From Publishers Weekly
Part of the family that ruled much of central Europe since 1273, Wilhelm von Habsburg (1895–1949) came of age during the last 23 years of the dynasty's rule. Von Habsburg lived a nomadic and tragic life; he was a bisexual and a political chameleon (including a brief pro-Nazi period) who was implicated in a major financial scandal in Paris during the 1930s. But during WWI, he had become a fervent Ukrainian nationalist, and this became his life's one constant, culminating with efforts to help formerly pro-German Ukraine turn to the West at the end of WWII. As Yale historian Snyder (Sketches from a Secret War) shows, his efforts were futile; he was charged by the Soviets with spying and died in prison. Snyder hews closely to his subject, so that the complexities of 20th-century Ukrainian history sometimes get short shrift, e.g., he devotes only two sentences to the 1933 terror famine that killed three million peasants. Generally, though, this is an interesting biography of a man whose colorful life embodied many of the tensions that plagued Europe in the early 20th century. Illus., maps. (June)
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The dissolution of the Austrian and Russian empires and their replacement with new nation-states after World War I scattered an interesting cast of characters across the landscape of Europe for several decades, including more than a few drifting aristocrats. One of the more intriguing ones was Wilhelm von Habsburg, the so-called Red Prince. As a scion of the Austrian imperial family, he had many of the predictable aristocratic attributes, including a grasp of several languages, skill at swordplay, and a sense that he was entitled to command and rule others. Yet he turned his back on his family and a life of comfortable exile to engage in a series of dangerous escapades until his death, in a Soviet prison hospital in 1948. Along the way, von Habsburg led Ukrainian nationalists in a futile fight to establish an independent state, fought the Nazis, plotted against the Soviets, and managed to acquire a diverse collection of sexual conquests. Snyder portrays him as a restless spirit with dreams of grandeur who was attractive, even charismatic, without being particularly admirable. --Jay Freeman