- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008


By Timothy D. Snyder

Basic Books, $27.95, 320 pages, illus.


Yale Professor Timothy D. Snyder has written a compelling mini-tragedy, mini in the sense that it deals with the destruction of an individual and his aspiration to empire by the steamroller of history. Wilhelm von Habsburg sought a leadership role in Ukraine, which seemed feasible to him until World War I and the Versailles peace wiped out the Habsburg and Hohenzollern empires. Even then opportunities appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, but were extinguished by the aftermath of World War II and by his personal mistakes.

Wilhelm von Habsburg was a great-grandson of the great Archduke Karl von Habsburg who commanded Austrian forces against Napoleon and beat him at Aspern. Wilhelm and his cousin, the long-lived Emperor Franz Josef (1830-1916) and the huge tribe of Habsburgs were descendants of Empress Maria Theresa. They were soaked in the traditions, authority and obligations of their various sovereignties which included Austria, Spain, the Two Sicilies and the Balkans. They entertained shaky claims to the thrones of Poland and Ukraine.

The liquidation of the Habsburg empire at Versailles came when Wilhelm was 24 years old. He had commanded Ukrainian troops in World War I andhad done well. It was then that he was called the Red Prince because of his respectful and fraternal treatment of his troops, some thought overly socialistic. His taste for imperial responsibility, his affection for his Ukrainian brother soldiers and his father Stefan’s example set Wilhelm on a path that history would block.

After Versailles,Stefan looked at the opportunities for royals and settled upon Poland. Germany and the Habsburg monarchy had proclaimed a kingdom of Poland when the war was going their way, and there was some support for Stefan as king. This lent some encouragement to Wilhelm to use his Ukrainian contacts to open political possibilities for himself.

In 1918, Germany and Austria recognized a new Ukrainian Republic and agreed to create a Ukrainian royal principality in Galicia. Wilhelm’s role in this had been significant and he was, briefly, able to see a future for himself in Ukraine. But Germany was suspicious of the royal aspirations of the radical archduke and wanted to control Ukrainian production of food for the benefit of the German army. In September of 1918, after the Bolshevik revolution, chaos in Ulkraine and German efforts to get Wilhelm out of that country succeeded in forcing Wilhelm to go home. Ukraine became a republic and shortly the Habsburg empire ceased to exist.

Wilhelm then took up an aimless life in Paris and became part of the demimonde of expatriate aristocrats, homosexuals and adventurers. From relatives, including the exiled King Alfonso XIII of Spain (a notablyexpert golf, tennis and polo player), came periodic subventions that paid Wilhelm’s personal expenses.Wilhelm took up with one Paulette Couyba, who involved him, seemingly without his knowledge, in a carefully planned financial fraud. An investigation implicated Wilhelm and he fled the country.

The scandal poisoned his relations with the exiled Habsburg empress, Zita, and her son, Otto, who were working on possibilities for a Habsburg restoration that might allow a role for Wilhelm. He began to imagine that the growing Nazi movement might help his prospects in Ukraine. But Hitler was strongly anti-Habsburg and the Nazi press depicted Wilhelm as a decadent Parisian lowlife.

Nazi sentiment against the Habsburgs prompted Hitler to order the Habsburg estates confiscated, and compensation was paid to the owners. Wilhelm received a payment of about $9 million in today’s value. So he settled in relative comfort in the British occupation zone of Vienna. Here he ran a business of some kind and traded in intelligence regarding Soviet activities in Ukraine and Poland. In 1947, two of his companions in these activities were picked up by Soviet counterintelligence and identified Wilhelm and his activities.

In August, Wilhelm may have feared his time was coming to an end, and secretly headed for the Sudbahnhof, perhaps to flee Vienna, but was seized by Soviet soldiers, imprisoned and interrogated. A year later he died in captivity of tuberculosis. He was too old, in any event, to have lived to see today’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Wilhelm’s dreams of Ukrainian independence under Habsburg rule were denied by the juggernaut of history, but would likely have been derailed by his naivete, vanity, dissolute life style and his lack of experience in the hard world of politics. Zita and Otto never could fulfill their dreams of restoration and they were far abler and better organized than the Red Prince.

Children of imperial regimes lead cushioned lives and are not well prepared to cope with the sudden end of their orderedworld. A luminous exception is King Simeon II of Bulgaria who left his exile in Madrid a decade or so ago, returned to Sofia, was elected to a parliamentary seat and became prime minister. There he presided over a considerable rehabilitation of Bulgaria and its admission to NATO and the European Union. But nearly always the scenario for former royals is retirement or disaster. The story of the Red Prince is different chiefly in the contrast between his lofty aspirations and the low standards of his personal life.

Although nominally a biography of the Red Prince, the book deals extensively with the pretensions of his brother, Albrecht, and his father, Stefan in Poland, pretensions that were not in the cards and came to a sad end for them and their families. The upheavals of the two wars changed the political landscape far beyond the capacity of the Habsburgs to find a place for themselves.

These secondary stories, while interesting and well told, occupy much space. Perhaps the title of the book should have been different, to acknowledge the interplay at least among Stefan, Albrecht and Wilhelm. Mr. Snyder tells his story with impressive command of a complex history, though perhaps in excessive detail and with a fondness for the purple phrase.

David C. Acheson, a history buff, is a retired foreign policy analyst in Washington, D.C.

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