Poetry Madness

Harper's Magazine
Friday, October 1st, 2010
Voice your opinion about this review by
posting a comment on the Powells.com blog


The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke

by Timothy Snyder

Man of No Nation: A Habsburg prince's bid for Ukraine

A review by Nicholas Fraser

Not long ago, Ukrainians polled on behalf of a television show were asked to identify "The Greatest Ukrainian." Lenin, whose likeness once disfigured every Soviet-bloc square or railway station, finished in twenty-third place, behind Nikolai Gogol, author of Dead Souls. Perhaps inevitably, a row broke out between supporters of Yaroslav the Wise, eleventh-century prince of Kievan Rus, who came first, and those of Stepan Bandera, leader of the resistance to both Nazi and Soviet rule, who was poisoned on orders from Moscow in 1959. The Bandera camp claimed that Prince Yaroslav, celebrated during the Soviet era as an acceptable (because long dead) specimen of Ukraine Man, had won by means of a last-minute surge in computerized phone-in votes. Angry Bandera supporters contacted the BBC, which had designed the format of the contest, to complain that their hero hadn't received his rightful due.

One Ukrainian figure who wasn't nominated was the man variously known as Archduke Wilhelm of Austria, Prince Wilhelm, Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, and Wilhelm von Habsburg. Wilhelm died in Soviet captivity in 1948, after a varied career as a soldier, spy, and frequenter of cafes that would seem to offer the historian no more than a wealth of disconnected anecdotes. Wilhelm, however, wanted to be king of Ukraine, and he took this ambition seriously. For the author of The Red Prince, a young American historian named Timothy Snyder who teaches at Yale, Wilhelm offers a way to reopen the half-lost story of the Habsburgs and to advance the notion that Europe might somehow have been spared the horrors of the last century. Snyder believes that far from being the anachronism they seemed to such historians as A.J.P. Taylor, who was writing sixty years ago, the Habsburgs offered -- and continue to offer -- the prospect of a different European future.

Snyder wrote an earlier book, The Reconstruction of Nations (2003), that unraveled the tangled identities of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus, beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing through the Communist era to the present. Another book, Sketches From a Secret War (2005), artfully described the life of Henryk Jozewski, a painter and set designer who became governor of the eastern Polish province of Volhynia and then became a spy, spending three years of his life in Communist jails. It would be easy to dismiss Jozewski as a quixotic Pole engaged in desultory intelligence work and plotting to overthrow the Soviets; by the time Poland was pried from the Soviet Empire, he was entirely forgotten. Wilhelm represents a different kind of heroism altogether, exhibiting what Snyder calls "true shamelessness" in pursuit of private pleasure, but the Bohemian and the Prince have much in common. Both believed passionately that the state shouldn't seek to impose a cultural identity on its citizens, and both were prepared to risk their lives for the idea of pluralism. This makes them romantic heroes for our times as well as true Europeans.

Wilhelm was born in 1895 and brought up on an island in the Adriatic that is now part of Croatia. (Later, he would remind himself of the sea by having an anchor tattooed on his wrist, hidden by an Omega watch of the kind worn by James Bond.) When he visited anyone in Vienna, a bell was rung twice to announce his arrival, a privilege accorded only to archdukes and cardinals. Born to rule over nations, Wilhelm was himself without nationality. He was sent to the life-threatening cadet school described by Robert Musil in The Confusions of Young Torless. Tall, blond, and svelte, Wilhelm was 358th in line to the English crown. He was also a member of the Habsburg Order of the Golden Fleece, until he was forced to resign as a consequence of scandalous behavior in low-life Paris.

Reading The Red Prince made me wish that the young Alec Guinness of Kind Hearts and Coronets would return to play not just Wilhelm in his successive incarnations but his deeply eccentric relatives too. Wilhelm's father, Stefan, was a cousin of the Emperor Franz Josef, and Wilhelm's mother, also a Habsburg, was a Tuscan princess. An amateur painter of no great talent, Stefan was for a time in charge of the Habsburg Navy, and he was considered to be among the less myopic of the vast clan. He formulated the notion that Habsburgs, rather than fighting off nationalism, could co-opt its advocates. Habsburg heirs should offer themselves as kings and queens to those who wished to avail of their services, thereby appeasing them. Stefan determined that he and his family would start a new dynasty, and that he would become king of Poland. No evidence exists that Stefan was taken excessively seriously by Poles (and, indeed, it doesn't appear that Stefan met many Poles outside the posh families into which his sons and daughters would marry). Nonetheless, his fantasies were taken seriously by the Habsburgs.

While his father married off siblings in order to create a Polish dynasty, Wilhelm looked even farther east. Because no Habsburg had ever ruled there and because it seemed romantic, he wanted to be king of Ukraine, proposing to extend the influence of the Habsburgs eastward and thus create a populist Mitteleuropa version of the dynasty that had claimed to rule by divine right for so many centuries. At the age of seventeen, Wilhelm traveled incognito to the Carpathian Mountains. He wanted to see for himself what the Poles characterized as the "bandit nation." The wild Ukraine that he found, with its green pines and sturdily resourceful hunters, delighted him, and his identification with Ukraine was secured when he commanded a platoon of Ukrainians in 1915. Whereas his ancestors had dressed up in the elaborate fancy costumes of feathers and gold-braided tunics, Wilhelm took to wearing a Ukrainian embroidered shirt under his uniform. He adopted the name Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, the latter being the Ukrainian word for "embroidery." Wilhelm's men were encouraged to wear azure-and-yellow armbands, the Ukrainian national colors. This infuriated the Poles, who came to regard Wilhelm as a dangerous socialist subversive, calling him "The Red Prince."

Ukraine was divided between Habsburg Galicia in the west and an eastern portion, including Kiev, that was part of the Russian empire; the collapse of tsarist Russia and the revolution in 1917 appeared to give the Habsburgs the opportunity to control a new country. Franz Josef's successor, Karl, placed his cousin in charge of the Battle Group Archduke Wilhelm (comprising old men and boys), sending him to Odessa. Arriving in the Cossack homeland, Wilhelm found his people. He began to "Ukrainize" the country, spreading the message of national liberation. His men spent much of their time writing and performing consciousness-raising plays. Wilhelm, as befitted a Catholic and a prince, was a passionate anti-Bolshevik, but he believed that a country as poor as Ukraine should have more equality.

Now that Russia was out of the war, the idea of a Ukrainian National Republic didn't seem foolish. The Habsburgs believed that a unified Ukraine could be an ally of their empire, after which it would be absorbed as a principality, and Wilhelm was the natural Habsburg candidate for the job. The Germans, however, had their own dictator capable of keeping the natives quiet, and Berlin complained to Emperor Karl, who was obliged to recall his cousin. Nevertheless, within a year, Germany and Austria had lost the war, and things were different. At the 1919 peace conference, no one was interested in Ukraine; monarchs, actual or prospective, were out of fashion. "I only saw a Ukrainian once," recalled Lloyd George. "It is the last Ukrainian I have seen, and I am not sure that I want to see any more." By 1921, the country was once again partitioned, this time between an insecure, chauvinistic Poland and a vengeful Soviet Union.

Other Habsburgs -- including Princess Zita, the mother of Wilhelm's cousin Otto -- had attempted to reclaim Mitteleuropa for the dynasty, but they weren't successful. Royals of the early bourgeois age had a soft spot for peasants, and Wilhelm's infatuation with Cossack manliness could be seen as a campy equivalent of Queen Victoria's interest in Highlanders. Wilhelm, however, persisted in his ambition. Broke, an exile in republican Vienna and Bavaria, he drifted into the shadowy world of royalist conspiracies. He started a newspaper that bore as its slogan "Ukrainians of all lands, unite!" and a masthead featuring a Ukrainian worker with a hammer and sickle. Wilhelm offered himself as the only man capable of reversing the tide of Bolshevism. He enlisted the help of the most dubious partners, including syndicates of extreme right-wing German nationalists, to whom he proposed shares in the trade of the yet-to-be nation in return for the cash required to install himself. His first effort, in 1924, was foiled by an anti-monarchist movement, which organized its own effort to topple Stalin. Predictably, this rival movement was a failure, resulting in a massacre of Ukrainians.

But Wilhelm was undaunted, and a second fund-raising round, organized from Paris in 1934, led him to make the most bizarre miscalculation of his career. Although Wilhelm enjoyed dressing up in women's clothes and visited male brothels in Paris, sometimes in the company of his valet (a police report stated that Wilhelm frequented "assiduously" establishments on the Left Bank with Arabic names), he appears also to have acquired a mistress. In 1934, Paulette Couyba involved Wilhelm in an elaborate scam. She told him that she had organized a dinner featuring potential donors Maurice de Rothschild and Henri Deterding, the oil tycoon. Instead she invited the Pernod magnate Henri Hemard, to whom she offered a postdated check in return for 400,000 francs. Paulette's check was a dud, but she was able to persuade the police that the fraud was Wilhelm's idea. Snyder's account of the courtroom proceedings gives some idea of his gifts as a storyteller:

Paulette recounted her version of events, in her own particular style. She was in love. She was a poor naive Frenchwoman. She was no match for the wiles of the handsome Habsburg prince. She had not known what she was doing, and whatever it was, she had done it for her man. She gave him all of the money, except for that small part that she needed for the care of her elderly mother. She had to have hundred-franc notes at the ready so that he could pay sailors for sex. This, of course, had broken her heart.

To escape prosecution, Wilhelm fled Paris, leaving behind even his beloved cat. And it seems that Paulette, having precipitated the near ruin of Wilhelm, was still in love with him. A year later, she disguised herself and adopted another name, attempting to follow her prince to Vienna.

Cushioned by payments from well-wishers, Wilhelm would live at a remove from the catastrophes of the time. There is no account in Snyder's otherwise meticulous narrative of what Wilhelm thought of the horrifying Ukraine famine of 1932–33, brought on by the Stalinist policy of collectivization. (Much of what we know about Wilhelm comes from the transcript of his interrogation by the Soviets in 1948, when he was ill with pneumonia and probably wanted to paint himself in the simplest, most heroic terms before he died.) Not much is said about Wilhelm's surrender to the anti-Semitism prevalent in interwar Vienna. Like most Habsburgs, Wilhelm had enjoyed the company of Jews, but after fleeing Paris he would dump longtime Jewish associates and seek the company of such Nazi sympathizers as the Ukrainian nationalist Ivan Poltavets-Ostrianytsia. While Hitler's goons stole Jewish property, Wilhelm was to be seen on the ski slopes, in the company of many elegant companions. Wilhelm felt, mistakenly, that the Nazis might help in his quest for the throne, and his brown moment appears to have been motivated in part by spite toward his relatives. Although the Nazis treated him as a useful idiot, he joined them in repudiating his cousin Otto.

Against all expectations, however, Wilhelm appears to have decided that his days as a would-be king were over. Appalled by German and Russian atrocities, he became a supporter of the Allies, and in 1943 he began to spy, probably first for the British, then later for the French. He proved to be an excellent agent, prepared to risk his life. His royalist contacts were useful, as more and more Ukrainians were swept into Vienna as a consequence of the German retreat. Many of them had worked with the Nazis in the hope that Hitler would give them the homeland they desired, and they possessed information about the Nazi war machine. But he was less lucky when spying on the Soviets in the postwar Vienna made familiar by the movie The Third Man. On August 26, 1947, Wilhelm was arrested at the Sudbahnhof by Soviet soldiers wearing red armbands and taken away. Interrogated, he told and retold his story. Finally, Snyder tells us, he reached Kiev "wearing a blindfold instead of a crown and was borne to a dungeon rather than a throne." A Soviet tribunal found him guilty of wanting to be king of Ukraine, leading the Free Cossacks in 1921, and serving both British and French intelligence. Sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, he died six days later and was buried anonymously.

Snyder's account of the various episodes in Wilhelm's life is ornately rendered in a series of tableaux, each chapter given a different color. (Appropriately, lilac characterizes his Parisian adventures.) But the events are also garlanded by historical speculations, some of them hard to understand. At times Snyder seems to lose his way in this exotic world:

How, then, to speak of contemporary European history? Perhaps the Habsburgs, with their weary sense of eternity . . . have something to offer. Each moment of the past, after all, is full of what did not happen and what will probably never happen, like a Ukrainian monarchy or a Habsburg restoration. It also contains what seemed impossible but proved possible. . . . And if this is true of these moments in the past, it is true of the present moment as well.

It is certainly true, as historians remind us often, that the future is uncertain and our own views of the past are unreliable, though this seems an excessively complicated way of making the point.

People were freer within the Habsburg lands than they were later, under Stalinism and Hitler's occupation. But Snyder wants to go further, suggesting that the Habsburg empire, which "lasted long and might have lasted longer," wasn't doomed. This can be accepted only if one concludes that the Habsburgs knew what they were doing when they shuffled around constitutional arrangements, creating or abolishing parliaments in an effort to contain the demands made by Czech, Hungarian, German, and Balkan nationalists. Snyder tells us that the Habsburgs "did love" their ungrateful subjects, a love that "was cosmopolitan, indiscriminate, selfish, unreflective, and thus in some sense perfect." The adjectives can certainly be applied to poor Wilhelm, but it is not clear who or what he ever loved, except for the prospect of himself as king of Ukraine. Perfection is not a quality easily found in any of the characters in this enthralling book. Indeed, by Snyder's own account, Wilhelm became a better human being when he realized that he could never be a Habsburg king, only a lowly pilgrim in search of an end to injustice in a brutal, imperfect world.

The Red Prince is representative of the continuing attraction of the Habsburgs, whose appeal may be due to the extremely bourgeois nature of this family, which combined glamour with just enough in the way of survival skills. Neither the pompous, physically unattractive, and reckless Hohenzollerns nor the Romanovs (who were better looking but took the notion of divine right and their love for their people far too seriously) possessed these qualities. Among contemporary royalty, only the Japanese imperial family and the Windsors (if one excepts some of the more uncouth grandchildren of the queen) measure up to the Habsburgs. Snyder wants to flatter the Habsburgs by comparing their position to that of the European Union: "The 'European' identity of today, like the 'Austrian' identity of the late Habsburg period, transcends but does not exclude national feeling. . . . Yet even the freest of today's societies would not permit the sorts of choices the Habsburgs made. . . . Yet surely the ability to make and remake identity is close to the heart of any idea of freedom, whether it be freedom from oppression by others or freedom to become oneself." But the Habsburg empire is hardly the stuff out of which an alternative vision of Europe, or indeed a theory of history, can be woven, even by a writer as ingenious as Snyder.

Not all historians are nostalgics, but the Habsburgs appeal most to those who are, or at least those, like Snyder, who think that the past isn't stable and can be constantly reinvented, affording not just second thoughts but tenth or eleventh ones. Waltz-like, latter-day Habsburg history is composed of equal parts pageantry, celebrity scandals, complex diplomatic goings-on, high culture, and vulgar, often racist, populism -- all of this bundled with the whiff of imminent catastrophe. As a child in 1908, Wilhelm was present at a theatrical performance in Vienna celebrating the sixtieth jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef. Successive tableaux depicted the dreams of future glory of Emperor Rudolf, who was elected Holy Roman Emperor by his fellow princes in 1273, founding the dynasty. In the Vienna military museum, one may linger in front of the bloodstained costume and feathered hat of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, along with the bathtub-shaped automobile in which he was shot by a Serbian terrorist, and be surprised at the abruptness of the Habsburg ending. And yet an ending was widely expected at the time, even wished for. "We were bound to die," sighed Count Czernin, the Habsburg representative at the 1918 peace negotiations with the Bolsheviks, in a moment of lucidity. "We were at liberty to choose the manner of our death, and we chose the most terrible." Weary or not, Habsburgs existed in a history of their own making, devising and staging their own fate. They are a warning against complacency; and they remind us, too, that the most complicated arrangements of civilization are futile if nobody wants to defend them.

On recent visits to Vienna, I've been struck by the degree to which the badly remembered past still dominates the Austrian present. Absent and mourned, the Habsburgs have always enjoyed a good press. From 1919 onward, reduced to penury and insignificance by the fall of the empire, Viennese intellectuals wrote about what was lost. Their sense of heartbroken displacement became more intense after Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. Some, like Joseph Roth, drifted off into nostalgia and alcoholism; but others refused to accept the death of their cherished way of life. Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities is an account of the empire's dying days spun out over more than a thousand pages, as if time could thus be halted and reversed. "If there is a sense of reality, and no-one will doubt that it has its justification for existing, then there must also be something we can call a sense of possibility," Musil tells us as he attempts to immerse the reader in Kakania, his name for the empire. "Whoever has it does not say, for instance: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: Here this or that might, could, or ought to happen. If he is told that something is the way it is, he will think: Well it could probably just as well be otherwise."

Well yes, it might have been otherwise; but in reality, alas, it happened as it did. Musil's hero, Ulrich, resembles Wilhelm in his ability to assume different shapes or postures according to the ebb and flow of fashion or history -- except that in real life, Wilhelm, unlike the half-absent Ulrich, finally tightened his grip on the world around him. Could the old empires of Europe somehow have survived? Europeans love to imagine a continent spared the Armageddon of 1914. As Isaiah Berlin tactfully pointed out, there are limits to counter-historical speculations. To be effective outside the confines of a donnish parlor game, they must reject "all the infinity of logically open possibilities." Mitteleuropa was comprehensively vandalized in the twentieth century, first by Hitler and then by Stalin. It isn't plausible to suggest that so comprehensive a disaster could have been avoided if Wilhelm and his ilk had somehow been luckier or less obtuse. Snyder never tells us what a disaster-free Europe under Habsburg stewardship might have looked like. But it is clear that he thinks such an outcome would not have been unthinkable, and that it certainly would have been desirable.1

I once attempted to learn about Europe by working in an Austrian sawmill. The work was boring as well as onerous, and my German did not improve in conversation with dour Austrian peasants. I didn't know at the time that in the valley where I labored British officers handed over the Cossacks who had fought on Hitler's side to the Russians, who murdered them. As I chopped and stacked wood, however, I became aware of death amid so much beautiful scenery. This appeared to go with a semi-amnesiac, highly selective cultivation of certain aspects of the past, most of all those flattering to Austrian amour-propre. Then, as now, Austrian society appeared to be constructed around the proposition that many things are best left in the cellar.

One Saturday afternoon, I was invited to meet an honored guest. I was driven through empty von Trapp countryside to a rambling, opulent, eighteenth-century affair, impeccably maintained, filled with servants. Like Wilhelm's, the family who lived here owned breweries. The women were dressed in fancy dirndls, loaded with tasteful jewelry, and their husbands wore lederhosen with spiffy brogues and Scottish-type tweed stockings. A hush surrounded the guest, punctuated by much Gruss-Gotting, bowing, and curtsying. Great-great-nephew of Franz Josef, the bespectacled, smallish Otto to whom I was formally introduced was heir to the Habsburg throne, though he had recently renounced the title. He later became a successful member of the European parliament, promoting the cause of democracy in former Habsburg lands such as Bosnia, Croatia, and Ukraine. "We are playing tonight," he used to say whenever Austria and Hungary encountered each other on the football field.2

"Their own sense of time was one of eternal possibility," Snyder writes, "of life as composed of moments full of incipient rays of glory, like a drop of dew awaiting the morning sun to release a spectrum of color." Since my encounter with Otto, I have thought often of the Habsburgs, coming to somewhat different conclusions. Colorful they may be, but anticlimax is the true Habsburg characteristic and their ultimate European legacy. Already, the mid-century horrors seem impossibly distant, and some species of recovered good fortune appears to have enveloped Europe. Something of the old multinational ethos survives. Like the Habsburgs in their day, Europeans are not martial, relying for their defense on few troops, ill-equipped and wearing fancy uniforms. In its shapelessness, its dilatory and complex procedures, its tangle of constitutional arrangements, with formally separate but in practice overlapping arrangements codified in incomprehensible bureaucratese, as well as in its pompous architecture, Brussels feels like Imperial Vienna. The European Union is moving uneasily toward enlargement -- the Balkans are readying themselves for inclusion, Turkey and Ukraine stand next in line -- with the same mixture of caution and rashness that characterized Habsburg bureaucrats. Sometimes it does seem, as with the Habsburgs, that Europe needs to expand if it is not to implode. "The oppression of irony leaves Europeans unable to boast about their system," Snyder observes, and he is right to say that the achievements of Eurocrats (like those of the Habsburgs) do not receive much recognition, though this may be something of an understatement.

And yet it would be more accurate to conclude that Europeans, having lost the Habsburgs and never fully found them again, now live with some half-conscious recollection of the dynasty's terrible failings. Multinationalism is kept half-hidden from Europeans by the Brussels elite, lest another outburst of nationalism tear the continent apart. Even as they pretend to revere the past, or appear to forget it, Europeans remain anxious, filled with foreboding. So much irony, oppressed or not, is not a direct legacy of the Habsburgs, as Snyder would have it, but of the chaos that followed them.

If geopolitical contingencies had allowed a Ukraine capable of offering him a crown, Wilhelm might indeed have experienced his heart's desire. But I have trouble visualizing the reign of King Vasyl. What would Wilhelm have chosen for a coat of arms -- a Habsburg eagle, maybe wearing an embroidered shirt, while perched on a hammer and sickle? Neo-Ruritanian royals and aristos can nowadays do what they wish, so long as they appear in the pages of Hello! magazine. It is not difficult to imagine Vasyl wearing the frocks he loved, sniffing coke or peddling progressive movies with starlets on the beach at Cannes.

The Red Prince closes wistfully, with a visit to the old multiethnic Habsburg city of Lviv (known as Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German), now part of a poor, vigorously democratic, and corrupt Ukraine. In the city a square is to be found named after Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, with an empty plinth before which old ladies with brightly tinted hair sit and children play. Someday soon a statue will be unveiled, and a small group of well-wishers will gather. Flowers of many hues will be scattered in Wilhelm's memory, and there will be admiring tributes in Ukrainian, Polish, German, and broken English. I hope that someone will read aloud portions of this splendid, eccentric book.

1 A coherent endorsement of counter-history comes in Virtual History, edited by Niall Ferguson (1998). A.J.P. Taylor was a vigorous, iconoclastic practitioner of counter- history; unlike Snyder, he believed the Habsburgs couldn't have survived. Norman Stone's World War One: A Short History (2008) is a terse, brilliant dissection of received ideas about the conflict, though he, too, concludes that the Habsburgs doomed themselves to extinction.

2 I also hitchhiked to meet W. H. Auden, who lived in Kirchstetten, a small village near Vienna. When he was driving me in his old black VW to the nearest autobahn, I asked him why he lived in what appeared to be a geranium-filled dump packed with ex-Nazis, and he mumbled something about wanting to be at the heart of Europe. In "Whitsunday in Kirchstetten" (1964), Auden describes going to the local church. In its smugness the poem seems irritating; but the jocular late-Auden tone is abruptly jettisoned as he parenthetically inserts the recollection of buried, unremembered catastrophe:

(Maybe, when just now
Kirchstetten prayed for the dead, only I
remembered Franz Josef the Unfortunate,
who danced
once in eighty-six years and never
used the telephone.)

Nicholas Fraser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His last review, "Toujours Vichy," appeared in the October 2006 issue.

Click here to subscribe Why subscribe to Harper's Magazine?

Because each issue of Harper's Magazine ever published - from June 1850 through today - is now online and comes free with your regular print subscription.
Search and browse through essays and fiction by Mark Twain, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Munro, David Foster Wallace, National Correspondent Lewis H. Lapham and many more.

SUBSCRIBE NOW for as little as $16.97 per year!
  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.