An odyssey through upheaval and identity: “The Red Prince” by Timothy Snyder9 min read

 In Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews

In The Red Prince, American historian Timothy Snyder portrays Eastern Europe’s wrenching upheavals during the first half of the 20th century by chronicling the fall of the continent’s most powerful dynasty and the rise of nationalism as seen through the eyes of a whimsical Habsburg prince.

Few people have lived a life as implausibly adventurous as Wilhelm von Habsburg. Born in 1895 into perhaps Europe’s most powerful and resilient dynasty, Wilhelm was the youngest of six children to the powerful Archduke Karl Stefan von Habsburg. Wilhelm lived a childhood of extraordinary privilege, growing up in a royal Austrian villa in present-day Croatia, being educated in six languages, and island-hopping on his father’s yacht. His life on the sunny and pleasant coast of the Adriatic would soon be traded for the Galician town of Żywiec on the northernmost edge of the empire. His father, and the rest of Wilhlem’s family, was to take on a new Polish identity in order to better rule over the Galician crown-lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Habsburgs embraced such “royal nationalism” as their solution to an era dominated by growing nationalist sentiments, recognising that if it was unavoidable, then it need not weaken the dynasty. The people of the empire could have a degree of political autonomy, speak their languages, practise their customs, but only under the watchful eye of the Habsburg dynasty. After all, to grant a nation state to every ethnic group within the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be disastrous; nationalist claims were often contradictory and would undoubtedly drag the empire into civil war. To prevent this, members of the Habsburg dynasty adopted certain identities to better rule their particular ‘nation’ by mastering their language, adopting local names, wearing national attire, and supporting national self-expression.

Wilhelm too was to rule over a certain ‘nation’ once he came of age. His father instilled in him a sense of Polish patriotism, hoping to combine a loyalty to both the Habsburg family and to the Polish nation. He was to become a Polish military officer, or perhaps a governor in support of his father’s potential reign over an independent, yet Habsburg-controlled Poland. But Wilhelm had other ideas. At the age of 17, intrigued by his father’s dislike of the mythical ‘Cossack’ people, Wilhelm travelled to the eastern realms of Habsburg Galicia, to the village of Vorokhta in the Carpathian Mountains. These lands were inhabited by Ukrainians, a group that had received little, if any, attention from the empire. Wilhelm spent time with them, learned their language, sang their songs, and danced their dances. For Wilhelm, to experience this was to experience Galicia, and the empire as a whole, anew. His father had chosen to rule Galicia by adopting a Polish identity, but in doing so ignored, and often belittled, the other ethnic groups of the province. Wilhelm thought to himself, if his father was to rule the Poles, why shouldn’t he rule the Ukrainians?

“At once innocent and jaded, [Wilhelm] had the luxury of rebelling against the very traditions he embodied. His father had made him Polish, so he decided to become Ukrainian. His father had wanted him to be an officer, and now he was a cadet preparing for a self-destructive war. Stefan had foreseen a world of nations, and now that world was upon them.” 

And thus began the adventures of Wilhelm von Habsburg, known to his Ukrainian followers as ‘Vasyl Vyshyvanyi,’ after the Ukrainian embroidered shirt he wore under his military uniform. Wilhelm would go on to become a colonel of the Habsburg Ukrainian Legion and aid the Ukrainians in cultivating a national identity as a bulwark against Russian expansionism during the First World War. He developed quite a reputation among his Ukrainian compatriots and villagers, who held him in extremely high-regard. He even caught the eyes of both Berlin and Vienna as the potential future king of Ukraine. This, of course, never came to fruition, and as the Habsburg and German empires collapsed, the Polish Republic took all of Galicia, the Soviet Union creeped westward, and Ukraine was left without a state. The Habsburg dynasty, which ruled for over 800 years, was gone, and the age of empire was dead.

“Ukraine had become the showpiece of the fiasco of the victors’ Europe. The allies wished for a Europe of national republics. The Ukrainian National Republic was precisely that, and yet its fate was constant bloodshed.” 

Wilhelm never abandoned his dream of a free Ukraine. In the years following the First World War, a state-less Wilhelm lived a scandalous life in inter-war Paris that attracted considerable tabloid attention. He flirted with women and men alike, was involved in multiple high-profile scams, and eventually became enamoured by Nazism in the run-up to the Second World War. Wilhelm embraced his ‘German blood,’ despite being an Austrian born in Croatia, raised to be Polish, and adopting a Ukrainian identity. At the same time, his brother, Albrecht von Habsburg, was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo for rejecting his racial identity. When Wilhelm realised that Ukraine’s independence would not be granted by the Nazis, he became disillusioned and joined the French intelligence services in spying for the Allies.

By the end of the war, Europe was in ruins and Wilhelm found himself in Soviet-occupied Vienna. A birthday party at his apartment got out of hand, police were called, and Wilhelm was promptly arrested by Soviet chekists and indicted on a multitude of bogus charges (including trying to become king of Ukraine more than two decades earlier, before the Soviet Union even existed). In 1947, he was sent to a prison in Kyiv, where he later died of suspected tuberculosis and was buried in an unmarked mass grave, forgotten to the winds of history never told.

“In 1918, Wilhelm had made camp on the steppe, waiting for the right moment to advance on Kyiv. Now the red prince had reached the city of his dreams, wearing a blindfold instead of a crown, borne to a dungeon rather than a throne. Imprisoned with fellow Ukrainians, men who knew of his adventures in 1918, he made no secret of his youthful dreams of being king. Once he had told the tale of his life a final time, in a second round of interrogations on Volodymyrska Street from January through April 1948, his story seemed to be over.” 

The Red Prince is a story, above all else, about identity. Snyder weaves together a grand historical narrative of the first half of Europe’s tumultuous 20th century, all without losing sight of his remarkable personal touch and respect for his historical characters. Wilhelm von Habsburg, like other members of his dynasty, were relics of a bygone era, forced to live in a new world that no longer needed them and rejected their very values, one where the ability to openly reject and adopt identities at will disappeared, and ethnic rigidity and racial pseudo-science reigned supreme. Violence is what forged the nations of modern Central and Eastern Europe.

Wilhelm’s life in some ways reflected the experience of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans, who were subject to decades of fluctuating borders and violent, nationalist ideologies. One could not possess a mixed Polish and Ukrainian identity; one had to do what one must to simply survive the brutality of war and totalitarianism, where self-identity was at many times the difference between life and death. As such, the two world wars brought about the death of the Habsburg vision of a multi-ethnic ‘European’ empire.

It is no coincidence that Snyder draws parallels between the Habsburg monarchy and the European Union. It could be argued that Wilhelm von Habsburg, along with the rest of the dynasty, could be regarded as close to ‘European’ as possible in the time period. In 1991, when Wilhelm’s beloved Ukraine finally (re)gained its independence, Otto von Habsburg, a cousin of Wilhelm’s, was an active member of the European Parliament. He called for European states to recognise the independence of Croatia and other Balkan states during the breakup of Yugoslavia, and in 2004 proclaimed, in the midst of the Orange Revolution, that “the future of Europe would be decided in Kyiv and Lviv.” Even the Habsburgs of today are at the forefront of pan-Europeanism; the current head of the dynasty, Karl von Habsburg, also a former member of the European Parliament, highlighted the need to accept the multiplicity of identity in modern-day Europe, particularly in light of a country with such a multicultural history as Ukraine entering the European zeitgeist.

It is quite remarkable to read this book, originally published in 2008, after the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014 and during the brutal full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. In many regards, Ukrainian statehood has only just been truly recognised on a European and global level. For far too long, Ukraine has been viewed as a sort of ‘play-thing’ for Western and Eastern powers to fight over; a ‘borderland.’ Internal Ukrainian issues were often framed in terms such as Ukrainian vs. Russian or West vs. East, reflecting the deeply entrenched view of an Eastern Europe defined by ethnicity and language.

Yet today, in the trenches of Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian and Russian speakers alike fight side-by-side for the same values. Thousands of foreign fighters have joined their ranks in defending the country in perhaps the most crucial test Europe has faced since the Second World War. Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Jew, leads his country in defence of values shared by all Europeans. Tvorchi, a Ukrainian and Nigerian-born pop-music duo, was sent to Eurovision to great critical and popular acclaim. There is no litmus test in Ukrainian society for ‘Ukrainian-ness.’ The Ukrainian nation is being defined and redefined every day by its people in a way that transcends the Europe of yesteryear. The Ukraine of today is most definitely a victory of the spirit dreamed of by Wilhelm and of the Habsburgian vision for a Europe that transcends national identity.

Wilhelm von Habsburg, despite his larger-than-life legacy, is a rather forgotten-about figure. A small bust of Wilhelm was unveiled in 2021 along one of Kyiv’s many chestnut-lined streets, not too far from the prison he died in. Yet through the often deeply personal words of Snyder, the whimsical and fascinating life of Wilhelm lives on. Snyder excels in weaving a grand historical narrative through the many wanderings of Wilhelm, taking the reader on a rollercoaster from soaring highs to terrifying lows and back again. Wilhelm’s life was no doubt filled with questionable decision-making and naivety that could only come about from an extraordinarily privileged royal upbringing, yet Snyder makes us connect with Wilhelm on a genuinely personal level, recognising and celebrating the effect that one man could have on not only the course of history, but also on the people around him. Wilhem’s story may be unique, but it is just one of many.

Book details: Snyder, Timothy, The Red Prince, 2009, Vintage Publishing. Buy it here.

Feature Image: Waterstones / Canva
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