Archduke in an age of upheaval

Author Timothy Snyder conveys Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg's flamboyance and underlying sadness. Author Timothy Snyder conveys Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg's flamboyance and underlying sadness. (Michael Marsland)
By Judith Maas
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2008
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The life of the Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg (1895-1948) contains the ingredients for a best-selling novel, if not several - a royal upbringing, bravery in battle, father-son conflict, affairs with men and women, financial scandal, cloak-and-dagger escapades. The backdrops are suitably exotic, from a grand Viennese opera house to an Adriatic villa to seedy Parisian nightclubs.

Wilhelm's life was one of shifting roles and identities amid cataclysmic change; he had the misfortune and the challenge of being born into a great dynasty as its power and prestige were ebbing away. As the forces of nationalism challenged the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wilhelm fought to establish his place in a new Europe: friend, liberator, and benevolent ruler of the Ukrainian people.

In "The Red Prince," Timothy Snyder chooses an unlikely subject, for Wilhelm never achieved his ambitions. But his story illuminates less familiar aspects of the past century: the struggles of the smaller nations in Central and Eastern Europe; the Habsburgs' doomed vision of a peaceful balance between national aspirations and empire, their lingering hopes for restoration after 1918. At the same time, "The Red Prince" is a drama of self-reinvention: Wilhelm was forced by the eclipse of dynasty to forge his own identity and decide for himself what he might accomplish.

Snyder conveys the flamboyance of Wilhelm's life, and its underlying sadness. Wilhelm's political associations were sometimes unsavory, but Snyder makes them understandable by placing them in historical context; this aristocrat and monarchist emerges as surprisingly sympathetic, his devotion to the Ukrainian cause heartfelt rather than merely opportunistic.

He was the son of a naval officer and a Tuscan princess. Accepting the inevitability of nationalism, Wilhelm's father, Stefan, conceived the idea of his family becoming the enlightened rulers of dispossessed peoples - Poles and southern Slavs. Preparing to make his dream a reality, he moved the family in 1907 from an Adriatic island to an estate in Polish Galicia. From the start, he groomed his children to lead: They traveled, learned languages, and were addressed as "your imperial and royal highnesses."

Wilhelm proved the rebel; from an early age he identified with a different people, the Ukrainians, perennial rivals of the Poles. During World War I, he commanded a Ukrainian regiment and became "one of them": He spoke the language, mingled with soldiers and peasants, wore a Ukrainian embroidered shirt under his uniform. He never abandoned his vision of an independent Ukraine, even after the territory fell to the Soviets in 1921.

By then, Wilhelm had himself become a displaced person, his hopes shattered, his family name a burden. For years, he drifted. But to the end, he stayed loyal to the cause; we see him after World War II forging ties between Western intelligence agencies and Ukrainian nationalists. He died in a Soviet prison in 1948.

Snyder writes with a mission - to restore the Habsburgs to their rightful place in 20th- century history. In 1918, he notes, the defeated rulers were "denounced" as opponents of national self-determination; during the years of the Iron Curtain, their legacy fell into oblivion. Now, Snyder suggests, we have the chance to look afresh at the last 100 years, and he finds many echoes of the Habsburg past: the achievement of Ukrainian independence in 1991 and the integration of Europe. In "The Red Prince," a lost chapter of history becomes vivid and pertinent to our own times.

Judith Maas is a freelance writer and editor.

THE RED PRINCE: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke By Timothy Snyder

Basic, 336 pp., $27.95

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