Mythmaking, writes the political geographer Luiza Bialasiewicz, following Roland Barthes, “may be defined as the manner in which a civilization attempts to reduce its many social, political, and cultural realities into a unity; the chaos of the world into an order; fragmented and accidental existence into essence; and historico-political contradictions into a harmonious whole capable of unifying if not resolving those contradictions”.
We all do it of course (England’s green and pleasant land, la France profonde ‑ and what is Dublin 4 except notRealIreland?) Perhaps no one has carried the thing off so appealingly however as the now no longer existing Habsburg Austrians. Stefan Zweig, who left his homeland in 1934 after the accession to power of Hitler in neighbouring Germany, wrote that in the old Austria or Austria-Hungary (not the shrunken and impoverished post-1918 republic) “ … everything appeared long-lasting and the State itself appeared as the guarantor of such continuity … Everyone knew how much he possessed and how much was owed to him, that which was allowed and that which was prohibited: everything had its norm, its precise weight and measure.”
This, of course, is to a large degree tosh. Zweig, one of the most commercially successful writers of the early twentieth century, probably did know exactly how much he possessed. Viennese proletarians on the other hand possessed very little, though they, and Galician Jews from the shtetls and Moravian peasants and Bosnian Muslim shepherds owed a duty to their kaiser, Franz Joseph, and died (one and a half million of them) between 1914 and 1918 in a doomed attempt to save his empire.
And yet … from the vantage point of the middle of the twentieth century the old empire seemed to have a lot going for it. In the works of the best writers it is treated with a clear-sightedness which is quite ready to accept the existence of an absurdity which demands to be seen as comic, yet is not devoid of affection. Irony may be the word here, but it is an irony directed at pleasure, which aims to make us smile more than sneer and sometimes seems to have a spoon of whipped cream added in the Viennese manner. In Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (published in 1932, the year before Roth left Germany for France), Dr Max Demant remembers his late father:
His uniform, the uniform of a “long-serving accountancy sergeant”, with gold corners on the cuffs, black trousers and infantry shako, hangs in the cupboard like a human being cut into three pieces but still alive, its gleaming buttons polished every week. And the black, curved sabre with the ribbed handle, also cleaned every week, hangs horizontally above the never-used desk, fixed on two nails, with its casually dangling golden tassel that resembles the closed bud of a sunflower … On the Emperor’s birthday, the post office worker Demant puts on his official uniform, with cocked hat and sword. On that day of all days he doesn’t play tarock [a card game]. Every year, on the Emperor’s birthday, he makes a resolution to begin a new life and not get into debt. And so he gets drunk. And comes home late at night, stands in the kitchen with drawn sword, and commands an entire regiment. The pots are platoons, the teacups are units, the plates are companies. Simon Demant is a colonel, a colonel in the service of Franz Joseph I. Then the boy’s mother, in lace bonnet, pleated nightdress and loose bedjacket, has to climb out of bed, come downstairs, and calm her husband.
One day, the day after the Emperor’s birthday, his father suffered a stroke in bed and died. It was a merciful end and a spectacular funeral. All the postmen for miles around followed the coffin. And the dead man was kept alive in the loyal memory of his widow, the model of a husband, fallen in the service of the Emperor and the K-and-K [Kaiserlich und Königlich – imperial and royal] postal service. The two uniforms, that of the non-commissioned officer and that of the postal worker Demant, hung side by side in the closet, and were beautifully kept up by the widow with camphor, clothes brush and brass polish. They looked like mummies, and each time the closet was opened, the son thought he saw his father’s body hanging there in duplicate.
Ten years after The Radetzky March, and half-way through the Second World War, another novel dealing with the Habsburg past was published in Budapest. It is set around the turn of the century in Vienna and other locations and then more than forty years later in a large house deep in the Hungarian countryside; this is how the imperial capital is seen from the point of view of a young army cadet:
That year the fashionable composer being whistled by all Vienna was the younger Strauss. He [the cadet Henrik] took the key and opened the ancient gate which slowly creaked ajar, crossed the wide vestibule at the foot of the musty, vaulted stairwell lit by oil lamps in uneven glass shades, paused for a moment, and glanced out at the snow-covered garden in the moonlight, looking as if it had been filled in with a stick of white chalk between the dark outlines of things. Everything was peaceful. Vienna was sound asleep under the falling snow. The Emperor was asleep in the Hofburg and fifty million of his subjects were asleep in his lands. The son of the Officer of the Guards [Henrik] felt that this silence was also in part his responsibility, that he, too, was keeping watch over the sleep and safety of the Emperor and his fifty million subjects, even when he was doing no more than wearing his uniform with honor, going out in the evening, listening to waltzes, drinking French red wine, and saying to ladies and gentlemen exactly what they wished to hear from him. He felt that he obeyed a strict regime of laws, both written and unwritten, and that this obedience was also a duty which he fulfilled in the salons just as he fulfilled it in the barracks or on the drill ground. Fifty million people found their security in the feeling that their Emperor was in bed every night before midnight and up again before five, sitting by candlelight at his desk in an American rush-bottomed chair, while everyone else who had pledged their loyalty to him was obeying the customs and the laws. Naturally true obedience required a deeper commitment than that prescribed by laws. Obedience had to be rooted in the heart: that was what really counted. People had to be certain that everything was in its place. That was the year that the son of the Officer of the Guards and his friend turned twenty-two.
The two of them, young officers in Vienna. The son of the Officer of the Guards climbed the rotted stairs, whistling his waltz half under his breath. Everything in the house smelled a little musty, the stairs, the rooms, and yet it was somehow a pleasant smell, as if the interior retained a lingering odor of fruit preserves. That winter, carnival season broke out like a happy epidemic. Every evening in the white-and-gold salons there was dancing under the flickering tongues of flame in the gaslit chandeliers. Snow kept falling, and coachmen drove pairs of lovers silently through the white air. All Vienna danced in the snowflakes and every morning the son of the Officer of the Guards went to the old indoor riding ring to watch the Spanish riders and their Lippizaners going through their paces. Riders and horses shared a nobility and distinction, an almost guilty ease and rhythm inborn in soul and body. Then, because he was young, he went walking. As he sauntered past the shops in the center of the city in the company of other strollers, he would occasionally be greeted by a waiter or the driver of a hansom cab because he looked so like his father. Vienna and the monarchy made up an enormous family of Hungarians, Germans, Moravians, Czechs, Serbs, Croats, and Italians, all of whom secretly understood that the only one who could keep order among this fantastical welter of longings, impulses, and emotions was the Emperor, in his capacity as Sergeant Major and Imperial Majesty, government clerk in sleeve protectors and Grand Seigneur, unmannerly clod and absolute ruler. Vienna was in high, good mood. The stuffy high-vaulted taverns in the old city served the best beer in the world, and as the bells chimed midday the streets filled with the rich smells of goulash, spreading friendliness and good will as if there were eternal peace on earth. Women carried fur muffs and wore hats with feathers, and veils that they pulled down over their faces against the snow, leaving a glimpse of snow and flashing eyes. At four in the afternoon the gaslights were lit in the cafés and coffee with whipped cream was served to generals and officials at their regular tables while, outside, blushing women shrank into the corners of hired carriages as they raced toward bachelor apartments where the log fires were already lit, for it was carnival and there was an uprising of love throughout the city, as if the agents of some giant conspiracy were goading and inflaming hearts across all levels of society.
There is again here a certain distancing. In a Viennese winter the church bells may well chime clearly, the log fires be lit and friendliness and good will spread “as if there were eternal peace on earth”. But from the vantage point of 1942, we know that there was not eternal peace on earth, that the old emperor died, that the great family of Czechs, Hungarians, Moravians, Slovenians and Croats became increasingly quarrelsome and that the emperor’s young grandnephew, Karl, who succeeded him, was not able to hold his territories together. And that one terrible war was followed by another after a mere twenty years.
Sándor Márai, from whose novel Embers the above extract is drawn, was born with the century in 1900 in the then Hungarian city of Kassa, which the Germans called Kaschau and which is now Košice, the second city of Slovakia. Márai left his home town when, after the war, it was ceded to Czechoslovakia, first for Budapest, then Leipzig, Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris and London. He wrote fiction, poetry, short stories, criticism, travel literature and journalism for various newspapers including for the Frankfurter Zeitung, which had also employed Joseph Roth. Equally at home in both languages, he also translated German-language writers, including Kafka, Georg Trakl and Gottfried Benn, into Hungarian. Márai returned home in the late 1920s but left again in 1948 as his work began to be suppressed by the communist authorities. In this last period of exile he lived first in Italy and then in the United States, where he died, by his own hand, in 1989.
Of his father, Géza Grosschmid, a “royal vice-notary” in Kassa, which Márai designated as one of the few “European” cities of Hungary at this time, he wrote: “He was a liberal, and a conservative. Just like the best of his generation, but one never with certainty knew if he was more a liberal than a conservative or more a conservative than a liberal. The era that was theirs – from the Ausgleich [the foundation of the Austrian-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1867] to the First World War – seems to one today to have been the era of peace, prosperity and the rule of law.”