- The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke
The Red Prince is more than a biography of the little known Wilhelm Habsburg (1895–1948). Timothy Snyder, a prominent Yale University historian, weaves the story of the archduke and his family into the rich canvas of European history. Were it not for a most impressive array of sources and a scholarly apparatus, the book could almost qualify as a vie romancée. This is legitimate because the house of Habsburg occupied for centuries several thrones in Europe as well as briefly that of Mexico. Wilhelm’s father thought of extending his dynasty’s domain into Poland and the Balkans, and he trained his sons to be future rulers of these countries. Wilhelm identified himself with the Ukrainians.
In ten chapters with catchy titles (Gold, Blue, Green, Red, Grey, White, Lilac, Brown, Black, Orange), Snyder describes the life and activities of this eccentric individual, somewhat unbalanced and politically naive, starting with a happy childhood in a villa on the Adriatic and ending with his death as a Western secret agent in a Soviet prison.
In previous writings Snyder has shown a talent for large synthetic analysis, as in The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), and for biographical studies, notably in Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). In both of these books he raised broad and pertinent questions. Snyder is fascinated by, among other things, the phenomenon of split national allegiance in families of East-Central Europe. Indeed the brother of Wilhelm, a Ukrainian colonel, was a Polish colonel and patriot.
The story of the Red Prince is told against the background of Wilhelm’s family, which contained a number of colorful and eccentric individuals. Snyder does not shun from recounting family gossip and scandals. Some details may appear superfluous and of marginal importance for the main story, but they add color to a study that is not only a good read but a genuine contribution to a little known aspect of East European , indeed European, history.
Given the scope of this book and the variety of stories included, it is surprising that the number of minor errors and slips is so small. Most of them have no direct bearing on the biography of the archduke. Still, it might have been better if Snyder [End Page 117] had not tried to include so much material, especially historical background and international politics. Some of his statements are oversimplified and inexact. The presentation of the Cossacks in history and a characterization of post-Versailles Europe are cases in point.
During World War I, Wilhelm underwent a transformation from an Austrian officer increasingly interested in his Ukrainian soldiers to a potential Ukrainian military and political leader—Vasyl Vyshyvanyi. A Ukrainian crown, however, proved a mirage, and German policies in Ukraine prevailed over Habsburg plans. With the end of the war and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Wilhelm became involved in intrigues of reactionary “white international” circles based in Germany and pursued Ukrainian mirages. His pronounced anti-Polish stance led to a break with his father.
Wilhelm’s postwar wandering took him to Spain, where he tried some business operations, and then to Paris, where he led the life of a homosexual playboy while still pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of Ukrainian statehood and Habsburg restoration. Snyder devotes a long chapter filled with juicy details to this somewhat sordid phase of the archduke’s life. Eventually, Wilhelm became enmeshed in a financial scandal and had to flee France to avoid prison. Humiliated and disoriented, he found refuge in fascism, anti-Semitism, and bizarre dreams of a fascist Ukraine supported by Nazi Germany.
With the outbreak of the war in 1939, Wilhelm donned a German uniform, but the Germans did not use him even as a political pawn. He managed, however, to receive compensation for the family estate in Poland confiscated by the Nazis. The...