This is the story of a very unusual man. ‘Wilhelm von Habsburg,’ Timothy Snyder tells us, ‘wore the uniform of an Austrian officer, the court regalia of a Habsburg archduke, the simple suit of a Parisian exile, the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and, every so often, a dress. He could handle a sabre, a pistol, a rudder, or a golf club; he handled women by necessity and men for pleasure. He spoke the Italian of his archduchess mother, the German of his archduke father, the English of his British royal friends, the Polish of the country his father wished to rule, and the Ukrainian of the land he wished to rule himself.’
It is also a chapter in the history of that land, a bizarre chapter in which the Habsburg monarchy is seen clutching at nationalist straws in the hope of averting imperial meltdown. It is a story of confusion and misunderstanding, of idealism transformed into opportunism as patriots with no guns tried to take rides on the backs of great powers, and it provides a fascinating insight into the history of that part of Europe from an entirely new perspective.
Wilhelm dreamt of joining that part of the Habsburgs’ Polish province of Galicia in which Ukrainians predominated to the rest of Ukraine (then part of the Russian empire) and turning the whole into a kingdom in which he would reign. Had the Central Powers embraced this idea during the first world war, the course of history might have been very different. But when the area did fall into their hands, in 1918, and Wilhelm, in command of an Austro-Ukrainian army in the south, was poised for his coronation, the Germans installed their own puppet government in Kiev.
When, after the end of the Russian civil war and the Polish-Bolshevik conflict of 1919-20, most of Ukraine found itself under Soviet rule, Wilhelm continued to plot a royal future for himself, supported by an uneasy alliance of Ukrainian parties and bankrolled by a kind of white international based on German dissatisfaction at the Versailles settlement. Increasingly unreal schemes were hatched well into the 1930s (including one to turn a liberated Ukraine into a homeland for Germany’s unwanted Jews). Their only consequence was to intensify Soviet repression in the area and send yet more idealistic young Ukrainian men and women to their deaths.
Wilhelm’s youthful romantic yen for Ukraine had by then turned into an obsession, and for most of the interwar period he carried a passport in his adopted Ukrainian name of Vasyl Vyshyvanyi. Yet while he plotted and lobbied for his beloved cause, he also managed to lead a louche existence in Paris, oscillating between aristocratic salons and exiled royals on the one hand, and gay bars and a string of black rent-boys and sailors on the other.
The outbreak of the second world war found him living in Vienna, a convinced Nazi nurturing hopes of a liberating German invasion of Ukraine. These were gradually dashed by reality, and by 1943 he was, according to Snyder, working with Allied intelligence. In the second half of 1944, as Ukrainian nationalists who had collaborated with the Germans fled westwards to escape Soviet reprisals, he once again began mobilising a Ukrainian movement and tried to sell the idea of a free Ukraine to the Allies. In 1947 he was picked up in Vienna by the Soviets and died in a Kiev prison the following year, his poor health undermined by torture.
Snyder is probably the most intelligent and sensitive historian working on East Central Europe today, and he is eminently fitted for the task of telling this tale. He has unearthed a wealth of unknown material and fascinating detail, which, combined with a generous understanding for the undeniably winsome Wilhelm helps keep the reader’s sympathy for what was, at bottom, a not very inspiring character, a gullible opportunist who, by the late 1930s, had flipped into self-delusion and paranoia.
Snyder’s representation of the Habsburg monarchy as multi-ethnic by virtue of tolerance rather than indiscriminate acquisitiveness is questionable; ‘multinational Galicia, a creation of the Habsburgs’, is an odd way to describe a province inhabited by Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and Armenians before the Habsburgs seized it from Poland in 1772 — the only additional nationality they introduced was that of a handful of Austrian bureaucrats. He also ascribes Habsburg origins to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which was founded by Ukrainian bishops and Polish Jesuits in 1596, two centuries before the Habsburgs came on the scene. And he surely goes a little far when he calls the Orange Revolution ‘the political revenge of the Habsburgs’.
This is nevertheless a wonderful book, a gripping read full of surprises and memorable vignettes, which fills a gap in our knowledge and provides an accessible introduction to a badly neglected area of European history.
Adam Zamoyski’s latest book is Warsaw 1920 (Harper Press, £14.99).