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.