The Red Prince. The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of a Modern Europe

(London, The Bodley Head, 2008). 344 pp. ISBN 978-0-224-08152-8


Reviewed by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, University of Hamburg


In order to show how modernity challenged one of the perhaps most conservative of the great European families, the Habsburgs, Timothy Snyder chose an interesting case example: the bisexual Ukrainian patriot Wilhelm von Habsburg. In ten chapters, arranged in a series of colors, beginning with Habsburg gold and ending with the color orange that came into vogue through the revolutionary unrest in the Ukraine in 2004, Snyder presents an unknown chapter in Habsburg family history, and at the same time Ukrainian history—written in an elegant narrative, although occasionally lapsing into nostalgia.

 In the chapter ‘GOLD. The Emperor’s Dream’, Snyder explores the history of the Habsburg monarchy and the question of how this multi-ethnic imperial state was challenged by modernity and nationalism. In the chapter ‘BLUE. Childhood at Sea’, Snyder looks at Wilhelm’s childhood and the plan of his father Stefan, according to which Wilhelm was to inherit the throne of the future Polish state. To that envisioned end, William and his siblings were taught English, French, Italian and Polish as well.In addition, Stefan derived his lineage from the imagined title of the ‘Count of Żywiec’. In 1907, he  ‘proclaimed the family’s Polishness’ (p. 49) and moved with the family to an inherited new palace in Żywiec, complete with a brewery well-known and loved down to the present day, located in the west of Galicia, the most backward province in the Habsburg monarchy (pp. 46-49). The chapter ‘GREEN. Oriental Europe’ centers on the strategy of the marriages that Stefan’s daughters made with Polish aristocrats.Eleonore was the only one to reject this family policy, marrying the ‘handsome’ German sailor Alfons Kloss instead of a Polish nobleman, in a manner quite untypical of the Habsburgs (pp. 59-64).

The dramaturgy of ‘RED. Prince at Arms’ is already manifest in the preceding chapter, where Snyder describes how dissatisfied the young rebellious ‘Willi’ was with the marriages of his sisters, and the way this contributed to his enthusiasm for the Ukrainian nation, which felt oppressed by the Polish nation, and in particularly Polish nobility. Following the flow of that enthusiasm, Wilhelm decided to be a Ukrainian rather than Polish Habsburg(p. 68). The Ukrainians taught him Ukrainian songs and stories (p. 98) and gave him the Ukrainian nickname Vasyl’ Vyshyvanyi (Vasyl’ the Embroidered), derived from an embroidered shirt Wilhelm was accustomed to wearing under his uniform, and which down to the present is considered typically ‘Ukrainian’ by Ukrainian nationalists and lovers of folklore (p. 95). Wilhelm also entered West Ukrainian political mythology by this name. In the city of Lviv, for example, a square was named after the ‘the Embroidered,’ where down to today there stands an empty pedestal without a monument. In the last section of the book, the non-colored ‘Epilogue,’ this prompts Snyder to calling on the citizens of Lviv to place a corresponding statue on the pedestal, a statement that extends subtly beyond the scholarly framework of the study (pp. 272f.).

Wilhelm’s military and political commitment on behalf of the idea of the Ukrainian nation, and his dreams to become the king of the Ukraine, comprise the central topic in the ‘red’ and ‘grey’ chapters. The project ‘Ukraine’ was doomed to failure because, among other reasons, American, British and French diplomats who introduced a new political order in Europe after World War I were simply unfamiliar with the Ukraine, and thus thought the idea of a Ukrainian state was a German intrigue (p. 122). Without abandoning Ukrainian nationalism, after the war Wilhelm waxed enthusiastic in pursuing the establishment of a monarchy, which Snyder associates with the color white. The front page of a newspaper he published after World War I showed a Ukrainian farmer with hammer and sickle, accompanied by the slogan:  ‘Ukrainians of all countries unite!’(p. 143). Not surprisingly, the antagonistic nationalisms had a correspondingly negative impact on the relation between the rebellious Ukrainian patriot Wilhelm and his patriotically Polish father Stefan(pp. 134-135).

Snyder fashions the color ‘lilac’ into the symbol of Paris, the city where after World War IWilhelm lived out his bisexuality in such a massive way that as a result of a political affair with a romantic background, he was arrested in 1934, and after a scandal in the media where the house of Habsburg was depicted as the epitome of depravity, he was forced to leave the city. Wilhelm spent the following years in the ‘brown’ metropolis of fascist Vienna, which he greatly valued, in significant measure because it was in keeping with his Ukrainian nationalism. After World War I, the Ukrainian nationalists were heavily oriented to fascism, harboring the hope of liberating their homeland at the side of Nazi Germany and other fascist states. For Wilhelm and the Ukrainain nationalists, fascism at this juncture spelled the prospect of national independence. (pp. 194f., 197).

The chapter ‘BROWN. Aristocratic Fascists’ is followed by ‘BLACK. Against Hitler and Stalin’, which deals with the war against the two leaders.Initially, World War II brought misfortune upon the Polonized branch of the Habsburg family: the Nazis considered them traitors to the German race (p. 209) and consequently expropriated their assets. However, Wilhelm and his sister Eleonore, who were regarded as ‘racially German’ by the National Socialist bureaucrats, received generous indemnification for their expropriated property (pp. 211f.). In 1942, Wilhelm, like many other Ukrainian nationalists, lost his faith in fascism: in part it was the fate of his family, in part the tactically motivated recognition that the Nazis would lose the war, which turned Wilhelm into a belated opponent of National Socialism (pp. 215-217). However, it is less likely that Wilhelm’s political turn of heart was in response to the mass murders of Jews, Poles and non-nationalist Ukrainians, whom the OUN and UPA ‘cleansed’ from the western Ukraine in World War II, an aspect which Snyder unfortunately does not develop. Yet a critically minded historian should not ignore the question of how Wilhelm reconciled these mass crimes by the Ukrainian fascist movement with his own Ukrainian identity, assuming that Wilhelm was indeed properly informed about these events. From 1944 on living in Vienna, Wilhelm assisted the OUN and other Ukrainian nationalists who, in the face of the looming defeat of the Third Reich, were looking for new sources of assistance, and thus sought to establish contact with the Allies (pp. 222f.).

In the final chapter ‘ORANGE. European Revolutions,’Snyder describes how in December 1947 in Vienna Wilhelm was abducted by Soviet agents because of his cooperation with Ukrainian nationalists, and then tried and convicted by a Soviet tribunal on the grounds of his Ukrainian nationalism. He subsequently was taken to a prison in Kiev where interrogations continued. However, World War III—which Wilhelm apparently fervently desired after his abduction, hoping this would bring an end to his suffering behind Soviet bars—did not erupt. Wilhelm died on 18 August 1948 of tuberculosis in Soviet captivity, and his death was doubtless caused by the catastrophic conditions prevalent at the time in Soviet prisons.

The remaining section of the orange chapter is dedicated to European events after Wilhelm’s death. One of these is the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine in 2004, which Snyder sees as ‘the most important defence of democracy in the Europe of the early twenty-first century’(p. 257). Unfortunately, Snyder completes ignores the fact that this revolution not only gave rise and impetus to democracy but also to nationalism, and at the same time celebrated West Ukrainian nationalism as the supposedly democratic element in Ukrainian culture.

In sum, we can note that Snyder narrates and illuminates the history of Wilhelm of Habsburg in a compelling way. His treatment points the reader to important questions of European history that often are given but marginal consideration. Focusing on the example of the Habsburg family, the author succeeds in describing plausibly and vividly how the ideology of nationalism can pose intellectual and moral limits on human thinking, leaving the human agent bereft of universalism and prone to degeneration. Perhaps this study would have been more successful if Snyder had managed to reign in his feelings of nostalgia somewhat more, had written more ‘against the grain’ so to speak, and had made use of theoretical approaches grounded on heterogeneity, plurality and identity.[1] Then the nationalisms and ‘national identities’ dealt with here would not take on the form of quasi-natural, authentic and unambiguous entities, which can be acquired and consumed like commodities in a supermarket by individuals through learning the language, adopting the customs and nurturing an enthusiasm for the national folklore of a people. Yet even with these minor deficiencies, The Red Prince, or Der König der Ukraine in its excellent German version,[2] is a substantial ‘contribution to historiography and a sensitive and compellingly written monograph.


Translated from the German by Bill Templer 

Originally appeared in German on H-Soz-u-Kult Reproduced in translation by permission.

[1]  Moritz Csaky, ‘Pluralitaet. Bemerkungen zum ‘dichten System’  der zentraleuropaeischen Region’, in: Neohelicon 23 (Budapest-Amsterdam 1996), pp. 9-30, here pp. 9-11; Moritz Csaky, Ideologie der Operette und Wiener Moderne, Vienna: Boehlau, 1998, p. 249.

[2]Timothy Snyder, Der König der Ukraine. Die geheimen Leben des Wilhelm von Habsburg, trans. B. Hilzensauer. Vienna: Paul ZsolnayVerlag, 2009.