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The Red Prince - Timothy Snyder

”When Wilhelm was arrested in August 1947, his Soviet guards removed an Omega watch from his wrist. This was the brand later worn by James Bond on the silver screen. The fictional Bond family even took a Habsburg motto for its own: ‘The World is Not Enough.’ By the time this was revealed by Bond’s creator Ian Fleming in 1963, only a very few Europeans would have remembered its Habsburg origins. By the time James Bond wore an Omega Seamaster watch in Goldeneye in 1995, it is fair to guess that none of the eighty million or so people who saw the film thought of Wilhelm.”

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Wilhelm in traditional Ukrainian clothing.

I don’t really know much about the Habsburgs. I read a book about the suicide of Rudolph the crown prince of Austria and his father Franz Joseph. Franz Joseph was the center of all power in the Habsburg universe as the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He ruled for 68 years. The third longest in recorded European history. He knew when to exit the stage gracefully by passing away in 1916 just a few years before his empire was dissolved. With Rudolph’s suicide Franz Joseph’s nephew Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the empire. Franz Ferdinand was not well liked, but he would end up playing an important role in the history of the world.

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The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

A Serbian student, Gavrilo Princip, stepped from the crowd. He had a gun. Standing directly in front of the car, Princip shot Sophie and Franz Ferdinand from close range. Each of them, mortally wounded, thought of the other. Sophie asked Franz Ferdinand what had happened to him. Franz Ferdinand begged Sophie to live for the sake of their children. One bullet had penetrated her corset and abdomen, another had pierced his jugular vein. He slowly pitched forward, bleeding heavily. His hat fell from his head, its green feathers mingling with red blood on the floor of the auto. His last words were. ‘it is nothing.’

With the last beating of his heart 16 million people were consigned to death and 20 million more would be wounded in one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.

It seems absurd really in an age of assassination where there was hardly a head of state that hadn’t had an assassination attempt perpetrated against them for this to be the spark to set off the first world war. After all there were plenty of Habsburgs. Another nephew Karl was measured for emperor clothing and placed in the waiting room outside Franz Joseph’s imperial throne room. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia and Pandora's box has been opened.

Timothy Snyder also talks about Maximilian, Franz Joseph’s little brother. I studied Mexican History one summer at the University of Arizona. It was a three hour a day class and my mind was reeling and cramping from the repetitive nature of Mexican history. It was a series of peasant uprisings in which they would kill or exile the corrupt people in power, put the leaders of the revolution in power, and then the new people in power soon become as corrupt as the ones they tossed out.

Do over.

So it was interesting in the middle of this blur of repeating history that Maximilian shows up on the scene. The Mexican aristocracy asked him to be their emperor. Poor Max was sold a bridge without planking.

First his wife, Carlota of Mexico, born Charlotte of Belgium, was nagging him that she wanted to be empress. She was rather lovely and he was a Habsburg so he was by nature ambitious. Mixing beauty with ambition can lead to a rash decision such as to accept an invitation to rule a third world country.

Second he didn’t know that the French soldiers were the only reason there was any modicum of control for any future government in which he would be running. The French leave soon after he arrives in 1864.

Third he didn’t know until he was departing for Mexico that he would have to give up all his European titles and his claim to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Of course at the time he was third in line and didn’t really expect to ever have a chance to succeed his brother. With Rudolph’s suicide in 1889 Max would have been next in line, but unfortunately he had already been executed by Mexican revolutionaries in 1867. How would the timeline of history change if Maximilian had never went to Mexico? Would a Serbian student have shot him? Would WWI have been avoided? Doubtful, Europe was a tender box just waiting to go off. Still when I’m bored at my desk at work sometimes I enjoy running these world scenarios through my head.

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Maximilian went to Mexico with the best of intentions, but returned to Vienna in a box.

This book is supposed to be about Wilhelm, but is it my fault that Snyder talks about all these other tantalizing Habsburg histories?

The story of Wilhelm really begins with the story of his father Stefan. Stefan was blessed with three boys and three girls all of equal importance to a Habsburg because the family has a long history of using marriage to acquire new territories. Stefan looking at world events believes that Poland is ripe to be turned into a kingdom and so he moves there, buys 40,000 hectares of land, buys a brewery, and promptly begins to marry his daughters off to leading Polish aristocracy. This is a bold plan because his daughters are eligible to marry crown princes all over the world. He really does put all his eggs in one basket.

Wilhelm is the baby, so his older brother Albrecht is the heir apparent if Stefan can manage to carve out an empire and Leo is the spare. Wilhelm decides in the tradition of his family to go elsewhere to make his fortune. He decides on the Ukraine. He leads a unit of Ukraine soldiers in World War One and wears a flamboyant red Ukrainian shirt under his uniform which is when he begins being called The Red Prince. He learns the language. He immerses himself in Ukrainian culture.

Plots and counterplots land Wilhelm out of the Ukraine and into the hedonistic lifestyle of Paris in the 1930s. He was bi-sexual and Paris of that period was a wonderland of entertainment for a young aristocrat. This all came crashing down when one of his associates, Paulette the postal worker, had been caught defrauding thousands of dollars out of people using Wilhelm’s name. He had to flee back to Austria to avoid prison.

Still with his eye on ruling the Ukraine he became a Nazi supporter, but he never did join the Nazi party. He soon became disillusioned with them as they roll across Europe. His brother Albrecht now the head of the family in Poland didn’t fair any better than his brother in realizing the Habsburg dreams of empire. He is arrested by the Germans and all his property seized because he was deemed not German enough. The estates were too nice to leave in the hands of anyone with such murky citizenship as a Habsburg. Albrecht’s wife Alice was also detained and interrogated. She proves to be fascinating.

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Alice, so elegant, so assured she intimidated the gestapo.

”Alice was a sufficiently dynastic thinker to have a frame of reference broader than the present time. She thought of Germany as a country that the Habsburgs had ruled for half a millennium. She sensed that Hitler’s regime, the so-called ‘thousand-year Reich,’ would not last nearly so long. Intimidated by her bravado and beauty, the Gestapo lacked the nerve to arrest Alice. It’s officers instead tried to persuade her that, as a perfect female specimen of the Nordic race, she would abandon the Polish nation and join the victorious Germans.”

No thank you.

Albrecht is released suffering from paralysis on one side of his body and missing an eye. He would not renounce his Polish heritage. Sometimes a father’s dreams die hard.

When the Soviets roll through Poland in WW2 raping (tens of thousands of women) and pillaging their way through German territory the Soviets encounter the Habsburgs again and this time do find them to be too German as an excuse to seize their properties instead of returning them. Ironic really, the Habsburgs were not German enough and too German at the same time.

Wilhelm is spying for the British during the war and after the war he spies for the French. The Soviets always leery of his associations with the Ukraine finally shove him into a car in Vienna and take him to be interrogated and eventually convicted.

I actually found the stories about the other Habsburgs more interesting than the story of Wilhelm. I intentionally only touched on some of Wilhelm’s participation so that my review does not hinder future readers from mining gems with their own pick ax. This book certainly whetted my appetite for more books on the Habsburgs. I respect their ambitions and their, in general, desire to rule their subjects in such a way to improve the standard of living of the people they are destined to lead. WW1 and WW2 shattered their empires and their potential kingdoms. The world decided they didn’t need them anymore.