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Book Review

Handsome Habsburg Homosexual
Ian Mitchell

The Red Prince
Timothy Snyder
Vintage £9.99

o anyone interested in the likely fate of the Slavic world in post-Soviet times, especially on the east European borderlands, this book will make fascinating reading. It tells the story of one of history’s forgotten figures, the charismatic but gay Archduke Wilhelm of Austria, who adopted Ukraine as his country and tried to become its King after the Russian Revolution. The history of the Slavic world would have been very different if one of its wealthiest areas had been ruled after 1917 by a sympathetic German aristocrat rather than a gang of murderous, pseudo- internationalist “proletarians”.

Wilhelm was born on the Adriatic in 1895 into a family that went back to 1273 when his ancestor, Rudolf, became Holy Roman Emperor. In the fifteenth century the Habsburgs made marriages which brought them control over Hungary, Bohemia, southern Italy, the Low Countries and Spain, the latter subsequently bringing with it one of the largest colonial empires in the world. In the sixteenth century, the family married into the Polish royal family as well, acquiring extensive territories in Galicia and the western Ukraine.

In the eighteenth century a series of dynastic re-arrangements, starting with the War of Spanish Succession and ending with the three Partitions of Poland, disturbed but did not destroy this incredible series of international links. Napoleon came close to upsetting it, detaching several key territories, chiefly Spain. But the centre held, not least because, once again, the family married aggressively, giving the Archduchess Marie Louise to Napoleon himself as a wife in 1810.

Incidentally, she was related to Marie Antoinette, who had been another Austrian Archduchess. It was of course at the Congress of Vienna, masterminded by the Austrian Minister of State, Prince Metternich, that Europe was reorganised after Napoleon’s defeat, in a settlement which lasted until Wilhelm came of age during the First World War.

Given such a history, it is obvious that a homosexual Archduke presents a diplomatic problem of immense difficulty, especially for a country in need of allies. Another problem was that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the most cosmopolitan power in Europe, embracing Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Slovenians, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Italians and Jews. With the exception of the Jews, most occupied discrete areas, so the pressures of late-nineteenth century nationalism made it likely that an Empire might break up into its constituent national parts.

Wilhelm’s father’s response to this was to suggest that various members of the Habsburg family should adopt one or other of the nations and become King of that. A Habsburg network would be preserved, if only on a distributed basis. He hoped to become King of Poland. His eldest son, who shared this ambition, married a formidable Swedish aristocrat and became as Polish as any Pole—being subsequently tortured by the Gestapo for his trouble. Wilhelm, for reasons which are not discussed in detail, latched onto the Ukraine.

The Habsburg Empire included the province of Galicia, with its capital Lvov, which is today the westerlimost part of Ukraine. Before the First World War, Galicia had a Polish upper class, Ukrainian peasantry and a large number Jewish traders, lawyers and townsmen. The Poles looked down on the Ukrainians, who did not look up to the Poles and both were extremely anti-Semitic, especially the Poles.

So Wilhelm’s romantic embrace of Ukrainian culture when he first visited Galicia at the age of seventeen had an element of family conflict to it. His father and elder brother were “Polish” so he, the less than favoured younger son (who eventually broke completely with his father), would become what the Poles despised: a Ukrainian.

As a junior officer in the Austrian Army during the First World War, Wilhelm fought in the famous Galician campaign in 1916 where many of his troops were Ukrainian. He thought they were excellent soldiers and they returned his respect. He spoke flawless Ukrainian, enjoyed the manly camaraderie of the camp-fire, and wore an embroidered Ukrainian shirt underneath his field-grey battledress. He earned the nick-name Василь Вишиваний (Vasyl Vyshyvanyi) or Embroidered Vasily. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who had succeeded the elderly Franz Joseph in 1916, consulted his cousin Wilhelm personally on Ukrainian policy, which became very important after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russian in 1917.

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in March 1918, the Germans occupied the northern half of Ukraine and the Austrians the southern half. The latter, partly on Wilhelm’s advice, adopted a policy that was designed to fulfil Ukrainian aspirations to nationhood, admittedly under Austrian supervision. By contrast, the German aim was only to fill German stomachs with Ukrainian food, requisitioned from the peasantry by local forces under the control of a slightly sinister Ukrainian monarchist called Pavel Skoropadsky.

Wilhelm’s dream of greater power, which was shared by Emperor Karl, was destroyed by the German collapse in late 1918. Austria had to withdraw and the Ukraine became a battleground between Red and White Russians, a situation he deplored but could do nothing about. He spent much of the rest of his life engaged in Ukrainian affairs.

Eventually, while living in semi-retirement in Vienna in 1947, Soviet intelligence troops kidnapped him and took him to Kiev where he was tried for anti-Soviet activities under laws which were both retrospective and extra-territorial. He was sentenced to twenty-five years in a forced labour camp, but survived only a few months before dying of tuberculosis.

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