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More empires, then…

Vienna is, on many levels, a lovely city – but after reading Joseph Roth I was never able to see it in the same way again. Roth’s Empire, the one of the Hapsburgs, of the many ethnic groups, of my Dreiländer grandmother who gave her son an Emperor’s name, that elephantine, multilingual Empire, orderly in it chaos, austere, slow and immutable – that Empire died with Franz Josef, and decomposed with World War One. Most surely it is not to be found in the quaint patisseries in the form of the Sachertorten fed to endless tourists, nor in the ubiquitous Mozartkügeln, the girls dressed up as Sisi, the maudlin songs played in garden restaurants… Vienna has chosen a sugary image of the Empire, flattering for the national character and good for tourism – betraying the ancient, supranational and hallowed idea. Because while kingdoms are places, empires are ideas… Now a shadow of that idea only remains, perhaps, in the Kapuzinergruft in the Neue Markt.

And then there is the fall I got to see – that of the Soviet Empire. I’m not thinking so much of the televised images – not even the last sickle and hammer banner struck from the Kremlin. Well, that too – but there is something, much smaller, that I personally witnessed: the sad Soviet soldiers who, in August 1990, still lingered in what was still the DDR, marooned there because Moscow lacked the funds to either bring them home or pay their wages. In Leipzig they listlessly patrolled the cavernous, empty railway station – a handful of them, with untidy uniforms and the tired step of men not quite knowing why they bothered; in Dresden they sat in glum, blank-eyed rows on park benches, only moving to chase shadow or sunlight, because they had nowhere to go when off-duty; in Berlin they surreptitiously peddled bits of uniform to the tourists in bad English: a pin, a belt, a pair of gloves… the scraps of their unraveling empire.

And for many years I thought this was the only fall I was going to see – though I should have known better, because History never stops, and certain things happen again and again. Now perhaps we are living the fall of another empire – or at least its decline. Suddenly my collection of Lost Empires, in all its glory of memories proper, library dust, and wishful imagining, has become something else entirely. Something sadder and darker.  Am I getting maudlin, do you think?

Ah well – what about you, o Readers? Do you have Lost Empires of your own?