‘The Radetzky March’ Plays For Us All

Source: The American Conservative

Monday was a national holiday here in traditionally Catholic Austria: the Feast of the Assumption, which marks the death and ascension into heaven of the Virgin Mary. We Orthodox Christians observe the feast as well, though we call it Mary’s “Dormition” (“falling asleep”). Out in the city, I stopped by the Paulanerkirche, whose building dates to the last 17th and early 18th century, to pray. I spent 45 minutes offering a particularly long Orthodox akathist (like a litany) in honor of the Holy Virgin on this feast day. I had the whole church to myself, though really only a little area at the very back, because most of the nave was closed off behind iron bars. Perhaps they have to worry about vandalism.

The Baroque interior of the church is not to my taste. Baroque is my least favorite church architecture, which puts me in a bad place in Habsburglandia. Maybe it was the dark lighting in the church, but it looked like dried flowers — not unbeautiful, but peculiarly dessicated. As I stood in the back praying, I noticed that a few visitors would drop in. Half were older women offering a quick prayer; the other half were middle-aged women, or grandmothers, with an adolescent kid in tow. Though the adults all prayed, none of the kids crossed themselves or made any kind of gesture, however perfunctory, indicating that they knew they were in a holy place. They weren’t rude or anything, just bored.

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I thought about this later, after a text conversation with a friend urging him to read Joseph Roth’s great 1932 novel The Radetzky March. If you haven’t read this book, do not delay. It is one of the greatest political novels ever written, but it’s really beyond politics. It’s the story of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as told through the lives of three generations of a Slovenian family. The book opens on the battlefield at Solferino, when Austrian troops faced off against French and Italian armies in 1859. The young Kaiser, Franz Joseph, was present to observe the fighting, and foolishly stood up, in clear sight of an enemy sniper. Trotta, a Slovenian infantry lieutenant, saw the danger, and leapt to tackle the Kaiser, taking the bullet that was meant for his sovereign. The grateful kaiser raised Trotta to the nobility.

But the newly ennobled Trotta was a simple country fellow, and did not like the notoriety surrounding him as the “Hero of Solferino.” He didn’t feel worthy of it, and was uncomfortable moving in noble circles. Eventually he visited the Kaiser to petition him to fix the official description of the event in imperial history books. He believed, correctly, that the official account exaggerated his deed to make him seem far more heroic than he had been. Oh, come on, said the Kaiser, what’s a little exaggeration for a good cause: patriotism. (The Austrians had been defeated at Solferino, and needed some kind of consolation.) Franz Joseph decides to take the entire story out of the history textbooks rather than to alter it to tell the truth. We are meant to see here that the Kaiser is too enamored of the imperial narrative to deal with facts. That, and he keeps ennobling his subjects, thinking he’s doing them all a great favor by bestowing imperial favor on them. This would prove to be the ruin of the Trottas.

The Hero of Solferino had a son, also Baron von Trotta, who grew up totally immersed in Habsburg worship. His father discouraged him from pursuing a military career, pushing him into the second-most prestigious career in the empire: working as a civil servant. The second Baron von Trotta became a rigid and inflexible patriot. The title of the book comes from the Strauss piece composed in 1848 to honor an Austrian field marshal who had won a great victory. It has been described (I think by Roth himself) as the Marseillaise for monarchists. The stirring music recurs in Roth’s narrative as a kind of hymn.

The third Baron von Trotta, Karl Joseph, is pushed into a military career by his father, but he’s not suited for it. Despite his privilege, he falls into a wastrel’s life. And he begins to see the cruelty of the imperial system. He does not have the faith of his father. Eventually he dies an ignoble and pointless death on a World War I battlefield, in the great conflict into which the mindless faith of his fathers has condemned him, and an entire generation. They died for an illusion. It had not been an illusion in ages past, but as the 19th century progressed, the institutions of the empire failed to pass on to the next generation the convictions that animated it. As Philip Rieff observed, institutions and systems begin to die when they can no longer transmit their core beliefs to the next generation. This is an iron law of human nature.

The thing to know about Roth is that though he was an acute diagnostician of empire’s faults, he missed what it offered. He believed the world that succeeded the empire was wretched, superficial, without values, driven by nothing more than sensuality and commercialism. But he was too honest to live a patriotic lie. He mourned what had passed, but he illustrated in his great novel of decadence why it had passed.

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In this 2004 essay about Roth, the New Yorker says:

In one of Roth’s late novels, “The Emperor’s Tomb,” a character says that Austria-Hungary was never a political state; it was a religion. James Wood, in an excellent essay on Roth, says yes, that’s how Roth saw it, and he made it profound by showing that the state disappoints as God does, “by being indescribable, by being too much.” I would put it a little differently. For Roth, the state is a myth, which, like other myths (Christianity, Judaism, the Austrian Idea), is an organizer of experience, a net of stories and images in which we catch our lives, and understand them. When such a myth fails, nothing is left: no meaning, no emotion, even. Disasters in Roth’s books tend to occur quietly, modestly. In “The Emperor’s Tomb,” the street lights long for morning, so that they can be extinguished.

Maybe now you see why, contemplating the indifference of the young people to the Paulanerkirche, I heard the Radetzky March in the background. The “myth” of Christianity is an organizer of experience, the explainer of our existence. It has failed in contemporary Europe. God well knows that as a Christian myself, this grieves me, but we have to look at the world as it is. I hope and pray that we can revive it, but there’s no question that most of Europe is thoroughly post-Christian. As the great church historian Robert Louis Wilken wrote in this must-read 2004 essay in First Things:

Last spring on a trip to Erfurt, the medieval university town in Germany famous for its Augustinian cloister in which Martin Luther was ordained to the priesthood, I learned that only twenty percent of its population professed adherence to Christianity. In fact, when the topic of religion came up in a conversation with a young woman in a hotel lounge, and I asked her whether she was a member of a church, she replied without hesitation: Ich bin Heide—“I am a heathen.”

It is hardly surprising to discover pagans in the heart of Western Europe where Christianity once flourished: a steep decline in the number of Christians has been underway for generations, even centuries. What surprised me was the absence of embarrassment in her use of the term “heathen.” She did not say that she no longer went to church or that she was not a believer. For her, Christianity, no doubt the religion of her grandparents if not her parents, was simply not on the horizon. I remembered that two days earlier my train had stopped at Fulda, where St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, is buried. Boniface had gone to Germany to convert the heathen, and in a spectacular and courageous gesture he felled the sacred oak at Geismar. The astonished onlookers soon hearkened to Boniface’s preaching and received baptism. It would seem that if Christianity is ever to flourish again in the land between the Rhine and the Elbe, a new Boniface will have to appear to fell the sacred oaks of European secularism.

Yet what made an even deeper impression on me in Europe was the debate over the preface to the new constitution of the European Union. I was living in Italy at the time and had been following the discussion in the Italian press. All the nations of the EU are historically Christian, and the very idea of Europe was the work of Christian civilization. The Carolingians, Christian kings, first brought together the peoples west and the east of the Rhine to form a political alliance, with the blessing of the bishop of Rome. The story of Europe is a spiritual drama impelled by religious convictions, not by geography, economics, or technology. Yet the framers of the EU constitution refuse even to mention the name of Christianity in its preface. While readily acknowledging the inheritance of pagan Greece and Rome, and even the Enlightenment, Europe’s political-bureaucratic elites have chosen to excise any mention of Christianity from Europe’s history. Not only have they excluded Christianity from a role in Europe’s future; they have banished it from Europe’s past. One wonders whether the new Europe, uprooted from its Christian soil, will continue to promote the spiritual values that have made Western Civilization unique.

Talking to the young woman in Erfurt and listening in on the debate about the EU constitution I found myself musing on the future of Christian culture. In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.

Like, I would say, Pope Francis, with his war on the Latin mass. But that’s another story.

To me, there is absolutely no doubt that what has replaced Christianity as the central myth of the young throughout the West — individualism, hedonism, consumerism — is appallingly inferior. As a sympathetic Muslim traveler told me over the weekend, in a conversation on a train, today “the Machine” (his term) is trying to turn us all into children with no religion and no history, who live by nothing but our appetites, and who are therefore perfect consumers. That Muslim man is exactly right — and he added that the Islamic world is not going to be able to avoid this trial. “We are all in this together, brother,” he said. This is where we are as a civilization. What I cannot grasp is why so many Christians, especially in clerical orders, cannot or will not read the signs of the times.

But then, doesn’t Roth show how it happens? People become so lost in the routines of the religion that they anesthetize themselves to its decay in the hearts of the young, and fail then to see what might be done to protect it from collapse. In The Radetzky March, the second Baron von Trotta barely has a personality of his own. He is a vessel into which worship of Empire has been poured. In his own writing, the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) detected the decay of Christianity in his native Denmark. His final work, titled Attack Upon Christendom, was a powerful polemic against the state Lutheran church. Kierkegaard accused it of being a dead thing, of reducing Christianity to being nothing more than a good Danish citizen. His famous formulation in that book is that where people are considered to be Christian simply by virtue of being a citizen of the state, then Christianity no longer exists. For Kierkegaard, Christianity was a personal drama in which each and every soul had to come face to face with God. If you lose that primal encounter, and the necessity of it in every generation, the faith cannot help but fade away.

This is the crisis we Christians in the West are in, and have been in for some time. Back in 1966, the great Philip Rieff saw it coming, and said it was in fact already here, but the clerics refused to see it. The heart of Christianity had been cut out and sacrificed on the altar of the Thirty Years War (1914-1945), and more broadly, for the individualistic pleasures of modernity. (The book to read about all this is Carl Trueman’s bestseller Strange New World, a more accessible abridgement of his early analysis of how we got here.) I get an email every couple of weeks from someone who says, inevitably, that they thought my 2017 book The Benedict Option, which explores how to live faithfully in the post-Christian West, was alarmist, but now they see that it was prophetic. Believe me, as a Christian and as the father of Christian kids who will have to try to keep their faith in this hostile world, it gives me no pleasure to be right about this. But those Christians who refuse to see what time it is will be like the tragic second Baron von Trotta, believing that the Empire would last forever, and that his son would believe as he believed.

This is not a counsel of despair! It is rather an exhortation to wake up, and to do what we can to save our “myth,” which of course we Christians now to be a true myth. But you know, it’s true of the Church (the churches, plural) in our time, and I have come to believe in recent years that it is true of America. When I was at CPAC recently, walking through the aisles of patriotic kitsch, it felt like the visual equivalent of Strauss’s “Radetzky March” as it appears late in Roth’s novel — an aesthetic expression of a sentiment that seemed forced, not really compelling.

Don’t misread me: I don’t question the patriotism of the people at CPAC. I’m just saying that it’s hard for me to reconcile the extravagant displays of patriotism with what we have actually become in America today. Our elites have been campaigning for some time now to destroy faith in the country’s founding virtues, and founding figures. You don’t need to believe that the Founders were gods who among us walked to recognize that they accomplished an extraordinary thing, one worthy of veneration and preservation. But so many of our scholars and journalists have worked overtime to destroy not only the images of those great men, but also the principles for which they fought.

We can’t just blame the liberals and the progressives. What has patriotism become for the rest of us? I recall that patriotism from the Right — my own tribe — was used both to justify the pointless and destructive Iraq War, and to silence dissenters as “unpatriotic conservatives.” More deeply, there has been a profound drift among the younger generation, for whom the beliefs that used to sustain America no longer seem compelling. This is only a part of a broader decadence. A young man who has natural instincts of wanting to love and defend his country cannot be faulted for looking around today and wondering just what it is he is defending.

A few weeks back, I took my son to see the Kapuzinergruft, the burial place of Habsburg royalty since the 17th century. It’s the crypt of the Capuchin church in central Vienna. It is a wonder. Viennese funeral culture is a thing of its own; people here adore a beautiful death. The elaborate tombs of the Habsburg greats have to be seen to be believed. As we walked through, paying our respects, it struck me that these tombs were like spent nuclear fuel rods. Through the bodies of these men and women, immense power once flowed. They used to rule much of Europe, when Europe was the richest and most powerful civilization on earth. Now they are all dead, and warehoused in a crypt underneath a church in a rich, beautiful, democratic city. Sic transit gloria mundi. It’s important to visit the Kapuzinergruft for the same reason it’s important to visit the ruins of ancient Rome: to be reminded of what happens to all power and pomp in this mortal world.

But you know, it’s coming for us too. At best, we can recognize our coming fate, and try to devise modes of action that could push it off farther into the future. In fact, a true patriot — or a true Christian — would eagerly seek to do that. Alas, human nature is such that we can’t imagine how fragile we are. If you read The World Of Yesterday, the great memoir of Roth’s friend Stefan Zweig, written from his exile from the Nazis, you’ll get a good sense of how Vienna around the turn of the 20th century felt. It was rich, it was glorious, it was powerful — but beneath the surface of things, decadence ate away at the Empire’s foundations. It was the same all over Europe.

It’s that way with us too, us Americans and us Europeans, in our own time, and us Christians of the West. We don’t know what is coming tomorrow, but to read The Radetzky March is to sensitize oneself to the melody of doom floating on the late summer breeze. The complacency of the second Baron von Trotta led to the faithlessness of the third, and the mindless fidelity to the imperial myth led to the pointless sacrifice of an entire generation in the Great War, and the collapse of the entire myth, its institutions, and its way of life.

Why has this happened to the Christian faith in the West?

Why is this happening to America?

What should we do now?

Here is a photo I took of the tomb of Franz Joseph, and his wife, the Empress Sisi. It’s incredibly powerful, and humbling, to stand in their presence, and realize that death is the great leveller.