Hermann Joseph Broch was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 1, 1886, the first son of Joseph Broch, a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer, and Johanna, née Schnabel, who came from an old and affluent Viennese Jewish family. Three years later, Broch’s brother, Friedrich, was born.
In a symbolic sense, Hermann Broch was very much a child of his times. He grew up in fin de siècle Europe, experiencing all the hopes and fears, the sense of irrevocable loss coupled with the dreams of unlimited fulfillment, then manifest. It was a time of transition, of outward progress, yet it was a time when people began to call into question the very basis of life, which for centuries had rested upon a foundation of unshakable absolutes. To an entire generation that prided itself on its modernity, the nineteenth century must have seemed strangely anachronistic; the fin de siècle was a period of uncertainty and anxiety—the “gay apocalypse,” as Broch himself termed it—one that seemed relativistic and devoid of absolutes. As such, it would leave its stamp on all of Broch’s writing, ultimately finding its most eloquent expression in The Death of Virgil. Further, it is this crisis in values that accounts in large measure for the boundary situations of all of Broch’s fictional characters.
It was in this fragile world that Broch entered adulthood. In 1903, he graduated from the public school system and advanced to the Vienna Institute for Weaving Technology. Further study followed at the Textile Institute in Mülhausen (Alsace-Lorraine)—a period in Broch’s life that would provide the background for the third part of The Sleepwalkers. Upon graduating in September of 1907 with a degree in textile engineering, Broch journeyed to the United States for two months to familiarize himself with cotton farming and milling procedures in the South, particularly in New Orleans, Louisiana. Upon his return to Austria, Broch entered his father’s firm and became active in its management. As an administrator in the local textile union, Broch also gained a reputation for his equitable decisions in labor disputes. The plight of the worker in a society, changed overnight by rapid industrialization, was familiar to Broch from not only personal experience but also his reading of German naturalists such as Gerhart Hauptmann, Arno Holz, Johannes Schlaf, and Hermann Sudermann.
In 1908, Broch served for a time as a volunteer with the military stationed in Zagreb. In December of 1909, he married Franziska von Rothermann, despite the objections of both families. He continued to work in his father’s firm, educating himself by reading widely in many fields. From 1915 to 1921, he pursued more formal studies in logic, mathematics, and physics at the University of Vienna, all the while working on a personal theory of values and his own philosophy of history. He began to immerse himself in ideas of Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer,Karl Kraus, and Otto Weininger. Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922; The Decline of the West, 1926-1928), in particular, prompted Broch to develop his ideas on the necessity of the heroic quest on the part of the isolated and alienated individual if humankind should rise from the abyss of shattered values. Paradoxically, for Broch, the search for personal values served only to exacerbate the collapse of communal values. Years later, as a refugee from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, Broch would seek a resolution of this paradox in the individual’s pursuit of universal humanist goals.
During World War I, Broch served as an administrator for the Austrian Red Cross until...
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