The great Austrian novelist Joseph Roth died a few months before the Hitlerian cataclysm that he foresaw. At his end, in 1939, Roth was living in exile in Paris, penniless and alcoholic, broken by the extinguishment of the mitteleuropa of his childhood. Roth had been born in 1894 in a place called Brody, a small town in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire but is now Ukraine. Today, this little town of Roth’s childhood is under threat once more.
Roth is best-known for his novel The Radetzky March, chronicling the end of the Habsburg empire—a tragedy as far as he was concerned. But The Bust of the Emperor, another of his melancholy works, feels more prophetic today, as the Russian army swarms across Ukraine. In this novella, Roth takes the reader to the land of his childhood, before it was washed away in the swells of European nationalism, war, and savagery.
The main character in Roth’s story is the aristocratic Count Morstin, the scion of an old Polish family of Italian descent, who thinks of himself as neither Polish nor Italian but “beyond nationality.” Morstin, like Roth, loathed the very idea of nationalism, which he saw as a small, dank cabin compared with the “large house with many doors and many rooms for many different kinds of people” that was the old Habsburg monarchy. In The Bust of the Emperor, Roth tells how Count Morstin comes to terms with the loss of his homeland. But the story, really, is about the loss of a way of life, the loss of an age—the loss of an order. This loss is signified throughout the novella by a bust of the old Austrian emperor Franz Joseph that Morstin keeps outside his manor house in a village near Brody.
Today, from Brody to Kharkiv, we are seeing, once again, the collapse of an age, and perhaps with it an order. Like Count Morstin, we must now reckon with this change. For so long many of us have avoided making the imaginative leap required to believe that a modern political leader could order the invasion of a European country. Despite the growing evidence to the contrary, many diplomats, officials, and analysts refused to seriously believe the American and British intelligence warnings about the imminence of an attack. For many in the West, it seems, wars of aggression are things that happen to poor countries a long way away. They are done by us. They are not done to us. And yet this has happened. The images filtering onto our timelines, of Russian helicopters flying over European cities, do not seem real. And yet they are. Photographs of exploded Russian armaments seem jarring because they have been taken in noticeably European settings. In one published by Radio Free Europe, a Domino’s is visible just behind the carnage.
Europeans in particular have displayed an unusually emotional response to the shock of Putin’s invasion. The chief of the German army, Alfons Mais, posted a startlingly brutal assessment of the situation on his LinkedIn page, declaring that the Bundeswehr has been left “blank,” (presumably because of years of free riding on the coattails of its American protector), its options to support the Western alliance limited. “We all saw it coming and were unable to penetrate with our arguments to draw and implement the conclusions of the annexation of Crimea,” he wrote. Former German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer joined in the self-recrimination, writing that she was “angry at ourselves for our historical failure” to act, after Putin’s interventions in Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas, in a way that could have deterred the Russian leader.
Reading these laments, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are fueled by shame and embarrassment. In The Bust of the Emperor, Count Morstin ends up living in Switzerland for a while after the Habsburg empire’s collapse, trying to forget the passing of his old world. One night, though, sitting at an American bar in Zurich, he is confronted with the reality of the new world. He watches as a group of Russians mockingly parade what they claim is the crown of the monarchy that he so revered. Suddenly, he becomes enraged. “It was as though he understood, at the same instant in which he himself was transformed, that long before himself, the world had also been transformed. It was as though he now learned that his own transformation was merely a consequence of some wider transformation.”
Presented with the reality of life, Count Morstin is embarrassed by his former naivete. “When he sights meanness,” Roth writes, “the fastidious man feels double embarrassed: first at the mere fact of its existence, and then because he straightaway understands he has been taken in.” This, it seems to me, is the source of our rage here in Europe and in the U.S. We have been taken in by a man out to destroy our world. We are embarrassed by our own credulity, the shame of our stupidity and vanity.
Almost no country in the West is immune from this shame. After 2016, America’s shame is obvious, but the feeling is no less marked in Europe. In Britain, we have the shame of Russian oligarchs buying up our homes and our newspapers, and even finding their way into our Parliament. In France, long after the appalling nature of the Putin regime became clear, the country’s leaders shamefully convinced themselves that they could talk him round. Emmanuel Macron was even happy to attend the World Cup final in Moscow alongside Putin just months after the Russian leader had ordered the deployment of a chemical weapon in Britain.
In Germany the shame is perhaps most evident. The leading power in Europe cannot find the strength to lead, cannot fund its military properly, and is only now finding the courage to separate its economic interests from its responsibilities to the Western alliance that ensures its security. But across Europe the same story can be seen: in an Italian politician wearing a Putin T-shirt, an Austrian politician dancing with the Russian leader at her wedding, the Hungarian prime minister cozying up to him in Moscow. Everyone knows how disgraceful this behavior is, but even now we struggle to come to terms with our baseness, seeking ways to avoid the inevitable pain that will come with any meaningful sanctions on the Russian state.
We were warned. In the 21 years since President George W. Bush declared Putin a man he could trust—having apparently peered into his soul—the Russian leader invaded Georgia, backed Assad in Syria, intervened in the U.S. election, annexed Crimea, armed separatists in Ukraine (who then shot down a Dutch aircraft), assassinated enemies in Britain and Germany, and, then, finally, launched a full-scale invasion of a sovereign European country. And still leaders across the West—among the populist right and the populist left, from Donald Trump in the U.S. to the Stop the War Coalition in Britain—defend, explain, excuse, or even praise Putin.
Faced with the brutal reality of a new world, it is natural to respond with either rage or denial. In The Bust of the Emperor, Count Morstin decides he will choose the latter, returning from Switzerland to his village outside Brody to live as if the Habsburg empire never died. The Count retrieves the bust of the emperor that he had kept safe in his basement, putting it back on display outside his home. He even begins wearing his old uniform of the Austrian dragoons. For a while, it works, and the local peasants salute him, but he knows it can’t last. “Like everyone who has once been powerful, he now seemed even less than the powerless: in the eyes of officialdom, he was ridiculous.” The peasants who were saluting him were saluting a lost past. Eventually, he knows the game is up, that it is time to bury the old world. And so he summons the villagers, and together they bury the bust of the emperor as if it were Franz Joseph himself.
This, I fear, is our fate in the West. There is no longer any point putting on the uniforms of the old world, pretending it has not just been blown apart. The old ways of dealing with Russia (and potentially China) no longer apply. The belief that autocratic regimes will democratize and liberalize as they bend into our rules-based order was naive. The West is not about to collapse like Austria-Hungary. But Western assumptions about strength and superiority are no longer sufficient. Those who still believe in democracy must bury the hubris that caused the old world to fail. If we need to do so ceremonially, shoveling dirt on it like the old bust outside Brody, so be it. But let’s get on with it before we are made to look any more ridiculous.