It’s impossible to look at America in 2017 and not think of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 1910s at the end of its gloriously long sunset, unwittingly ready for the journey into eternal night. In those years, its capital, Vienna, was the most diverse, most exciting, most interesting place on Earth. Nobody knew it, but it was the most volatile too.
The Empire felt like it would continue forever, exactly the same as it was. Emperor Franz Josef ascended the throne in 1848, year of the last revolution any European remembered. Life seemed to continue exactly as it was for nearly seven decades thereafter.
If you wanted to see the Empire’s cracks, they were right on the surface, yet everyone pretended they weren’t there until Russia helped a small group of nationalist fanatics pry the cracks open, which dropped 18 million people into the earth.
“The Radetzky March,” published in 1932 by the Viennese-Jewish writer Joseph Roth, feels like swaths of it take place not just in America, but in one of its more Semitic neighborhoods. At the moment, I forget how that old Jewish cliché goes about how “The first generation achieves, the second generation honors, the third generation desecrates,” but clearly Roth follows that formula, and I suppose the odds are about even whether he picked it up from Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” or some Haredi trying to make him lay tefillin on the sidewalk of Kaertner Strasse.
Nowhere does America feel more stable than in Pikesville, where the same Jews kibbitz at each other who kibbitzed in 1969 as though they’ll still be kibbitzing in 2069. And yet right across Northern Parkway is the neighborhood we left behind, decrepit and suffering, and we still pretend it’s not there. The crack on Northern Parkway has always been there, yet the suffering it causes somehow isn’t our problem.
At the heart of “The Radetzky March” is a lie. A Slovenian soldier sees a sniper aiming for the young Emperor and knocks him down before he’s shot. The soldier’s promoted to nobility for his service. Years later, he reads about himself in his son’s government-issued textbook, which significantly exaggerates his heroism. At heart, he’s still a peasant to whom it never occurred that authorities lie to people. He’s incensed by the lie, and goes to the Emperor to personally demand a change. The Emperor basically answers him, “What’s the harm?”
The hero’s so disillusioned that he bars his son from a military career and won’t tell his son why. The son prospers as a bureaucrat like so many aging Pikesville workaholics — accustomed to a daily routine never violated for decades. He thinks the world always was and will be the way it seems to him, and therefore has no reason to wonder if his world’s more tenuous than it seems.
This son lives vicariously through his own son, whom he insists has the military career his father arbitrarily denied him. The heroic grandfather is dead, and the grandson is unprepared for the temptations of military life. When the soldier’s lifestyle gets the grandson into trouble, the son of the hero can only compare his own son to his own father and see how much weaker, more spoiled, more entitled the son’s whole generation is. The situations into which the grandson’s thrown could never have happened to his forebears, and therefore he has no example to follow. Privilege is so unfamiliar to this family that it’s lost as quickly as it’s gained. There’s no fourth generation.
The hero could just as easily be a dyspeptic Holocaust survivor who wonders why every shul throws a dinner in his honor. His son could be a dentist with a 5,000-square-foot McMansion on Michelle Way. His grandson could be a filmmaker living in Old Goucher with an allowance he spends on weed. Everybody in Pikesville thinks the grandson’s a Mamzer, but until recently, few Jews ever had experience of privilege, so who could properly advise him? All that reverence for past traditions did him no favors. It did not give him role models who negotiate life as its lived, but idols whose great feats seemed foreordained. If his actions are not similarly foreordained, how can he be prepared for life?
Every Jewish Day School gives preemptive admonishments to its students for betraying our faith years before we can. We’re taught to revere the order of things, which is completely “Beshert.” “The Radetzky” March is one of many books that English teachers in Jewish Day Schools should assign, but never will. It shows that the order fragile, arbitrary, stifling and often dishonest. Perhaps every society’s built on lies, but when they’re built on shaky foundations, we shouldn’t be surprised when they take only a lifetime to collapse.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.