- The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe by Timothy Snyder
Bodley Head, 344 pp, £20.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 224 08152 8
Readers with a taste for misfortune and ineffectiveness are more likely than others to enjoy this extended study of Wilhelm von Habsburg, the eponymous ‘Red Prince’. To begin with, Habsburg though he undoubtedly was, and an archduke to boot, Wilhelm hardly cut much of a figure among those closest to the throne occupied by Karl, the wartime successor to the aged Franz Josef and the last of the emperors to rule over Austria. Nor was Wilhelm much of a ‘red’, though the blurb-writers for the book do their best to turn him into something of a martyr to both the anti-Nazi and the anti-Communist cause. In fact he seems to have been ready to flirt with almost any group, the Communists aside, that he hoped might put him in a post appropriate to his rank.
Vol. 30 No. 17 · 11 September 2008
Dan Jacobson writes that before the First World War the Habsburg Empire was challenged on one side by ‘a cluster of embryonic nations’ and, on the other, by ‘those European countries – Russia, Britain, France, even Serbia and Poland, with Germany always the most forceful among them – that prided themselves on an “accomplished” sense of national consciousness’ (LRB, 14 August). Had he read Timothy Snyder’s book more carefully, Jacobson would have known that in 1914 there was no independent country called Poland. In the Great War some Poles fought for their independence on the side of Austria and Germany against the Russian Empire, while others fought for Poland on the side of the Western allies and Russia.
Jacobson fails to see the value of Snyder’s novel approach. The book is much more than the story of a minor and odd member of the Habsburg family. Snyder uses the life of Wilhelm von Habsburg, the ‘Red Prince’, who chose to become a Ukrainian, and the lives of his brother and father, who became Poles, to show how the Polish Question and the less well-known Ukrainian Question were problems not only for Vienna but also for St Petersburg. He connects the political processes in the Habsburg and Romanov monarchies and their successor states, and makes clear that the Ukrainian problem cannot be understood historically only as an internal problem for Russia.