Laughable and Tragic

Perhaps it was the elaborate court rituals, perhaps it was the stiff manners of the royal family, or perhaps it was the swiftness of the final collapse: for whatever reason, even the most tragic tales of the latter years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire often lapse into black humor. Here, for example, is Joseph Roth’s depiction of the Emperor Franz Josef in the twilight of his reign, reviewing the troops in a provincial town:

He no longer felt like inspecting the ranks, but he probably had to, lest people notice how much his own age had shocked him. His eyes were once more fixed on the distance, as they generally were, where the edges of infinity had come a little closer. He failed to notice, therefore, that a crystalline drop had appeared on the end of his nose, and that everyone was staring in helpless fascination at this drop, which finally, finally, fell into the thick silver moustache and there disappeared from view.

And everyone felt relieved. And the march past could begin.1

And here is how Robert Musil imagines that His Highness would word an invitation to the “Committee for the Drafting of a Guiding Resolution with Reference to the Jubilee Celebrations of the Seventieth Anniversary of His Majesty’s Accession to the Throne”:

What brings us together in this gathering…is our agreement on the question that a mighty demonstration rising out of the midst of the people must not be left to chance, but calls for far-sighted influence from a quarter with a broad general view, in other words, and influence from above….2

And so on, through three similarly tongue-in-cheek volumes.

Unlike novelists, historians are not usually inclined to humor or absurdity. A few jokes are allowed, but most historians of late Austria-Hungary dissect the empire’s various national conflicts, ponder the political machinations of the time, and debate the causes of its dissolution. With a certain amount of bravado, Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in Europe’s eastern borderlands, has now bucked that tradition. His new book, The Red Prince, is in a deep sense not humorous at all: it ends in profound tragedy. But it is a book about a fundamentally silly man—though one whose escapades, both humorous and tragic, are emblematic of his era.

Snyder’s unlikely hero is Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg, a descendant of Empress Maria Teresa, a cousin of Emperor Franz Josef, and an aristocrat educated in the spirit of imperial decline. By the time of his birth in 1895, Austria-Hungary was already teetering on the edge of dissolution and Wilhelm’s father, Archduke Stefan, was preparing for the denouement. Observing the rise of Central European nationalism all around him, Stefan decided to join the nations of Central Europe instead of fighting them. He became fixated on the idea that Poland, which had been divided among three countries at the end of the eighteenth century, could be reunited; that he could become Poland’s king; and that this new…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.