Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe, by Timothy Snyder

In the interwar years Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg (1895-1947), the subject of this biography, frequented homosexual brothels in Paris, having lost his dream of becoming king of Ukraine with that nation's dissolution in 1921. This is an engaging portrait of a little-known and puzzling character. Wilhelm was a "cosmopolitan fascist" (before Nazism made a blood cult of nationalism), but also a "monarchist of the left", adopting the hammer and sickle emblem and confusing everyone by promising much the same as the Bolsheviks. Ukrainians seem to have genuinely loved their dashing Red Prince, who wore a peasant shirt under his uniform. Snyder, who has a talent for startling observations ("Every national revolution, like every bout of lovemaking, owes something to the one that came before"), tells the story of how a seemingly timeless European dynasty sought an accommodation with the rising tide of nationalism, and lost, while reminding us that monarchy was once a serious rival to totalitarianism. Wilhelm was eventually captured and died in a Soviet prison.

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