"The Spider's Web" was serialized in a magazine in Vienna in 1923. Since its subject is the rise to power of thuggish Hitlerism, it stands as prime evidence of Joseph Roth's comprehension and prescience. No wonder the man was depressed and prone to alcoholism, when he foresaw the catastrophe of the coming decades so acutely! "Web" is a novella of about 100 pages, the story of a "fair-haired, industrious, well-behaved" but thoroughly mediocre boy, Theodore Lohse, who survives soldiering in World War I to discover a society that has no particular niche for him to fill. Lohse has two gifts: an inordinate ambition and an exceptionally flexible conscience. To call him an anti-hero would be flattery; he is a despicable villain, a murderer, a liar and betrayer of 'friends', a master of kiss-up-kick-down opportunism, and in Mittel Europa post-WW1, bound to rise with the tide of criminality. Anti-Semitism is his most consistent ideal, but ironically he becomes entrapped himself in the web of an equally unscrupulous Jewish operator, Benjamin Lenz. Theodore is fatuous enough to consider Benjamin a sincere friend; Benjamin is out to destroy Theodore and any other German he can outwit, a kind of vengeful stalker of fools. In the end, it's Benjamin who turns out to have both a more worthy goal - the salvation of his own family - and a clearer perception of impending reality. Such is the odd power of empathy in fiction that the reader finds him/herself engaged with the odious Lohse, and concerned for his outcome. This novella ends abruptly and inconclusively, so that it has been considered "unfinished". I would dispute that idea. Remember the times when it was written, for the 'conclusion' of Lohse's story was implicit and inexorable; the real conclusion wouldn't occur until 1945, six years after Joseph Roth's death. I can't imagine a more potent ending for this novella than what you'll find on its last page.
Lohse achieves the notice he craves by a kind of luck. He is sent by the Party to crush a rural workers' agitation - an assignment he knows is intended to squeeze him out of the important action - but he turns events in his favor by ruthless blood-letting. Times are cruel in the countryside, and Roth is supremely eloquent in describing them: ""Spring strode over Germany like a smiling murderer. Those who survived the huts, escaped the round-ups, were not touched by the bullets of the National Citizens' League nor the clubs of the Nazis, those who were not stuck down by hunger at home and those whom spies had forgotten, died on the road, and clouds of crows cruised over their corpses.""
Next to Roth's acknowledged masterpiece, the novel The Radetsky March, his shorter works strike me as equally significant, both for their historical evocations and insights, and for their literary merits as depictions of flesh-and-blood mortal beings. Joseph Roth is one of those writers who should have won the Nobel Prize but didn't, possibly because the lens through which he viewed humanity was too clear and too precisely refracted, with all the astigmatisms of illusion corrected.