At the outbreak of World War I, a descendant of the Habsburg dynasty, Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg, had a vision for the post-war Habsburg Empire. Nineteen-year-old Wilhelm had a dream, how to appease the festering antagonism between Habsburg supranationalism and Slavic particularism. Wilhelm had enjoyed the cosmopolitan upbringing befitting a great Austro-Hungarian: born in Croatia, raised in Poland, educated in Moravia, and a cadet in Vienna. In his youthful vision, the Habsburg mystique would carry him to the throne of a future kingdom of Ukraine. Wilhelm von Habsburg’s life reflected the vicissitudes of his adopted nation, Ukraine.
Wilhelm’s aspiration did not sit well with his father, Archduke Karl Stefan, as he harbored his own dynastic aspirations – in his case, to rise to the rank of King of Poland. Karl Stephan had made his principal residence in Poland, assimilated into Polish society, and prepared the ground, in the best Habsburg tradition, through marital alliances with great Polish noble families. Indeed, one of his daughters married a Radziwill. But if for Karl Stephan a kingdom of Poland was a dream, a kingdom of Ukraine was a nightmare. Poles and Ukrainians had rival claims to large tracts of land in Galicia; border disputes between a Polish kingdom and a Ukrainian kingdom would be inevitable.
The early stages of World War I seemed to favor the aspirations of Wilhelm and Karl. Austria armed a Polish legion and a Ukrainian legion. Wilhelm commanded 4,000 Ukrainian troops, donned a Ukrainian shirt, and made himself known by a vernacular Ukrainian name: Vasyl Vyshyvanyi.
In 1916, developments on the Eastern Front encouraged Germany and Austria to consider creating a Polish client monarchy. But plans for a Kingdom of Poland came to nothing. The Kaiser of Vienna did not approve of the prospect of a separate Habsburg line ruling a new kingdom. And the Kaiser of Berlin would not allow the Kaiser of Vienna to thwart German supremacy in Eastern Europe.
Wilhelm’s goal of succeeding to the throne of Ukraine was also thrown out of reach, in his case by developments in both the West and the East. In the West, Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on dissolving supranational empires rendered his project useless. And in the East, Russian tsarism gave way to Russian Bolshevism.
Indeed, in 1920, the Bolsheviks would have conquered Warsaw if the Polish and Ukrainian forces had not repulsed them. The Ukrainian soldiers, however, received few rewards for their contribution. They were sent back to their homeland and there they had to take up arms again, now to defend themselves against the Bolsheviks and the Poles, who carved out territory for themselves in Galicia. Ukraine’s future was once again at stake.
After the war, Wilhelm von Habsburg returned to Austria, a country where his relative, Emperor Karl, had been deposed and where he no longer felt at home. Wilhelm decided to move abroad. When applying for a passport, he faced exasperating humiliation. Austrian passports were only issued to citizens who had recanted their loyalty to the now deposed monarchy, an imposition Wilhelm von Habsburg circumvented by having his passport issued in the name of his adoptive identity, Vasyl Vyshyvanyi.
Vasyl/Wilhelm never gave up on his new identity or his dream of ruling a kingdom of Ukraine. He cultivated contacts that could open a doorway into Ukrainian politics, but he was no match for the cunning spotlight that outsmarted him. Some of his initiatives were misguided, others clumsy, all futile. Wilhelm became a declassed aristocrat entering and leaving the sequins of the demimonde.
The worst indignities were inflicted on his cousins in Poland. When World War II started, German invaders confiscated their property because they considered Polish family. At the end of World War II, Polish authorities refused to reverse the confiscations because they considered the family to be German.
Wilhelm had then moved back to Vienna. In his latest foray into the world of politics, he became an asset to Western intelligence agencies. This decision, a testimony to his personal courage, once again came at a high cost.
Soviet authorities in post-war occupied Vienna were made aware of Wilhelm’s ties to Ukrainian nationalists. They had him kidnapped, deported to kyiv (now Kyiv) and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Wilhelm died of tuberculosis in 1948. (Records of his interrogation have been declassified by the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine.)
Wilhelm’s life was an extreme example of the reversals suffered by an entire generation. The visit of the Habsburg Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo in 1914 had coincided with the anniversary of an event hurting the pride of his hosts, the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, and the Russophile separatists saw it as an opportunity to settle their accounts. When Franz Ferdinand was shot, a spark was lit on the outskirts of Europe that ignited the Belle Époque.
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Habsburgs had created a supranational order that ensured unimpeded movement from Croatia to Poland and from Moravia to Austria. In 1920, a supranational order that had lasted a century was replaced by one that, within two decades, was engulfed in the conflagration of the next world war. Wilhelm’s fate, which took him from his birth in a castle in Croatia to an unmarked grave in Kyiv, showed how a firestorm bursting with ethnic antagonisms had the power to incinerate an entire international order.
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