The Red Prince, by Timothy Snyder

How the dandy turned hero as Europe burned
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The Independent Culture

A character in one of Karl Kraus's satires once described the sitaution of the Habsburg Empire as "desperate, but not serious". I was reminded of this when reading Tim Snyder's riotous and engrossing The Red Prince: the fall of a dynasty and the rise of modern Europe. Who can resist a hero, Wilhelm von Habsburg, who "could handle a sabre, a pistol, a rudder, or a golf club" and who "handled women by necessity and men for pleasure". Or his relative, the Archduke Ludwig Viktor – known as "Lutziwutzi" among his many close friends – who wore skirts and was exiled to a castle near Salzburg in order to get him away from the capital's bath houses? Or the tragic Mechtildis, who went up in smoke with her dress, attempting to conceal a cigarette from her father?

So if Snyder's book is sometimes a little overwritten, especially in the opening chapters, this may be excused by the intrinsically over-wrought nature of his subject matter. Still, was it really necessary to compare the shape of Austria to that of a "voluptuous woman sitting on a rock", or to write that "every national revolution, like every bout of lovemaking, owes something to the one that came before"? On the other hand, there are also some very felicitous passages, including neat wordplays on the relative Habsburg skill in war and marriage.

In any case, the most important choices and identities analysed in this study were not sexual but national. Wilhelm von Habsburg – who belonged to a collateral branch of the imperial family in Vienna – made history by embracing the Ukrainian national cause, at that time the most unglamorous on offer, at least compared with that of the more aristocratic Poles and Hungarians.

In part, this was typical Habsburg strategy. Most of the empire's many nationalities had some form of patron in the family; it was a way of hedging against irredentist tendencies. In part, it was sibling rivalry: his elder brother, the Archduke Albrecht, had opted for the more fashionable Poles, with whom the Ukrainians were bitterly contesting the Habsburg province of Galicia. But Wilhelm's choice seems primarily to have been made out of genuine affection for his new people, whose language he learned, whose uniform he wore and whose cause he defended with passion, if not always wisdom.

This sincerity was to be sorely tested in the 20 years after the end of the First World War. For the Ukrainian people were to experience if not the most intense, then perhaps the most prolonged via dolorosa of the mid-20th century. Wilhelm was forced to look on impotently as the new state was partitioned between a resurgent Poland to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. In his despair, Wilhelm turned to a sinister assortment of businessmen, proto-fascist politicians, and military adventurers, most of them German.

He became the ancient mariner of the émigré circuit, button-holing anyone who cared to listen in support of armed insurrection in Ukraine. When none of these schemes bore fruit, and as the Ukrainian people groaned under Stalinist oppression and man-made famines, Wilhelm took up with the Nazis.

He, who had previously never had a bigoted bone in his body, began to spout the anti-Semitic phrases of the day. When his brother's estates in Poland went down to the Nazis in 1939, Wilhelm could see only the opportunity for a Ukrainian national revival under the auspices of the Third Reich.

He was to be disappointed once again. The Nazis were prepared to use Ukrainian collaborators, but they had no intention of allowing the reconstitution of an independent state on an equal basis.

Stationed well away from the action in Vienna, Wilhelm turned against Hitler and, in the final stages of the war, provided valuable intelligence to the allies at considerable risk to himself. Subsequently, he was abducted by Soviet intelligence from Vienna and died in custody from tuberculosis in Kiev in 1948. It is a grim story, and Snyder is to be congratulated for bringing his formidable linguistic and archival skills to bear on a man who was born Austro-Hungarian, became Ukrainian and was, in many ways, wholly European.

There is a happy end of sorts. As Snyder notes in his part-elegiac, part-eulogistic conclusion, an independent Ukraine emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in. In the recent Orange Revolution, Ukrainian democrats prevailed, "warming the air and the cobblestones by making bilingual love in their orange tents". Today, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv – which a younger Wilhelm would have called Lemberg – there is a small square named after him. If there is ever a monument erected to Wilhelm on the empty platform in the middle, then he will surely have Tim Snyder to thank for the honour.

Brendan Simms's 'Three Victories and a Defeat' is published by Penguin