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  • After the Fall:Nostalgia and the Treatment of Authority in the Works of Kafka and Agnon, Two Habsburgian Writers
  • Gershon Shaked

And yet I dozed off and slept. How do I know that I slept? Because of the dream I dreamt. What did I dream? I dreamt that a great war had come to the world, and that I was called to it. I vowed to God that if I returned safely from the war, whoever came out of my house to greet me on my return from the war would be sacrificed. I returned home, and there I was myself, coming out to greet me.

S. Y. Agnon 1968: 76

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Habsburg Empire, which had coalesced through centuries, was a mix of nationalities, ethnic groups and religions living in strange unity under the rule of the emperor. Though the empire was primarily Catholic, its eastern region was Greek Orthodox; the conquest of Bosnia-Herzegovina had added a Muslim faction, and a large Jewish population was dispersed throughout the imperial territory. Its ethnic groups included Austro-Germans, Italians, Croatians and Bukovinians, Hungarians and Ukrainians, Jews, Czechs, and Slovaks. The Empire was the antithesis of the nation-state that had been developing in Europe since 1848 (see Iser 2003: 3-7). The imperial bureaucracy was mostly German, and the empire as a whole owed some of its stability to the large population of Jews lacking a distinct national identity, yet sizzling beneath its surface placidity was a welter of anti-Semitic, anti-German, anti-Serb, and anti-Hungarian sentiments, with uprisings and riots occasionally breaking out in different regions. What held the realm together was the benevolent image of its aging emperor, Franz Joseph I (1830-1916). The Habsburg Jews, numbering some two million, for the most part worshiped him: they [End Page 81] prayed for his health and even included lyrics in his honor in their prayer books.1

The empire's spiritual disintegration began before World War I; the war, and the treaty of St. Germain which helped conclude it, delivered the fatal blow. The decline and fall of the Habsburg Empire left a mark on the writing of Franz Kafka and Samuel Joseph Agnon—as well as on the work of a third, a younger writer, Joseph Roth (1894-1939). All the three were born on the outskirts of Austro-Hungary. The regions of their childhood, in Czechoslovakia and Galicia, had seethed with nationalist and anti-imperial sentiments, but it was the empire rather than the emperor that was regarded as exerting hegemony and therefore eliciting the hostility of the various nationalities. In Prague, the Czechs fought the Germans and the Jews, the latter thought to be a vulnerable part of the German enemy. The Ruthenians of Galicia struggled against the Poles and the Germans, and all of them together fought the Jews. Nevertheless, an illusion of peace persisted, and though its vacuity eventually became painfully clear to all three writers, the empire that had maintained this illusion would remain an explicit object of nostalgia in Roth's work, and an implicit one in the writings of Kafka and Agnon, whose attitude towards the paternal dimension of the imperial power was more complex.

Kafka and Agnon both yearned to explode the absolute authority of emperor, God, and father, and secretly repented this yearning when it was fulfilled, longing for the order that used to be guaranteed by that authority. Such a crisis is explicitly described by Roth:

I hate nations and nation-states. My former home, the monarchy, alone was different, it was a large house with many doors and many rooms for many different kinds of people. This house has been divided, broken up, ruined. I have no business with what is there now. I am used to living in a house, not in cabins.

(Roth 2002: 247) [End Page 82]

Roth's predicament was shared by many Jews and many Romantics (and disappointed Jewish Romantics) as the Habsburg Empire disintegrated. The rise of nationalist movements and the establishment of nation-states—including the Zionist movement as a state-in-the-making—contradicted the Habsburgian-Catholic world-view, which supposedly...


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