How a family lost its way in a changing Europe

 

BIOGRAPHY:THE HAPSBURGS were the original eurotrash - multinational, multilingual, and debauched. After ruling the Austrian Empire for centuries, their luck began to run out towards the end of the 19th Century, writes Max McGuinness.

Emperor Franz Joseph's brother Maximilian was executed in Mexico after a quixotic naval expedition in 1867; his only son and heir, Rudolf, addled by venereal disease and morphine, was found dead with his mistress and a pistol in 1889; and his wife, the Empress Elisabeth, was bludgeoned by an Italian anarchist in 1898.

The next in line, Archduke Ludwig Victor, was confined after one too many adventures in a Vienna bath house. His pious younger brother, Karl Ludwig, died in 1896 after drinking the contaminated waters of the River Jordan.

His eldest son, Franz Ferdinand, then became crown prince. He was held in such little esteem that the news of his assassination in Sarajevo by a teenage Serbian nationalist called Gavrilo Princip on June 28th, 1914 made a minimal impression in Vienna where the party went on that night. A month later, all of Europe's major powers were at war and before the decade was out, the Empire was dissolved and the remaining Hapsburgs cast into exile.

But Archduke Wilhelm von Hapsburg, the subject of Timothy Snyder's excellent new biography, The Red Prince, had other plans. Dispatched to the Eastern Front as a junior officer in 1915, he found himself fighting in Ukraine, a nation for which he had already developed a fascination in school.

For though Wilhelm, poorly placed on the Hapsburg family tree, could never hope to become emperor, he, like his father, had realised at an early age that there were still thrones to be had within the remarkably flexible structures of the Dual Monarchy.

In the last year of the war, Wilhelm accordingly made a bid to be crowned King of the Ukraine just as his father, Stefan, schemed to take the throne of an independent and hostile Poland. Indeed Snyder suspects a continental-sized Oedipus complex as Wilhelm's "embrace of Ukraine was a rebuff to his father's Poland". Hapsburg père and fils both failed as Poland became a republic and Ukraine's claim to national self-determination was ignored at the Versailles Peace Conference. Stefan disowned his son in a syndicated newspaper article.

But Wilhelm, still only 25, was not ready to give up yet. He retained the affection of the Ukrainian peasantry who appreciated his idiosyncratic, left-wing monarchism and accordingly baptised him "The Red Prince". Notwithstanding his socialist leanings, Wilhelm assembled a group of reactionary German backers to plot a re-conquest of the country. But the improvement in German-Soviet relations in 1922 broke up the syndicate, leaving Wilhelm, not for the last time, stateless and penniless.

He found refuge with the exiled Empress Zita in Madrid, tried his hand at business, failed, and became a notorious playboy in Paris.

As Snyder puts it: Wilhelm "handled women by necessity and men for pleasure". He had a particular predilection for sailors, himself sporting a blue anchor tattoo on one arm. But it was his taste in women which ultimately let him down. In the early 1930s, Wilhelm took up with Paulette Coubya, a postal worker who had made a career out of seducing powerful men. A botched attempt to defraud a millionaire distiller at the Ritz Hotel in 1934 was to prove his undoing. Wilhelm fled to Vienna before the trial, at which Paulette portrayed herself as the poor, simple victim of a predatory aristocrat, in constant need of cash to pay for rent boys. But Snyder suspects the real dupe was Wilhelm.

Having received a battering from the French left-wing press, Wilhelm's politics moved to the Right and by the late 1930s, he was both pro-Nazi and a vocal anti-Semite. But he remained committed to the Ukrainian cause and when the Nazis showed no sign of creating a puppet Ukraine, Wilhelm changed his tune.

By 1942, he was probably working for British intelligence. The end of the war brought little optimism as the Cold War put paid to dreams of Ukrainian independence. As he was stuck in the Soviet zone of occupied Austria, Wilhelm's time was running out. His Ukrainian nationalism made him a marked man and he was duly picked up by Soviet counter-intelligence and sent to a labour camp, where he died of TB in 1948.

Snyder's biography fully captures the chaos, intrigue, and glamour of a vanished Mitteleuropa. The opening sections are let down by a halting style and occasionally bizarre choice of imagery and metaphor: the map of the Western half of Austria-Hungary does not "look like a voluptuous woman on a rock". But the account gathers pace, along with the career of its subject, during the first World War.

Snyder, a Professor at Yale, is unquestionably a proper historian, drawing on extensive original research, and this is the first biography of Wilhelm written in any language. A superficial and not particularly bright man, the world would nonetheless have been somewhat duller without Wilhelm whose "life's mission," writes Snyder, "when he was not in a brothel or on the beach, was to rescue the suffering Ukrainian people from the rule of the Bolsheviks".

Max McGuinness writes for The Dubliner and Magill. His first play, Up The Republic!, will be performed at the Hill Street Theatre, Edinburgh on August 1st-25st

The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe By Timothy Snyder Bodley Head, 344pp. £20