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Mechanics of an Ended Empire

And the secrets of the people in these low cottages, under the dark-gray shingle roofs, behind the small square windowpanes and the wooden doors, oozed through chinks and rafters into the miry streets and even into the large, eternally remote barracks yard. One man had been cuckolded, another had sold his daughter to the Russian captain; someone was vending rotten eggs, someone else was regularly living off contraband; one man was an ex-convict, another had just barely avoided prison; this one lent money to officers, and his neighbor pocketed one third of the profits. The officers, non-aristocrats mostly and from a German-speaking background, had been stationed in this garrison for years and years; it had become both their home and their fate. Cut off from their homeland customs, from their German mother tongue (which had become an officialese here), at the mercy of the unending bleakness of the swamps, they fell prey to gambling and to the sharp schnapps distilled in this area and sold under the label 180 Proof. From the harmless mediocrity in which military school and traditional drilling had trained them, they skittered into the corruption of this land, with the vast breath of the huge hostile czarist empire blowing across it.

—Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

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