
Trivialities are metaphorical stand-ins for the continuous disagreements which threatened to undermine the relationship from 1867 onward. In the recently released The War That Ended Peace, concerning the lead up to and outbreak of the First World War, historian Margaret Macmillan uses some enlightening examples to describe the fraught relationship at the heart of the Dual Monarchy. “Even the simplest decisions were wound about with red tape or in reality colored twine, black and yellow for imperial matters, red, white and green for Hungary.” Or, “When Franz Josef [stated] that his armed forces were animated by a spirit of unity and harmony and treated all ethnic groups with respect , he simply threw more fuel the way of the Hungarian nationalists in Budapest. ‘Ethnic’ came out as ‘tribal’ in Hungarian which was seized upon as a deadly insult.”

One other detail of the Zsochoch-Festetics interaction to note is the worry and disagreement that arises over an invitation to “a minor German prince.” The imperial dragoon regiment is reduced to vying for the attentions of an obscure German noble. This is what the Dual Monarchy had been reduced to in the years prior to the outbreak of the war, vying for a smidgen of attention from the Germans. The weak and ossified monarchy had lost its importance and would soon lose much more than that, its reason for being. Why this happened is the subtext of many scenes in Chapter 18 of The Radetzky March. Roth shows us an empire coming apart at the seams, at the very end of its rope. It would take four more years of horrid war for it to finally strangle itself.

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