Book Review: The Red Prince, by Timothy Snyder

The remarkable history of a forgotten Habsburg Prince whose life, both in sovereign and spirit, knew no bounds

Man Without a Country

Internationals new to Austria often find it comical that portraits of the Emperor Franz Josef still grace the walls of cafés and hotel lobbies in Vienna and are for sale at every souvenir stand. After all, he died nearly a century ago in 1916 in the middle of The Great War, and while the longest reigning emperor (68 years), he wasn’t even the last. It was his nephew Karl who stewarded the twilight of the monarchy.

Now at the 20-year anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall that signaled the reopening of Central and Eastern Europe to the West, this attachment begins slowly to make more sense.

This was Vienna’s universe and in the perspective of Habsburg Vienna, even the wrenching agonies of the 20th century are only another wrinkle in time. With the expansion of the European Union, Austria is now again part of the confederation of territories many of which were at one time or another, in part or whole, Habsburg crown lands, and whose identities and traditions are deeply embedded in the Austrian soul.

But it’s been a long time. All those years behind the Iron Curtain dropped a veil of forgetfulness, a kind of willful ignorance, perhaps, of the details of these relationships, of the shared history in all but its broadest strokes. In retrospect history has a way of appearing inevitable.

However, a highly engaging new biography of a little know Habsburg prince by Yale historian Timothy Snyder does much to sweep this veil aside and put face and character on a rich new chapter of the final years of the ancien regime. The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe chronicles the life of Wilhelm von Habsburg, the youngest son of Archduke Stefan, a younger son of a younger son of Emperor Leopold II, who was the younger brother of Josef II and third son of the Empress Maria Theresa.

Wilhelm embodied the dynasty’s pan-European ideal: Raised on the Adriatic coast, he learned Italian from his mother, also Maria Theresa, a Habsburg Princess of Tuscany, and German from his Moravian-born arch-duke father; he was taught Polish to feed his father’s territorial ambitions and learned Ukrainian to pursue his own; he also spoke the French that was the language of diplomacy and the English of the friends of his years in exile.

Wilhelm’s story begins on the island of  Losinj, in what is now Croatia. His father loved the sea took the family by boat around the Meditarranean, to Istanbul and Malta, and the lands of North Africa. As a teenager, ‘Willy’ went to live with an uncle in Vienna and attended military school in Wiener Neustadt. By the age of 20, he was sent on his first mission to Ukraine, where his informality and charm won the loyalty of the men under his command.

This is a remarkable telling in many, many ways. Much of it is new and not just to English-speaking readers. An Austrian colleague in the thick of the German language edition as we speak, reports being as astonished as this reader at some of the sub-plots in the shifting terrain of the politics of The Great War, and of the sustained efforts of these Habsburg princes to manage an evolution to a sort of commonwealth-style monarchy to accommodate the nationalist aspirations of Central European peoples.

What is also notable is the length of the perspective. None of this was even remotely whimsical: The Habsburgs planned in generations – no 5-year plans or four year election cycles, much less quarterly reports – and raised their children and grand children to the languages and cultures they planned for them to lead. Their idea of governing was not a poker game of short-term strategies for power, but the kind of long-term commitments that involved an identity, family and even self, a deep sense of culture and obligation sustained for one’s entire lifetime and beyond. This was an understanding of dynasty that made other European royal houses look like arrivistes.

What is also striking is the reminder of how undecided the progress of history is while it is going on. By August of 1915, for example, negotiations of the Austrians and the Germans allies initially brought agreement that the Polish territories captured from Tsarist Russia would become a kingdom under the Habsburgs; Wilhelm’s father Stefan, who had founded a Polish royal house by marrying his two older sons into Polish nobility and was close to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, was the obvious choice to become the first king.

But the 84-year-old Franz Josef hesitated, uneasy about the shared power, and the chance was lost. A year later, Poland had become part of the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm’s vision for an expanded German realm and a Habsburg monarchy led by its German-speaking minority – in direct contradiction to the Habsburgs’ own intentions to strengthen their Slavic identity.

Equally fascinating was Wilhelm von Habsburg’s success in winning the loyalty of an army of neo-Cossacks in Sich, and by defending the rights of peasants to keep their land, earning himself the status of folk-hero.

But there are so many chapters to this completely absorbing tale, leading through bivouac and boudoir, spying, secrecy and scandal. It is also a tale of a chameleon, a man who at various times in his life could have best been described as Italian, Polish or Ukranian, who tried to become a French citizen, and later insisted (successfully) he was racially German and deserved the rights of citizenship under National Socialism – thus enabling him to reclaim a large measure of the family fortune.

After World War II, and years of spying for the Allies – first against Hitler and then against Stalin – he was arrested in Vienna by the Soviets and smuggled off to Kiev where he was interrogated as a traitor.

On August 12, 1948, he was convicted of many of the acts of which he was probably most proud: of aspiring to be king of Ukraine in 1918, of leading the Free Cossacks in 1921; and of serving in British and French intelligence during and after the war. “Soviet law was retroactive and extraterritorial,” Snyder explains, “reaching backwards across the decades to a time before the Soviet Union, and outwards to territories over which Moscow had never exercised sovereignty.”

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and died six days later from the tuberculosis his jailors declined to treat.

So why have we never heard of him? Transcending nation, ideology or era, Wilhelm belonged to an idea of Central Europe that had ceased to exist. In the new Austria of the 1950s he was an inconvenient memory; in the Ukraine he symbolized a nationalist spirit whose constituency had all but ceased to exist.

It has taken 50 years and a remarkable feat of historical detective work, to bring this transcendent European back to life.

The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe
by Timothy Snyder
Vintage, 2009

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