This Day in Jewish History

1894: A Journalist Who Loved the Austro-Hungarian Empire Is Born

Banned at home in Germany, Joseph Roth fled to Paris, wrote prodigiously and dreamed of reviving the Austrian monarchy.

Joseph Roth in 1918
Wikimedia Commons

September 2, 1894, is the birthdate of Jewish-Austrian journalist and novelist Joseph Roth, who never got over the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Following his death on the eve of World War II, Roth was largely forgotten by history. But his work has been rediscovered by literary critics over the past two decades, with all of it – even his letters – being translated into English and other languages.

Moses Joseph Roth (he dropped the first name when he moved to Vienna) was born in Brody, near Lemberg (today Lwiw), in Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire (today Ukraine). The benevolent monarchy that held the various nationalities of the empire together remained an ideal for him throughout his life, and following the breakup of the empire after World War I, his nostalgia for it was an increasing presence in much of Roth’s writing. As he himself reflected, "My strongest experience was the war and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.”

'Red Joseph'

Joseph’s father, Nachum Roth, was a grain buyer for a company in Hamburg. Shortly before his son’s birth, he underwent some sort of psychotic episode. He was eventually sent to a “wonder rabbi” in Poland, where he apparently spent the remainder of his life. Joseph’s mother, the former Maria Grubel, took her only son back to the home of her parents, and raised him there. He received both a classical German education and also an Orthodox Jewish one.

In 1913, Joseph moved to Lemberg to begin his university studies. The following year, he transferred to the University of Vienna, where he studied literature and philosophy. In 1916, he left his studies to volunteer for the army, serving in a desk job over the next two years.

Back in Vienna, in 1918, Roth began his journalistic path, writing first for a local left-wing newspaper, and signing his articles “Red Joseph.” Two years after that, he moved on to Berlin, where he wrote for the Neue Berliner Zeitung and then for the Berliner Borsen-Courier. Finally, in 1923, he began his association with the Frankfurter Zeitung, reporting for the paper across Europe – from France, the Soviet Union, Italy, Albania and Poland.

According to Michael Hofmann, who has translated and edited many volumes of Roth’s oeuvre in English, "He was one of the most distinguished and best-paid journalists of the period, being paid at the dream rate of one Deutschmark per line."

Fall of an empire

In 1922, Roth married Friederike Reichler, known as Friedl, a beautiful but emotionally fragile woman he met in Vienna. In 1928, she began to exhibit signs of what turned out to be schizophrenia, and eventually was committed to a sanitarium in Austria. She was confined for the rest of her life, and was murdered by the Nazis in 1940.

In 1923, Roth wrote, but didn't finish, his first novel, “The Spider’s Web.” A number of other works of fiction followed, but his first big success as a novelist came in 1930, with “Job,” about a modern-day version of the biblical prophet. In 1932, he published his magnum opus, “Radetzky March,” which follows the decline of the empire by way of a multi-generational family saga.

Roth was in Berlin on January 30, 1933, the day that Adolf Hitler became German chancellor. He immediately boarded a train for Paris.

In Germany, his books were banned and were consigned to bonfires, and he was dropped by his publisher and the newspapers he had written for. He would have no fixed address for the next six years, but moved from one hotel to another, around Europe, often drunk and in debt, dreaming, even plotting, of restoring the monarchy to Austria. Friends tried to convince him to emigrate – Eleanor Roosevelt invited him to join an aid committee she was organizing – but he had lost hope. There is evidence that he converted to Catholicism near the end of his life.

Shortly after hearing about the death by suicide of his friend Ernst Toller, in exile in New York in 1939, Roth collapsed and was taken to a Paris hospital. He died there, of pneumonia and delirium tremens, four days later, on May 27, 1939.