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

The Red Prince

The Fall of a Dynasty and

the Rise of Modern Europe

Timothy Snyder

The Bodley Head 344pp 20 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 0 224 08152 8


This is not a book to be judged by its first few pages. The prologue begins: 'Once upon a time, a lovely young princess named Maria Krystyna lived in a castle.' Next paragraph: a Ukrainian colonel lies dead in a Soviet prison; his older brother has been tortured by the Nazis. Then we learn that all three are Hapsburgs. The two men are archdukes; the first, the Red Prince Wilhelm (1895-1948), zig-zagged in his political tendencies from nationalist left to Fascist right (with, unusually for a later Habsburg, a touch of anti-Semitism). He spied for the West against both Nazis and the Russians. We are told that 'he handled women for necessity and men for pleasure'. He wore 'the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and, every so often, a dress'.

The first chapter begins in December 1908. Snyder, a Professor of History at Yale, ponders the celebratory Festspiel at the Vienna Court Opera, written by Countess Thun-Salm and put on before Emperor Franz Josef to mark the 60th year of his rule.

There is more than a whiff in this book of the works of another countess, Catherine Radziwill, who from the 1880s to the 1930s poured out books mainly of gossip from the courts of Europe. In her The Austrian Court from Within (1916) she gives a head count of the Hapsburgs: thirty-one archdukes and fifty archduchesses. Published in the United States, where she was then living, it too lifted the stone on assorted 'scandals' in the dynasty, though Snyder, with his broad yet analytical tale, offers much more: ultimately he is in sympathy with the approach of the Hapsburgs to dilemmas that still face Europe.

Radziwill's 1916 book was a money maker, but also a contribution to the propaganda efforts of the Allies and of those Slavonic emigre groups in America (which had not yet entered the First World War). At that time Britain and France had not embraced the call of many nationalists for the break-up of the AustroHungarian empire.

The young Emperor Karl, who succeeded Franz Josef in late 1916, almost immediately put out peace feelers. He sensed that otherwise the empire would fragment into mostly ethnic states, as indeed happened in October 1918.

Snyder's book is full of episodic colour and personalities, particularly of Archduke Wilhelm. Truth here really is stranger than fiction. Alongside this human interest, he conveys also a sense of the complexity of overlapping 'nationalities' and the class conflicts within them. (The nobility of the empire wished to keep their power in the countryside, which they did most effectively in the highly gerrymandered Budapest Parliament. Austria had manhood suffrage, but chaos in the Parliament--usually of ethnic origin--led to frequent Imperial intervention.) All this Snyder puts in its international dimension. As he observes, the people of the empire were predominantly Slavs. His languages of research include Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Belorussian, underpinning this book with an impressive scholarly apparatus. Hardly a page is without a note referring to an archive, including Soviet interrogations and police reports, in Kiev, Moscow, Vienna, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw. His bibliography is massive and multilingual.

Snyder's interest in Eastern and Central Europe led him on the twisting trail of the Archduke. He credits Wilhelm's father, Archduke Stefan, with a 'powerful political imagination' in the naming of his sons. He speculates that they were baptised with names that would resonate as future regents in Hapsburg kingdoms, in the Balkans, and in Poland (for which Wilhelm was first intended). Stefan moved to Galicia, that part of partitioned Poland which was under Austria. But Wilhelm as a youth became fascinated by neighbouring Ukraine. In 1915, as a young second lieutenant, he requested a command within a predominantly Ukrainian regiment. He spoke the language, asked that he be called 'Vasyl' and identified with his troops. It was from this and because of his 'progressive' views that he came to be called the Red Prince.

According to the record of the Soviet interrogation of Willy in 1948, Franz Josef himself asked in 1912 that he study the Ukrainian question. In 1917, after the collapse of imperial Russia, a kingdom of Poland was proclaimed, though with its monarch unspecified. In early 1918 the Ukrainian National Republic was recognized. But Germany and the Hapsburgs had different long-term aims. The situation was souring and in early autumn 1918 Wilhelm left the Ukraine, only to return there to die in a Soviet prison thirty years later, having been kidnapped in Vienna by SMERSH, the Soviet military counterintelligence organization.

In his rackety life in between (including being sentenced in absentia to five years in prison by a Paris court for fraud, he never wavered about one thing: his sympathy for the Ukraine. In following his life--and that of some of his relatives--Snyder throws light on the complexity of the recent history of the eastern borders of Europe and offers food for thought to the European Union, which, he says, is in what might be called the Hapsburg position: 'without a national identity, yet fated to address the national question within its constituent parts, and along its borders'. The Hapsburgs were most successful when they tackled this, inside their domains, by 'tact, economic pressure, and the promise of bureaucratic jobs'. Snyder judges that, so far, Brussels has followed the same path and done rather well as a result.
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Author:Norton, Graham Grandall
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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