What would it be like to be born between eternity and apocalypse? The Habsburgs, Prince Wilhelm's family, had ruled much of Europe and much of the world for centuries. They traced their mythical origins to the Greeks and the Romans, styled themselves as defenders of Christianity, and in an age of monarchy represented the grandest of royal families. Like all emperors, they scorned time, believing neither in progress nor in degradation, having faith only in the coming generations of future rulers and the ritual veneration of those who had passed.
But the 19th century brought troubling new ideas, visions of a future in which empires would be destroyed by nations that liberated themselves. Napoleon brought this vision on horseback at the century's beginning, and romantic poets spread the word for the decades to come. Yet when national liberation came to the homeland of the Habsburgs, to central and eastern Europe, it was not in the form of free liberal democracies. Instead the Habsburgs, ancient rulers of a vast domain of many nations, found themselves confronted by aggressive new monarchies that ruled in the name of a single nation. Unified Italy took some Habsburg territories; unified Germany took more. As the 19th century waned, a new age of nationalism seemed on the horizon.
If the Habsburgs were to survive, they would have to avoid the doom of national disintegration. Prince Stefan, Prince Wilhelm's father, believed that he had found a way to keep the nations of the Habsburg empire ? Germans, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and countless others ? loyal to the dynasty. The empire could ennoble the nations by assigning each a crownland and a Habsburg prince as regent. But if the empire was to be remade, the imperial family would have to remake itself.
Prince Stefan carried out this experiment on his own branch of the royal family, making Polish princes of his boys and Polish princesses of his girls. His youngest son, Wilhelm, saw the logic of his father's scheme, but chose another nation for himself.
Born in 1895 in the dreamiest part of the old Habsburg empire, the Adriatic coastline, he like his father imagined a Europe of nations living in harmony under the Habsburg scepter. Yet as he watched his brothers mature and his sisters marry, he understood that his place in any Polish royal family would be rather modest. He started fresh, with another Habsburg nation that appealed to him as wild and fresh: Ukraine. Though he believed that he was rebelling against his father, his youthful embrace of the Ukrainian nation served the empire.
In the years before the First World War, the Habsburgs desperately needed to make themselves credible to all of their peoples. When war came it was a clash like no other before it, and massive and endless slaughter brought nationalism and desires for national liberation to the fore. It was clear that a new Europe would be born at the end of the war. For a brief moment, Wilhelm won fame in revolutionary Ukraine as the Red Prince, the Habsburg archduke who spoke Ukrainian, loved the Ukrainian peasantry, and would help them get the land they wanted. In his person he reconciled monarchy, national liberation, and social justice. But the Habsburgs lost that war, Wilhelm lost his kingdom, and the Bolshevik Revolution overcame his beloved Ukraine. Under Soviet rule, Ukraine suffered famine and terror.
When the Habsburg eternity came to end in 1918, Wilhelm was 23 years old. He tried to face the apocalypse of the destruction of the Habsburg empire and the triumph of communism in Ukraine with good grace. He protested to the American president, Woodrow Wilson, that Ukraine was a nation like others, and deserved national self-determination as much as its neighbors. He worked in Vienna to gather troops that would invade the Soviet Union and liberate his beloved Ukraine. When all of this failed, and when his luck and money ran out, he sought the pleasures of exile in Paris, flirting with royalty and seducing the famous. In great secret, he became involved in the early 1930s in a plot to restore the Habsburgs to power in central and eastern Europe. In a time of great depression, with Hitler and Stalin in power in Germany and the Soviet Union, the memory of a gentler monarchy inspired millions of people. Wilhelm was to represent Ukraine in the new Habsburg federation that would replace the ruinous Europe of the 1930s.
With eternal rule beckoning again, this Habsburg generated his own personal apocalypse. He had his name and his charm and his excellent reputation among Ukrainians, but he needed a great deal of money, and he needed it quickly. Everyone believed that he was fabulously wealthy; in fact he was barely solvent. Though he preferred men to women, he took on as his girlfriend a fabulously successful con woman who promised to raise him the money he needed to return to politics. She let him down, and he disgraced himself and his Habsburg and Ukrainian cause in a scandal involving absinthe, Rothschilds, the Paris Ritz, and sex with sailors.
Wilhelm fled the distractions of Paris, suddenly grown cold, for Vienna and further degradation. Angry and alone, he briefly embraced the Nazis and their vision of the destruction of the European order. Then, suddenly, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he regained his youthful composure and his youthful hopes. The Nazis opposed everything Wilhelm and his Habsburgs had stood for: national toleration, a pluralistic Europe, individual freedom. In Hitler's vision, all of Europe, including Wilhelm's beloved Ukraine, was to serve the cause of a racial German empire. Wilhelm traded the limelight for the shadows, working as a spy for the British and the French against Hitler.
Wilhelm faced the dilemma that hundreds of millions of Europeans faced after the Second World War. The German empire was replaced by the Soviet, as the lands where the Germans had carried out their greatest atrocities, Ukraine included, fell under the power of Stalin. This was the political apocalypse, as one totalitarian system gave way to another; this was the moment when many thinking people sincerely wished for a Third World War. Instead there was cold war; and Wilhelm continued his espionage work in Vienna, now working against Stalin, whose troops occupied the city as they did much of eastern and central Europe. He was arrested by Soviet military intelligence, tortured, and buried in an unmarked grave. Rather than the eternity to which he was born, he died in oblivion, or so it would seem.
Wilhelm's was a life that recalled some of the hope of the 19th century, and much of the horror of the 20th. As the 21st century begins, his ideas and his choices take on a new resonance, one which if not eternal is certainly durable and important. Nations can only exist if people choose them, and choose to make sacrifices. Ukraine, against all odds, is now a free and independent state. Patriotism means loving the nation, but also understanding how it fits into a larger order of peace and toleration. The European Union, by removing borders and establishing a single currency, has restored much of the feeling of the Europe of the Habsburgs. Wilhelm's time has come.