Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924
Joseph Roth was born Moses Joseph Roth on September 2, 1894, in Brody, Austrian Galicia, which at that time was in the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today is in the Ukraine. His parents were part of a large Orthodox Jewish community, not uncommon in that part of the old empire. His father, Nachum Roth, was an unsuccessful traveling businessman who died, the victim of a psychopathic disorder, in 1910. Joseph was raised by his mother, Maria (or Miriam) Roth, née Grübel, and his grandfather Jechiel Grübel, a successful draper and orthodox Jew in Brody. The boy attended the elementary school and the Royal-Imperial Crown Prince Rudolph Gymnasium in Brody, where German was the language of instruction. At home, the family spoke German, but Roth also learned Polish, Yiddish, and Ukrainian. After his graduation with honors in 1913, he attended the University of Lemberg (Lvov) for one semester and the University of Vienna from 1914 to 1916. He studied literature and began his career as a writer, publishing poetry, short stories, and essays in a Viennese newspaper. From 1916 until 1918 he served in the Austrian army.
For a number of years following World War I, Roth was concerned almost exclusively with political and social issues. Although he was essentially a conservative, at this time he embraced the socialist point of view—he even signed some of his newspaper articles “Red Joseph.” He investigated the plight of the outsider, with special interest in the fate of the eastern European Jews, the Ashkenazim. In 1924 he developed this theme in a series of novels. Like most of his fictional work, these novels appeared serially in newspapers. Hotel Savoy appeared in the distinguished Frankfurter Zeitung, and Rebellion was serialized in the Berlin newspaper Vorwärts in 1924. Both novels treat the topic of social injustice that the outsiders and victims of the war encounter in Western European society. Hotel Savoy portrays a microcosm of a society suffering decay and corruption, while Rebellion illustrates the life of a disabled war veteran who loses his organ grinder’s license and is thus another victim of capitalism.
From the mid-1920’s to the late 1920’s Roth traveled to eastern Europe on assignment for a newspaper. He published his major essay The Wandering Jews in 1927. The essay portrays migrating Jews who were uprooted by the war from the small Jewish towns of the east, where they had celebrated their traditions and values, to be resettled in the major metropolitan centers of Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, where they were assimilated by western Jewry. The fate of the eastern European Jew in postwar Western European society was articulated most poetically in Job. Through these journalistic and fictional writings preceding the time of the Holocaust, Roth served as an insightful and sensitive reporter on the terrible destiny awaiting the Jews of Europe.
The other major theme which preoccupied Roth for many years was the disintegration of the once-mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although he had written on this topic throughout the 1920’s, it was his best-known novel, The Radetzky March, that provided the most eloquent statement on this theme. Initially serialized in the Frankfurter Zeitung between April 17 and July 9, 1932, the novel traces the life of Austria and Emperor Franz Joseph I from the Battle of Solferino in 1859, in which the French defeated the Austrians, until 1916, the year the emperor died. The fictional characters make up three generations of the von Trotta family. The grandfather, Lieutenant Joseph Trotta, the celebrated “hero of Solferino,” risked his life to protect the young emperor in the Battle of Solferino. In recognition for this deed, the young lieutenant, whose forefathers were peasants, is elevated to the rank of nobility. His only son, Franz von Trotta, serves the empire as an exemplary civil servant, while his only grandson, Carl Joseph, has an undistinguished career in the military.
Shortly after Roth completed this major novel, another chapter began in his life. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Roth left Germany for a life of wandering and exile. He traveled in various western European countries, but his last residence was Paris. He continued to be a prolific writer of fiction and essays, but because he was blacklisted as a Jew and vocal opponent of the Nazi regime in Germany, he lost the great majority of his readership. He lived in considerable poverty in a small hotel and frequented his favorite café, where he wrote and met with his many friends. He succumbed to alcohol in this period of exile and grief, his writings generally returning to the two major themes he had treated in his earlier works. He died on May 27, 1939. The inscription on his gravestone describes his work and defines his contribution to literature: Écrivain autrichien—mort à Paris en exil (Austrian writer—died in Paris in exile).
Roth belongs to a generation of writers who were virtually forgotten because of the forced exile they experienced during the Nazi period in Germany, from 1933 to 1945. That has changed, for Roth, largely through the efforts of his close friend, the writer Hermann Kesten, who has prepared several editions of his works. The Radetzky March has established him as one of the important Austrian writers, while many of his other novels and essays have confirmed him as a significant source on the plight of the Eastern European Jews. He is often cited by critics and readers for the elegance of his prose writings. Scholars have shown a continuing and increasing interest in his work, and the readership, in both the English-speaking and the German-speaking world, has increased substantially over the years.
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