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 kingdom could peacefully reside within some sort of decentralized Habsburg realm. The restoration of independent Poland would give his otherwise rather pointless life some direction, and would secure the future of his family too.

Stefan studied Polish, and made his children study it too. Eventually, he would marry off two of his daughters to Polish aristocrats, and convince his oldest son to remain in Poland as well. The family would live on an estate in Z ywiec, just south of Kraków, and manage a famous Polish brewery in the town. In the meantime, however, he raised them all far away from Poland on the Adriatic island of Lo inj. Thus the “Polish Habsburgs” spent their childhoods in a place where the air was “laden with the scents of orange and citron-trees, roses and mimosa,” in the words of the family’s English governess, and where they were given an education thought to be fit for modern monarchs:

Just as they had been wet-nursed by local women to dilute, as their governess put it, “any too much blue blood,” so they were taught by people believed to represent the more vigorous classes. The children rose each day at 6:00, had mass at 7:00, lessons at 8:00, a sandwich and a glass of wine at 10:00 (even the small children always had wine), a walk speaking a foreign language at 11:00, lunch at 12:00 with more wine, then tennis or skating, then tea and cakes at 3:30, lessons at 3:45, and dinner at 7:00.

Aside from all of that, the children dressed for every meal, with the help of their maids and valets, and entered rooms in order of precedence. On their father’s birthday, they each had to write him a letter in a different language.

Yet Stefan von Habsburg made, in the end, a mistake repeated by many parents: he educated his children for the wrong era. Though he raised them to be thoroughly modern monarchs, they were quickly to find themselves living in a time in which monarchs, modern or otherwise, were no longer entirely welcome, at least in Eastern Europe.


Wilhelm did nevertheless follow in his father’s footsteps, up to a point. His form of adolescent rebellion was a decision to attach himself not to Poland, as his siblings had and as his father wished, but to Ukraine, an even dicier prospect. As a child he had read With Fire and Sword, the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic description of the seventeenth-century rebellion of the Ukrainian Cossacks against their Polish overlords. Sympathizing with the Ukrainian underdogs, he made a trip, aged seventeen, to seek out the “barbarian” Ukrainians of eastern Galicia. Though they were not the “wild men in skins” he was expecting, he found he could communicate with them in Polish, enjoyed their company and their songs, and resolved to become their king. The idea appealed to the emperor and the Habsburg bureaucrats, and Wilhelm began to study Ukrainian.

But time was moving; World War I broke out, wreaking unexpected, catastrophic destruction. While it raged, Wilhelm pursued the Ukrainian throne, among other things forging a friendship with Andrii Sheptytsky, the metropolitan of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; commanding a Ukrainian legion; and donning a Cossack cap. His efforts came to naught, as did those of his father.

For as hard as they had tried to stay ahead of the times, they still could not keep up. The great empires of Central Europe had finally crumbled by 1918, victims of the war’s sheer destructive violence. The institution of the monarchy died along with them. Poland became a republic, and did not want a king. Ukraine was conquered by the Bolsheviks, subjected to mass terror and repression, and became a part of the Soviet Union. And Wilhelm slipped away into the murky world of the “White” anti-Bolshevik struggle, which gradually merged into the even murkier world of fascism.

Snyder perhaps is at his best depicting this most colorful period in Wilhelm’s life. He cheerfully describes his hero’s homosexual and heterosexual escapades, one of which ended in a tabloid scandal in Paris. He also describes the various Habsburg revanchist clubs, parties, and secret societies in which Wilhelm participated. Amazing minor characters people this era: out-of-pocket aristocrats, adventurers, swindlers, “valets” who are in fact their master’s lovers. Some have almost improbable life stories: Trebitsch Lincoln, one of Wilhelm’s acquaintances, was a Hungarian Jew who took up with Christian missionaries in London, was elected to the House of Commons, backed a scheme to drill for oil in Galicia, went bankrupt, became a German spy during World War I, and then moved to Germany where he became an anti-British, proto-fascist journalist, fanning German anger about the Treaty of Versailles.

Snyder treats all of his material in a somewhat droll manner, usually making no more of Wilhelm than he made of himself. Though the young archduke continued to pursue his royal heritage, he seems to have known the chances were small. “Only in romance novels,” Wilhelm said in 1932, “do people still use their titles.” At another point, Snyder writes of his hero that “his life’s mission, when he was not in a brothel or on the beach, was to rescue the suffering Ukrainian people from the rule of the Bolsheviks.” Whole absurd paragraphs of the story read almost like the deadpan prose of Evelyn Waugh. Snyder writes, for example, of Wilhelm’s cousin and friend the deposed King Alfonso of Spain, who was

indeed an excellent sportsman (not only polo but golf and tennis) and the sponsor of soccer clubs (among them Réal Madrid); he was also the father of ten children (seven legitimate) and the sponsor of three films (all pornographic). Like his cousin Wilhelm, he liked, as people said at the time, to motor.

At another point, he describes one of Wilhelm’s business schemes:

He brought a group of rich American speculators to Madrid to invest in a real estate project. He was absolutely fastidious about the lodging arrangements (the Ritz and the Savoy) but totally unreliable about everything else…. Then he suddenly went off to Barcelona with some friends, gave an incorrect forwarding address, and left his associates and the Americans to pick up the pieces.

In a novel, this would have all ended farcically, and Wilhelm would have finished his life somewhere in Monte Carlo, a doddery old pretender to a nonexistent throne, surrounded by scheming retainers. Except that he didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t. This was Central Europe in the twentieth century, after all, and the rapid expansion of both fascism and communism meant that anyone who played political games, however amateurishly, risked being taken very seriously indeed.


World War II broke out, and with it came financial and moral catastrophe for the “Polish Habsburgs.” Wilhelm’s older brother, Albrecht von Habsburg, who had inherited the family’s Z ywiec estate, was imprisoned by the Gestapo because he refused to renounce his adopted Polish identity. His wife, Alice von Habsburg, born a Swedish aristocrat, also told her Nazi captors that she belonged “to the community of Poles,” adding that “when I am asked about National Socialism, I can only respond that I reject it. The reason for that is the lack of individual freedom.” For that, she spent time in a labor camp too.

Another sister-in-law, Maja von Habsburg, became the subject of a dispute within the Nazi hierarchy, eventually involving Hitler himself, about whether Habsburgs were in fact German, and, if not, whether their property could be confiscated by the state. In fact, the family’s flexible attitude toward nationality deeply confused the Nazis, who believed that “nation was race and that race was biological and thus to be determined by science, which in practice meant by the state.” Here were a family of tall, blond German-speakers, who somehow didn’t want to be German, and certainly didn’t want to be Nazis. How to explain it? One Gestapo report harrumphed that Albrecht’s life was “one long betrayal of Germanness, one that excludes him forever from the community of Germans.”

Wilhelm, ever the chameleon, at first tepidly embraced the Nazis. He joined the Wehrmacht, apparently imagining himself marching into Kiev as the leader of a puppet state. When it finally dawned on him that the Nazis were interested neither in him nor in Ukrainian independence, he became disillusioned and switched sides again. He began collaborating with British intelligence from inside Vienna, reporting on German troop movements and possibly providing other information as well. Another parade of improbable characters now appeared in his story: a Ukrainian music student who was a passionate Ukrainian nationalist and spy, for example, and a Ukrainian cook and cleaner who was in fact a courier for the infamous Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which was at war with both the Nazis and the Red Army simultaneously.

As the war drew to an end, he expanded those contacts. Believing that the Ukrainians would stand a better chance, this time around, if they had direct contacts with the West, Wilhelm was drawn back into the games he had played after the previous world war. This time he put his Ukrainian wartime friends in touch with French intelligence, and for a while they played cat and mouse with SMERSH, the Soviet counterespionage service, which was scouring Europe for anti-Soviet activists and was particularly active in Vienna. It was a dangerous game, and in 1947 they lost it. Wilhelm and other suspected Ukrainian nationalist agents, including the music student, were arrested in Vienna by Soviet soldiers, who at that time still shared occupation of the city with the Allies.

Wilhelm was interrogated for a year, first in Baden, where he had come as a young man to take the waters, then in Lviv. Finally, he was put on trial in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital he had never visited, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. Six days later, he died of tuberculosis and probably of mistreatment as well. Thus, writes Snyder, did the “blue eyes that had seen Franz Josef in his glory at the Court Opera in 1908 close upon a view of rusty bed frames and cracked concrete walls.”

The Soviets refused to acknowledge his death, keeping alive rumors of his imprisonment into the 1950s. And the Austrian government concluded that since he had never renounced his claim on the Habsburg throne, as Austrian law requires, he could not be an Austrian citizen either, so his fate was no business of theirs. The Habsburgs faded into folklore and Wilhelm’s name became a historical footnote, remembered by only a few students of Ukrainian history and the odd wild-eyed monarchist.

Perhaps because Wilhelm’s odd life ended so tragically, Snyder is clearly tempted to see in his biography something rosier, a harbinger of what was to come. He ends his account of Wilhelm von Habsburg’s life with a description of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the moment when what he calls “Wilhelm’s project,” an independent Ukraine, finally came into existence. This is, perhaps, a touch overromantic. Though he is absolutely right to put modern Ukraine in a historical context, and to describe post-Orange Ukraine as “an example of the most recent group of European national unifications, after Italy and Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia in the first half of the twentieth,” it’s harder to see that Wilhelm von Habsburg had much to do with it. Wilhelm’s vision, after all, was of a Ukrainian kingdom, liberated by force, ruled by himself, somehow still loyal to the old aristocratic values.

By contrast, those Ukrainians that joined the demonstrations in Kiev in 2004 did so in the name of a Ukrainian democracy, which is something rather different. They aspire to the European Union, not the Habsburg Empire, and they want to achieve “liberation,” or anyway self-determination, not through military action but through civic action. Their greatest enemy is not the military power of the Nazis or the Bolsheviks, but the seductive lure of Russian oil money, which is already powerful enough to have recently divided their country’s pro-Western coalition in two. Snyder regrets that so few contemporary Ukrainians know much about Wilhelm von Habsburg, but I don’t think that is an accident. Nothing about him, or about the political universe he inhabited, would have any appeal in modern Ukraine. And surely that is the point: in his own time, he was already an anachronism, fighting for a way of life that had already vanished. That’s why his story seems so laughable, before it becomes so tragic.

Snyder is more convincing when he places Wilhelm’s story not in the politics of contemporary Ukraine, but in the context of more general contemporary arguments about nations and nationalism. For the most striking thing about this story is indeed how flexible, in the end, the national identities of all the main characters turn out to be, and how admirable this flexibility comes to seem. Wilhelm is born Austrian, raised to be a Pole, chooses to be Ukrainian, serves in the Wehrmacht as a German, becomes Ukrainian again out of disgust for the Nazis—and loses his life for that decision. His brother Albrecht chooses to be a Pole, as does his wife, even when it means they suffer for it too. And it mattered: at that time, the choice of “Polishness” or “Ukrainianness” was not just a whim, but a form of resistance to totalitarianism.

These kinds of choices are almost impossible to imagine today, in a world in which “the state classifies us, as does the market, with tools and precision that were unthinkable in Wilhelm’s time,” as Snyder puts it. We have become too accustomed to the idea that national identity is innate, almost genetic. But not so very long ago it was possible to choose what one wanted to be, and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. In sacrificing that flexibility, something has been lost. Surely, writes Snyder,

the ability to make and remake identity is close to the heart of any idea of freedom, whether it be freedom from oppression by others or freedom to become oneself. In their best days, the Habsburgs had a kind of freedom that we do not, that of imaginative and purposeful self-creation.

And that is perhaps the best reason not to make fun of the Habsburgs, or at least not to make fun of them all the time. Their manners were stuffy, their habits were anachronistic, their reign endured too long, they outlived their relevance. But their mildness, their flexibility, their humanity, even their fundamental unseriousness are very appealing, in retrospect—especially by contrast with those who sought to conquer Central Europe in their wake.