Probably, Perhaps

Dan Jacobson

  • 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.

Timothy Snyder, the author of this biography-cum-history, holds a chair at Yale and has written accounts of the rise and collapse of kingdoms and popular movements in Eastern and Central Europe. Garlanded with encomia from Timothy Garton Ash, Anne Applebaum and Niall Ferguson, the book includes a formidable assemblage of supporting documentation. It contains eight pages of ‘biographical sketches’ of people mentioned in the text; a three-page chronology of the scattered reigns and destinies of a multitude of Habsburgs; a ‘Note on Terms and Languages’; a bibliography filling a dozen pages; and, longest of all, a panoply of formal footnotes drawn from archival sources all over Europe and beyond. Plus two genealogical charts and various photos of the dramatis personae and the houses in which some of them lived.

After all of which it seems rash for an amateur in the field to say that neither as history nor as biography does the book really work. There are several reasons for this, the most obvious being Snyder’s failure to make Wilhelm himself, ostensibly the central character of the story, carry the weight of either the public history or the private pathos that he seeks to attach to him. What the book does succeed in conveying, however, is the irresistible nature of the forces that surrounded and led to the end of the Habsburg dynasty. Well before the outbreak of the First World War the empire had been put under immense strain by many other contenders for power. On one side was a cluster of embryonic nations that were less and less willing to tolerate their subaltern status within the sprawling, broken-backed, multinational, imperial enterprise to which they supposedly owed their loyalty. On the other side were 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, and were not afraid to make as much of it as they possibly could.

Given these circumstances, the extraordinary survival of the house of Habsburg, with a history extending over a half-dozen centuries, the vast extent of its crown lands and palaces, its millions of subjects and its varieties of languages and creeds, the wealth of its treasures and its embeddedness among the great families of Central Europe, was bound to appear more and more anomalous even to those who benefited from it. Then came the Great War, and nothing was ever to be the same again. Within an amazingly brief, tormented span of time – or so it now seems – the empire crumbled from within, as though everything it had claimed for itself had been a façade, a collection of props, a hollow noise.

What part was Wilhelm to play in all this? At the urging of his ambitious father, Stefan, and in line with his own inclinations, he groomed himself to become ruler of the Ukraine, while at no time trying to jettison his larger loyalty to Vienna. He learned the Ukrainian language, and served with Ukrainian units on the Eastern Front after the First World War had broken out – though it is difficult to judge from what is said in the book how much of a frontline soldier and how much of a staff officer he was. In either case, his fabled ‘redness’ seems to have been expressed not through loyalty to any left-wing cause but through the strength of the attachment he had developed towards ‘his’ Ukrainians. Once the collapse on the Eastern Front had become irreversible, he seems to have done what he could to keep his men together and to secure the best possible terms for them from the retreating Germans, the remains of the Russian imperial army, the Bolsheviks, and any number of roving, bloodthirsty Ukrainian factions.

Back in Vienna after the Armistice, he conspired half-heartedly to revive the Ukrainian army and to tackle the Bolsheviks once more. Nothing came of these efforts. By this time he had quarrelled with his father and was short of money. Some of his siblings, particularly his brother Albrecht (who had been groomed with an equal degree of unsuccess to do for the Poles what Wilhelm had tried to do for the Ukrainians), were kind enough to keep him in funds. He used some of the money that came his way to foster the cause of a Ukraine that would somehow be an independent state and yet bound to the Habsburg cause. He also used his funds to pursue a few women (whether for their money, their connections, or an occasional bout of heterosexual activity, is never clear). What he cared for much more was spending his time and money in male brothels – inevitably with men of a much lower social class than his own. Even in Jazz-Age Paris his behaviour was more louche than the authorities cared to tolerate. In 1935, after an elaborate scam – set up, it seems, by one of his lady-friends and a shifty French-Ukrainian-Polish journalist – he fled the city with a five-year jail sentence hanging over his head, and returned to Austria. Subsequently he flirted with the Nazis (while describing Hitler, in a letter to a friend, as ‘that son of a bitch’), and dreamed intermittently of starting a new life in the United States, though he made no move to go there.

This sounds more exciting in précis than it does in the book itself. There are several reasons for this, one being the sheer impenetrability of the scrapes that Wilhelm got himself into and then tried to get out of. A far bigger problem is that we are given remarkably little access to Wilhelm’s mind. From these pages it would seem that he never put pen to paper, either to record his own doings or the doings of others; still less to try to explain himself to himself. Nor do we learn what his contemporaries managed to make of him, a few scandal-hunting journalists aside. His Ukrainian connection obviously meant a good deal to him; but otherwise his inner life remains a blank. Instead of facing up to the difficulty this presents to a biographer, Snyder makes the worst of a bad job by littering his text with passages of supposition, in which words like ‘perhaps’ and ‘probable’ and ‘likely’ recur like a cracked bell. As in this, from a single paragraph:

In all likelihood, Wilhelm did wish to raise money to fund Empress Zita’s plan to restore the Habsburgs . . . Never educated about or interested in the details of law or finance, he probably did not see any impropriety in his own actions . . . In 1934, as in 1921, it is very likely that Wilhelm did not grasp the details. He knew that his presence made people more willing to open their wallets, and perhaps never wished to understand more.

And so on. No less damaging are the passages which offer the reader nothing but outbursts of ‘fine writing’. This passage comes near the beginning of the book:

[The Habsburgs’] own sense of time was one of eternal possibility, of life as composed of moments full of incipient rays of glory, like a drop of dew awaiting the morning sun to release a spectrum of colour.

Does it matter that the dewdrop ends up on the black sole of a jackboot?

Or this, from near its conclusion:

[Wilhelm’s] fine body, once admired across the beaches and ski slopes of Europe, was decomposed, anonymous, and forgotten. He had disappeared, body and soul, somewhere between monarchy and modernity, having lived a life so rich and strange as not to require an age of its own.

During the Second World War, Wilhelm found himself in Vienna, wearing the uniform of an officer in the German army, a transformation that excites yet another flurry of imponderables from Snyder: ‘Wilhelm was probably, by this time, at work recruiting agents for a Western intelligence agency . . . quite possibly the British Special Operations Executive . . . Wilhelm was a lifelong anglophile; he likely knew that the British government was sympathetic to the idea of a restored Austria.’ After the war he remained in Vienna, living in the British sector of the city and working on and off for French intelligence. With the Soviet sector running its own show alongside the other occupying powers, Vienna was clearly not a safe place for him to be, but he rashly hung on until August 1947, when the Russians grabbed him in the Südbahnhof and carried him away. Less than a year later he was found guilty by a Soviet court in Kiev of ‘aspiring to be king of Ukraine in 1918’, of leading ‘the Free Cossacks in 1921’ and of serving British and French intelligence. Six days after sentence was passed, he died of tuberculosis.

One can’t help feeling sorry for him. In a way the man’s life seems homologous with that of the long-gone empire he had grown up in. Archdukedom and all, he too was a kind of façade, a collector of medals and hopes, a hollow man.