The Red Prince by Timothy Snyder

How’s this for introducing the subject of your biography?

The Red Prince by Timothy Snyder

Wilhelm von Habsburg, the Red Prince, wore the uniform of an Austrian officer, the court regalia of a Habsburg archduke, the simple suit of a Parisian exile, the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and, every so often, a dress. He could handle a sabre, a pistol, a rudder, or a golf club; he handled women of necessity and men for pleasure. He spoke the Italian of his archduchess mother, the German of his archduke father, the English of his British royal friends, the Polish of the country his father wished to rule, and the Ukrainian of the land he wished to rule himself. He was no innocent, but then again, innocents cannot found nations. … It did not occur to him that someone else could define his loyalties or curb his desires. Yet this very insouciance conceals a certain ethical premise. It denies, if only by the whiff of perfume in a Parisian hotel room or a smudge of a forger’s ink on an Austrian passport, the power of the state to define the individual. (p. 4)

Wilhelm was born in 1895 into the House of Habsburg, though the most recent Emperor in his ancestry was Leopold II, who had died more than a century before Wilhelm’s birth. For most of the intervening years, the Habsburg Empire had only had one Kaiser: Franz Josef. He began his rule in 1848 amid revolutions across Europe, and would continue to reign until Wilhelm was a young man. He died in 1916 not long before another wave of revolutions swept the continent. The long reign — just a tad more than two years shy of 70 years in the event — brought with it the problem of succession. Franz Josef’s only son shot himself. One of the Emperor’s younger brothers had been executed by Mexican revolutionaries in 1867. Here is what Snyder has to say about the next two younger brothers:

Archduke Ludwig Viktor collected art and built palaces, acceptable occupations for an archduke. Yet he also dressed in women’s clothing, the better to seduce men. Practiced discreetly, this habit might not have been disqualifying, but Ludwig Viktor, “Lutziwutzi” to his intimates, was not known for discretion. After one too many adventures in the Central Bath House in Vienna, he was dispatched to a castle near Salzburg. He invited army officers to join him there and applied a number of stratagems designed to get them to take off their pants. This left one more brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig, who contrived to kill himself by the very zeal of his Catholic faith. In 1896, he died after drinking the holy but contaminated waters of the River Jordan. (p. 37)

The Habsburgs were no Romanovs in terribleness, but power and wealth in the main line of the family brought out plenty of less murderous vices and eccentricities. Karl Ludwig had three sons and three daughters from three marriages. The best-known son was Otto Franz, who “was prone to dancing naked in cafés, and once poured a bowl of spinach over a bust of the emperor.” (p. 38) His older brother, Franz Ferdinand, “was also notoriously unstable. But he was alive, he was the emperor’s oldest nephew, so he was crown prince.” (p. 38) There are, obviously, a lot of Habsburgs in The Red Prince, and many of them share dynastic names such as Karl, Franz and Otto, but Snyder does an admirable job of enabling a reader to keep track of them without much confusion.

Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand suffered from tuberculosis and periodically traveled to warmer Habsburg possessions along the Adriatic Sea to enjoy a climate better suited to his health. There he visited his cousin Stefan (strictly speaking Karl Stefan, son of Karl Ferdinand and grandson of Karl Ludwig, but Snyder always refers to him as Stefan) who was far from the succession but still a prince of the blood and thus an archduke in his own right. Franz Ferdinand also saw his first cousin Maria Theresia (speaking of dynastic names) who was Stefan’s wife, as well as Stefan’s more distant cousin, having come from the Habsburg line that was deposed during the wars of Italian unification. Franz Ferdinand

found in their company an entirely different atmosphere from the one he left behind. Far from the imperial capital of Vienna, in the warm and safe haven of Pula [on the Istrian peninsula, now a part of Croatia], Stefan and Maria Theresia were renewing the Habsburg family, founding an impressive line of their own. Their children were not long in coming, six of them within nine years. (p. 38)

Wilhelm was the youngest child of Stefan and Maria Theresia. Shortly after his birth, his father inherited vast estates in southern Poland near Zywiec and including the eponymous brewery that’s still producing today and exporting around Europe. Snyder calls the region Galicia, in keeping with how it was designated by Vienna, though I would regard it as Silesia and place Galicia further east. Stefan knew that his brood was too far from direct descent to contend for the throne, but in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Habsburg Empire’s deepest problem was that of nationalism. In an age of nations, how was an empire, often called ramshackle, to unite its peoples? The dynasty’s answer was to cultivate something like a European ideal, to create a political space in which nations could develop with the empire providing a space in which nations did not have to practice zero-sum competition for territory, and individuals could cultivate multiple, overlapping identities.

In this era, two of the questions of European politics were what would become of the decaying Ottoman Empire, and whether partitioned Poland would return to some form of unity. Both of these presented challenges and opportunities for the Habsburgs. As Ottoman power retreated Habsburg power competed with local nationalisms to fill the vacuum. Poles — parceled out among Russia, Prussia, and Austria since 1795 — had rebelled against Russian rule in 1830 and 1863. They enjoyed considerably more self-government in the Austrian provinces with large Polish populations. Perhaps Poles would accept a Habsburg king as they had once accepted Valois and Vasa kings. Those ideas were part of Stefan’s plans. He named his oldest son after a long-ago Habsburg who was supposed to wed a young Polish queen and unite the realms. His second son’s names included Cyril and Methodius, after the apostles to the Slavs.

[Stefan] had named his sons in ways that symbolically prepared them to rule new kingdoms along the borders of the empire, a Balkan kingdom and a Polish kingdom. If more national unifications were inevitable, let them take place under the guidance of archdukes, within enlarged Habsburg domains. If nationalism must come, let it work for the enlargement of the empire rather than its disintegration. For such a plan to work, Habsburg archdukes would have to re-create themselves, in advance, as national leaders. With Stefan showing the way, princes could trade their traditional role as commanders of armies for a new dignity as creators of peoples. As a hypothesis about the changing nature of power, this was rather good. Now all [Stefan] needed was a laboratory.

The Red Prince recounts how these notions played out in actual history, with all of its unexpected turns, and among real people, all with their own desires and foibles. Snyder writes about the events of Wilhelm’s life with grace and aplomb, drawing on extensive archival research in places such as Vienna, Kiev (the typical English spelling when the book was published in 2008), Paris, Prague, Lviv. Snyder organizes the book into ten chapters, each designated by a color appropriate to the chapter’s subject matter, beginning with gold for the imperial Habsburg back ground and ending with orange for European revolutions.

From an early age, Wilhelm — known in his youth as Willy — was determined to set his own course. When the family moved from the sunny Adriatic to the forests and hills of Galicia, Willy was drawn to the wilder territories. His sisters married scions of great Polish families — a Radziwill, a Czartoryski — and his brothers-in-law told Willy that Ukrainians were “a race of savage bandits.” (p. 67) One summer, Snyder thinks probably in 1912 when Willy was 17, he traveled to the Carpathian mountains. The experience transformed him, and changed the trajectory of his life.

He marched by himself through the green pines. He found Ukrainians of the Hutsul clan, free people who lived from hunting and farming, though not the wild men in skins he was expecting. He enjoyed their hospitality and their songs. He spoke to them in Polish, a language very close to Ukrainian, and took the opportunity to learn more Ukrainian words. Willy was gifted with languages, and it is difficult for a native speaker of Polish not to understand a great deal of Ukrainian. Willy returned to Zywiec “as a different person.” He had found a people without a kingdom. … Why should Ukrainians not have their own Habsburg ruler?
To embrace the Ukrainians, as Willy did that summer, was to see Galicia anew. The optic of nationalism always brings one group into focus while occluding others. Willy’s father and brothers-in-law saw Galicia as a Polish land. In fact, it was also home to Ukrainians and Jews, and indeed to many others. The smallest disturbance, a twitch of the lens, and they came into focus. … As Willy moved away from his father’s plans and the Polish in-laws they generated, he found his own Ukrainian vision of Galicia. By seeing what his father did not, by identifying himself with the nations the Polish princes scorned, he was elevating himself within his family, and indeed the dynasty. He was the youngest child of a peripheral branch of the House of Habsburg. Yet there was no Ukrainian Habsburg. He could be the first.

Of course the world of 1912 did not last. When Serbian terrorists provided a provocation by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria was duly provoked. I learned from The Red Prince that the Austrian general staff had been advocating for years for a preventive war against Serbia. Wilhelm was in his last year at a military academy near Vienna when the war began. Snyder’s chapter “Red: Prince at Arms” describes how Wilhlm found comradeship within the army and also how his new-found interest in Ukraine opened up possibilities for the Habsburg Empire — especially after the fall of the Romanovs — while also creating problems in relations with Germany. In his early 20s, Wilhelm was entering politics at the highest level. Snyder describes his arrival in Lviv and his first meeting with Andrii Septytsky, metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church.

[Wilhelm] greeted Sheptytsky in Ukrainian as well as German, to the delight of Ukrainian onlookers and the metropolitan himself. Sheptytsky had not met Wilhelm previously. Now suddenly before him stood a young and handsome archduke, speaking decent Ukrainian, greeting him before a gathering crowd in the name of their sovereign. Under Wilhelm’s uniform, as the metropolitan and the crowd could see, was an embroidered Ukrainian shirt. “Vyshyvanyi,” the onlookers called out, the Ukrainian word for such embroidery. This became Wilhelm’s Ukrainian last name. Suddenly he had a full Ukrainian identity—Vasyl Vyshyvanyi.

Wilhelm never gave up his dream of an independent Ukraine. He had attached himself to the nation, and though as a Habsburg he of course presumed he would have a leading role in its government, he seems to have placed his ambitions in the service of Ukraine more than using Ukraine as a vehicle for his ambition. The chapter “Red” and the two that follow, “Grey: Shadow Kings” and “White: Agent of Imperialism” follow Wilhelm and his Ukrainian designs through the war, the collapse of European empires, and the wars that continued in the east through 1921. The politics are complex, as are the family relations. The Poland that Wilhelm’s father and brother sought to lead claimed much of the Ukraine that Wilhelm saw for himself. Stefan was also considered by Germany as a possible king for a Poland carved from the remains of the Russian Empire, a view not entirely mirrored in Vienna. This stage ended in almost total defeat for Wilhelm, and only marginally less so for his father and brothers. The Bolsheviks prevailed in the civil wars and established a Soviet Ukraine. Independent Poland ruled western Ukraine, but it was a republic not a monarchy. The family held their estates in Zywiec, and the sisters’ marriages cemented the branch’s ties to Poland, but they were citizens, not royalty.

The closing months of World War I and the first years after the Armistice in the West were as close as Wilhelm ever came to political power in Ukraine. The 1920s (“Lilac: Gay Paris”) saw Wilhlelm’s personal life in the forefront, as he tried to assemble money and influence as an émigré, while the politics of the 1930s pulled him towards fascism on the theory that the opponents of Bolshevism must be his allies. In truth, very few non-Ukrainians were interested in the country on its own merits; most saw it in instrumental terms. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 saw a chance to harness Ukrainian opposition to the USSR that had arisen from immense suffering imposed by Soviet rule. But if they had been interested in liberating Ukraine and giving form to those national aspirations, they would not have been Nazis. By the end of World War II, Wilhelm saw that his only opportunity lay with helping the Western Allies, and so he turned to anti-Nazi espionage.

Snyder is affectionate toward his subject, but also clear-eyed about the mistakes that Wilhelm made along the way. For all that he had been part of political intrigue from an early age, he was sometimes startlingly naive. He was blinded by the boundless self-confidence that growing up as an imperial archduke had imparted. He had a poor head for figures, as someone who had never had to concern himself overmuch with money. He was only moderately discreet in his personal affairs. The French police, who kept an eye on him in Paris, were well aware that he frequented male brothels, and of his closeness with his personal secretaries.

Snyder is also clear-eyed about Wilhelm’s last station: post-war Vienna, technically under four-power occupation but subject to considerable Soviet influence. Wilhelm’s turn to the West carried through into the post-war era, his pro-Ukraine and anti-Soviet stance far more consistent than any other loyalties in his life. It was a dangerous game. “The Soviets … claimed the right to arrest and interrogate anyone they wished. … Kacharovsky was one of thousands who disappeared from the streets of Vienna during the years of four-power occupation in the city, never to be seen again. People simply disappeared, falling beyond the limited authority of the Austrian police and state, into the abyss of Soviet power.” (p. 241)

The Red Prince closes with a chapter whose title — “Orange: European Revolutions” — says that it is about change, but which is almost equally about continuity. Roman Novosad was a Ukrainian in Vienna studying music. Recruited into Wilhelm’s network, he was later one of those scooped up by Soviet power. Snyder is quietly scathing about Austria’s post-war role.

Roman’s former teacher Hans Swarowsky, who had made a good living during the Nazi period, conducted after the war in Vienna, Graz, and Edinburgh, places far more pleasant than the continuous permafrost zone of the Arctic [where Roman was sent]. In his long and successful career, Swarowsky trained a number of conductors of the next generation, some of whom are now well known in the world of classical music. Roman, like countless Ukrainian artists of the twentieth century, left his mark in politics rather than in art. As far as can be ascertained by the writings he left behind, Roman never regretted the risks he took for Wilhelm, and for Ukraine. …
Austria’s self-presentation [after 1955], whenever possible, escaped politics to emphasize culture, above all music. Sometimes, though, the music in Vienna was too soft. Jewish conductors and composers, at the center of Viennese culture since Gustav Mahler took over the Court Opera in 1897, had left the country in the 1930s or been killed in the Holocaust. Roman, a student of music who had set aside his books and his baton to spy against the Germans, had also left unwillingly. He and the Ukrainian cause that had cost him a life of pleasure were forgotten in postwar Austria. Nothing in Austria’s present requited the recollection of Vienna’s past ties with Ukraine. (pp. 247–249)

Otto von Habsburg reappears in this chapter, a representative of both change and continuity. Born in 1912, he was the last Crown Prince as first son of Franz Josef’s heir Karl. Fleeing a Nazi death sentence, Otto spent time in America, eventually returned to post-war Europe, and eventually served 20 years as a member of the European Parliament. Something of the Habsburg idea of supranational identity became a building block of the European project. Scandal and politics had separated Wilhelm and Otto in the 1930s. By the early twenty-first century, though, Otto issued statements that would surely have surprised Wilhelm. “In late 2004, he pronounced that the future of Europe would be decided in Kiev and Lviv. Otto had a point. Ukraine was the largest and most populous post-Soviet republic in Europe, a country the size of France with fifty million inhabitants. As such, it was the test of whether democracy could extend across post-communist Europe.” (p. 254)

Snyder is writing about the Orange Revolution, but it resonates more strongly now. Ordinary Ukrainians protested to force a re-run of an election that had been stolen in the Russian style. The main issue then, as now, was whether Ukraine could integrate more fully with the rest of Europe. “Unlike Ukrainian patriots at any other point in history, [the protestors] had powerful allies in the West. With the help of pressure from Europe and the United States and mediation from Poland, they succeeded.” (p. 255) One of the reasons Snyder cites for the protestors’ success can now be read with bitter irony: “It was their good fortune to live in a Europe where freedom could be pursued without violence.” (p. 256)

Wilhelm’s project, bizarre though it seemed at the time, has come to fruition. Seeing that Ukraine had to be made as well as chosen, he devoted himself to the work he called “Ukrainization.” Today the population of the country of Ukraine is indeed “Ukrainized,” in the sense that most citizens accept a Ukrainian national identity and believe in the future of a Ukrainian state. Almost a century after Wilhelm began to design a Ukrainian identity for himself, the country is the crucial democratic state of eastern Europe. With Russia lost to electoral autocracy and Poland safely ensconced in the European Union, Ukraine has become the hinge of European politics. (p. 259)

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