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“The Red Prince” and the Downfall of Nationalist Self-Determination

Timothy Snyder’s The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke is an ambitious if curiously-tilted history of a relatively minor figure whom the author constructs as symbolizing grander and deeper shifts in the social and political order of the continent in the twentieth century. Snyder sees Wilhelm von Habsburg as a microcosmic figure, his ideological affiliations and identity self-constructions revealing something fundamental about the changing Europe of the past century, if more through contrast than through reflection. Working from this perspective, Snyder inflates the mildly interesting life of a man of passable accomplishments into a half-remembered myth, or perhaps it’s the extraordinary times and places that Wilhelm lived in that do the inflating.

Born into the waning days of the shrinking Habsburg state that we now refer to (not entirely accurately) as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wilhelm was a younger son of an archduke without a throne to inherit, and both father and son, in the soon-to-be-passé mode of their monarchy, settled on potential territories to reign over. Rebelling from his father’s (and older brothers’) state of choice (Poland), Wilhelm identified with the people and culture of Ukraine, and backed up this identification, in the long tradition in Habsburg pan-nationalist adaptation, by learning the language, wearing the clothing, commanding the military units, and adopting the interests and causes of Ukraine. If his political affiliations and the nature of his efforts underwent drastic modifications over his adult life, then Wilhelm’s main aim never did: the creation of an independent Ukrainian state, preferably with himself at its head as dynastic monarch.

As students of history will know, Ukraine did not achieve independence for more than seven decades after Wilhelm began striving for it just before the First World War. By the same token, Wilhelm never came especially close to creating a Ukrainian state or to mounting a Ukrainian throne, despite numerous plans, schemes, and plots with that aim in mind. The Red Prince, then, is an annal of failure, ending abruptly with Wilhelm’s anticlimactic capture by Stalin’s secret police and death in prison in 1948. It seeks to define an era not by focusing on the grand accomplishments of great men, as so much historical inquiry already has, but by focusing on the various misfires of a man who ought to have been great, but never really was.

Certainly Snyder’s research is impeccable, and his writing can range from sturdy to compelling to awkwardly quasi-poetic to ludicrously hagiographic (who could really possibly care that Wilhelm really, really loved his cat?). But in telling Wilhelm’s interesting enough but hardly revelatory story, he mostly skims over the much more fascinating characters who cross the Habsburg’s path, among them serial intriguers like Paulette Couyba and Trebitsch Lincoln. Additionally, although Snyder makes some mention of Otto von Habsburg, the one-time pretender to the Austro-Hungarian throne who became one of the architects of the European Union, he doesn’t seem to think that the more prominent Habsburg’s narrative arc (who did not have the best of relationships with the book’s main subject) says more about the historical trajectory of Europe than does Wilhelm’s, and that seems a little off to me.

But perhaps Snyder is on to something with his reading of Wilhelm as an atavistic figure in the history of Europe. The vaunted Community that Wilhelm’s rival Otto worked so hard to erect, only ever an economic union that was always already riven by fissures in national identity, now seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse. Although nationalism is not as destructive a force on the continent as it has been in the past, it is still undeniably strong and absolutist in terms of the self-definition of citizenship. This element of Wilhelm von Habsburg, his capacity for choosing his nation, is the one quality that Snyder finds most attractive about him (certainly more so than his assumptions of aristocratic privilege or his playboy dissolution).

Yet it is a quality that is not borne out in the EU, let alone in Wilhelm’s chosen nation, the non-EU Ukraine. A supra-national schematic that allows for economic participation in another nation does not make one a citizen of that nation. Although the pitiless racial nationalism of the Nazis has been repudiated, national belonging is still mostly assumed to be a matter of birth and inheritance. There would thus not only be some legal question to Wilhelm’s assumption of a Ukrainian identity, but a more amorphous and symbolic question as well: is nationality a simple matter of choice, or is it more determined than that?

The Red Prince does not exactly answer this question, nor should it be expected to provide a cut-and-dry solution, but Snyder’s sympathies clearly lie with the freedom of nationalist self-determination. That most European states do not seem to agree, at least on the level of public policy, is a statement on the nature of the ideological forces that endured through a messy century of war and strife and those viewpoints that have atrophied away to quaint insignificance. As elegantly as Snyder can sometimes make his case for the Habsburg conception of national identity that Wilhelm personified, there’s little question that this conception has lost its foothold on the continent. Nations are not created, they simply exist, and men who are not already a part of them cannot make themselves so. Wilhelm, Snyder, and even I may not like to accept that, but it seems to be the path that has been chosen.

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