Joseph Roth: The collapse of the civilized world

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth was one of the foremost European writers of the 20th century, and he wrote one of the period’s greatest novels.

He wrote about the lost world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of dispossessed people whose homeland was destroyed.

His journalism captured fleeting moments with universal implications, and the social conflict, cultural upheaval, and acceleration of the inter-war years.

A famously restless man, Roth lived out of three suitcases, preferring hotels because “to live in hotels is to become an international traveler whose allegiance is not to a country but to a condition.”

His best novel, The Radetzky March, captured the final years of Austria-Hungary, with all its maladministration, humanity, internationalism and stability.

He was one of Europe’s most highly paid journalists. But when Hitler was made chancellor of Germany in 1933, Roth was placed on the Nazi’s first list of prohibited writers and his writing was banned in German-speaking Europe.

Joseph Roth died of alcoholism at the age of 44, four months before the outbreak of the Second World War. His personal decline paralleled the collapse of the civilized world. 

Roth’s biographer, Keiron Pim, joined me to talk about his life and work. Keiron is the author of Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld, and several popular science books on dinosaurs. You can read more about him on his website.

We spoke about perpetual movement, straddling borders, and the loss of a world.

These are the books we mentioned in the podcast:

We also mentioned:

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • There is a powerful film with very strong visuals based on the book “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” by Joseph Roth starring Rutger Hauer. This film won the Golden Lion at the 45th Venice Film Festival in 1988 and is probably Rutger Hauer’s best work in portraying emotion. Even as a chronic alcoholic, Roth successfully transforms his personal tragedy into a light, sparkling modern fable which he finished just before his death in 1939.

    • Thanks, I wasn’t aware of that film, will look for it. I first connected with Roth’s writing on Berlin, and then his short pieces on other places — like the ones on Astrakhan, which contain brilliant comedy as well as the ability to find the telling detail that captures a place. The only Roth fiction I’ve read so far is The Radetzky March. Bookshops here usually have a number of his works in English. Planning to grab more next time I stop by.


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