In This Review

The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke
The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke
By Timothy Snyder
Basic Books, 2008, 336 pp

Not often does scholarly history soar and entrap like a fine historical novel, but here it does. Selecting as a hero an archduke who was drama incarnate -- Wilhelm von Habsburg -- helps. Snyder does much more than track the amazing life of a man born of a father and a dynasty that dreamed of giving a new lease on life to a fading empire by turning the awakened nationalism in Poland and other Slavic lands into salvation. Wilhelm made Ukraine the embodiment of this dream. He led it in war, and in defeat fled to the Parisian exile community only to scandalize it. He embraced Hitler in the foolish and vain hope of restoring Habsburg rule, only to defect to the resistance. And after being kidnapped, interrogated, and sentenced, he died in 1948 in a Soviet prison hospital in Kiev. The book's real triumph is how it carries the reader from the gilt and pomp of the nineteenth century; through the dawn of a new century in war, the salacious lives of the high-born royal outcasts in 1930s Paris, and the shadow politics of Nazi Germany; and ultimately to the crushing weight of Soviet occupation in postwar Eastern Europe. Snyder embeds all of this in a shrewd, sharp framing of the larger history before and during Wilhelm's life, ending with thought-provoking reflections on the links to the present.