Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > The Red Prince: The Fall of a Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Europe

The Red Prince by Timothy Snyder
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”When Wilhelm was arrested in August 1947, his Soviet guards removed an Omega watch from his wrist. This was the brand later worn by James Bond on the silver screen. The fictional Bond family even took a Habsburg motto for its own: ‘The World is Not Enough.’ By the time this was revealed by Bond’s creator Ian Fleming in 1963, only a very few Europeans would have remembered its Habsburg origins. By the time James Bond wore an Omega Seamaster watch in Goldeneye in 1995, it is fair to guess that none of the eighty million or so people who saw the film thought of Wilhelm.”

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Wilhelm in traditional Ukrainian clothing.

I don’t really know much about the Habsburgs. I read a book about the suicide of Rudolph the crown prince of Austria and his father Franz Joseph. Franz Joseph was the center of all power in the Habsburg universe as the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He ruled for 68 years. The third longest in recorded European history. He knew when to exit the stage gracefully by passing away in 1916 just a few years before his empire was dissolved. With Rudolph’s suicide Franz Joseph’s nephew Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the empire. Franz Ferdinand was not well liked, but he would end up playing an important role in the history of the world.

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The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

A Serbian student, Gavrilo Princip, stepped from the crowd. He had a gun. Standing directly in front of the car, Princip shot Sophie and Franz Ferdinand from close range. Each of them, mortally wounded, thought of the other. Sophie asked Franz Ferdinand what had happened to him. Franz Ferdinand begged Sophie to live for the sake of their children. One bullet had penetrated her corset and abdomen, another had pierced his jugular vein. He slowly pitched forward, bleeding heavily. His hat fell from his head, its green feathers mingling with red blood on the floor of the auto. His last words were. ‘it is nothing.’

With the last beating of his heart 16 million people were consigned to death and 20 million more would be wounded in one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.

It seems absurd really in an age of assassination where there was hardly a head of state that hadn’t had an assassination attempt perpetrated against them for this to be the spark to set off the first world war. After all there were plenty of Habsburgs. Another nephew Karl was measured for emperor clothing and placed in the waiting room outside Franz Joseph’s imperial throne room. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia and Pandora's box has been opened.

Timothy Snyder also talks about Maximilian, Franz Joseph’s little brother. I studied Mexican History one summer at the University of Arizona. It was a three hour a day class and my mind was reeling and cramping from the repetitive nature of Mexican history. It was a series of peasant uprisings in which they would kill or exile the corrupt people in power, put the leaders of the revolution in power, and then the new people in power soon become as corrupt as the ones they tossed out.

Do over.

So it was interesting in the middle of this blur of repeating history that Maximilian shows up on the scene. The Mexican aristocracy asked him to be their emperor. Poor Max was sold a bridge without planking.

First his wife, Carlota of Mexico, born Charlotte of Belgium, was nagging him that she wanted to be empress. She was rather lovely and he was a Habsburg so he was by nature ambitious. Mixing beauty with ambition can lead to a rash decision such as to accept an invitation to rule a third world country.

Second he didn’t know that the French soldiers were the only reason there was any modicum of control for any future government in which he would be running. The French leave soon after he arrives in 1864.

Third he didn’t know until he was departing for Mexico that he would have to give up all his European titles and his claim to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Of course at the time he was third in line and didn’t really expect to ever have a chance to succeed his brother. With Rudolph’s suicide in 1889 Max would have been next in line, but unfortunately he had already been executed by Mexican revolutionaries in 1867. How would the timeline of history change if Maximilian had never went to Mexico? Would a Serbian student have shot him? Would WWI have been avoided? Doubtful, Europe was a tender box just waiting to go off. Still when I’m bored at my desk at work sometimes I enjoy running these world scenarios through my head.

 photo 369177f6-60bc-4dd3-905e-9ad969b44475_zps180dbfcd.jpg
Maximilian went to Mexico with the best of intentions, but returned to Vienna in a box.

This book is supposed to be about Wilhelm, but is it my fault that Snyder talks about all these other tantalizing Habsburg histories?

The story of Wilhelm really begins with the story of his father Stefan. Stefan was blessed with three boys and three girls all of equal importance to a Habsburg because the family has a long history of using marriage to acquire new territories. Stefan looking at world events believes that Poland is ripe to be turned into a kingdom and so he moves there, buys 40,000 hectares of land, buys a brewery, and promptly begins to marry his daughters off to leading Polish aristocracy. This is a bold plan because his daughters are eligible to marry crown princes all over the world. He really does put all his eggs in one basket.

Wilhelm is the baby, so his older brother Albrecht is the heir apparent if Stefan can manage to carve out an empire and Leo is the spare. Wilhelm decides in the tradition of his family to go elsewhere to make his fortune. He decides on the Ukraine. He leads a unit of Ukraine soldiers in World War One and wears a flamboyant red Ukrainian shirt under his uniform which is when he begins being called The Red Prince. He learns the language. He immerses himself in Ukrainian culture.

Plots and counterplots land Wilhelm out of the Ukraine and into the hedonistic lifestyle of Paris in the 1930s. He was bi-sexual and Paris of that period was a wonderland of entertainment for a young aristocrat. This all came crashing down when one of his associates, Paulette the postal worker, had been caught defrauding thousands of dollars out of people using Wilhelm’s name. He had to flee back to Austria to avoid prison.

Still with his eye on ruling the Ukraine he became a Nazi supporter, but he never did join the Nazi party. He soon became disillusioned with them as they roll across Europe. His brother Albrecht now the head of the family in Poland didn’t fair any better than his brother in realizing the Habsburg dreams of empire. He is arrested by the Germans and all his property seized because he was deemed not German enough. The estates were too nice to leave in the hands of anyone with such murky citizenship as a Habsburg. Albrecht’s wife Alice was also detained and interrogated. She proves to be fascinating.

 photo AliceHabsburg_zps828479bc.jpg
Alice, so elegant, so assured she intimidated the gestapo.

”Alice was a sufficiently dynastic thinker to have a frame of reference broader than the present time. She thought of Germany as a country that the Habsburgs had ruled for half a millennium. She sensed that Hitler’s regime, the so-called ‘thousand-year Reich,’ would not last nearly so long. Intimidated by her bravado and beauty, the Gestapo lacked the nerve to arrest Alice. It’s officers instead tried to persuade her that, as a perfect female specimen of the Nordic race, she would abandon the Polish nation and join the victorious Germans.”

No thank you.

Albrecht is released suffering from paralysis on one side of his body and missing an eye. He would not renounce his Polish heritage. Sometimes a father’s dreams die hard.

When the Soviets roll through Poland in WW2 raping (tens of thousands of women) and pillaging their way through German territory the Soviets encounter the Habsburgs again and this time do find them to be too German as an excuse to seize their properties instead of returning them. Ironic really, the Habsburgs were not German enough and too German at the same time.

Wilhelm is spying for the British during the war and after the war he spies for the French. The Soviets always leery of his associations with the Ukraine finally shove him into a car in Vienna and take him to be interrogated and eventually convicted.

I actually found the stories about the other Habsburgs more interesting than the story of Wilhelm. I intentionally only touched on some of Wilhelm’s participation so that my review does not hinder future readers from mining gems with their own pick ax. This book certainly whetted my appetite for more books on the Habsburgs. I respect their ambitions and their, in general, desire to rule their subjects in such a way to improve the standard of living of the people they are destined to lead. WW1 and WW2 shattered their empires and their potential kingdoms. The world decided they didn’t need them anymore.
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Reading Progress

September 19, 2013 – Started Reading
September 19, 2013 – Shelved
September 22, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Jaime (new)

Jaime I have only been on Goodreads a few short weeks, and while perusing, somehow came across one of your reviews. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to follow your future reviews (I hope you don't mind!) Now, I must say, your reviews are one of my favorite parts of Goodreads so far! Your inclusion of pictures and outside facts pertaining to the book are always fascinating, and I'm amazed at how much I learn in two short minutes (which is much appreciated, being that I'm an autodidact with two toddlers and a newborn--not as much time here for reading as I would like). I appreciate your reviews so much better than the typical "this book was interesting; I liked it." Well done and thank you!


message 2: by Sketchbook (last edited Sep 23, 2013 11:11AM) (new) - added it

Sketchbook Jeffrey writes terrific revs, Jaime. He doesn't begin w blabbies, "This was given to me..I lost the book, but then, and.." assorted triviatas. He doesn't use this space as a personal cornball BLOG to gurgle and smersh and wet his pants, seeking attention. He's a PRO.


Jeffrey Keeten Jaime wrote: "I have only been on Goodreads a few short weeks, and while perusing, somehow came across one of your reviews. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to follow your future reviews (I hope you don't mind!) ..."

Welcome to GR Jamie! I'm so glad that you find my reviews interesting and useful. It is also a point of fascination when they come together for me as well. As I've mentioned elsewhere I'm juggling so many balls in the air writing a review that I hope I have a big enough bag to catch them all when I'm ready for them to come down. :-)I'm so glad that despite three small children (full time job plus) you are still expanding your mind. Good for you Jaime. If you have any questions about GR please don't hesitate to ask me for help. If I don't know I have many knowledgeable friends to ask. Thank you Jaime for your kind words.


Jeffrey Keeten Sketchbook wrote: "Jeffrey writes terrific revs, Jaime. He doesn't begin w blabbies, "This was given to me..I lost the book, but then, and.." assorted triviatas. He doesn't use this space as a personal cornball BLOG ..."

WOW! Thank you Sketch! I do believe I'm blushing. I so appreciate your supportive comments. Usually if I'm missing a book it is because I lent it to someone. People DO NOT return books, dvds, music, hedge trimmers or blenders as it turns out.


message 5: by Dolors (new)

Dolors "With the last beating of his heart 16 million people were consigned to death and 20 million more would be wounded in one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history."

You certainly know how to capture one's attention Jeffrey! Fascinating account about the end of an old empire that eventually lead to a new, if also uncertain, political order.
But what I most like about your historical reviews is that one can get to learn not only what happened, but also how it did happen. Erudite and refreshing review, Jeffrey.


Jeffrey Keeten Dolors wrote: ""With the last beating of his heart 16 million people were consigned to death and 20 million more would be wounded in one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history."

You certainly know how to c..."


I was just thinking about Max and the poor timing of him arriving in Mexico in 1864 when the US is still mired in a civil war. I wonder if he applied to the US for help, not that they were in any position to help. Carlota did make a tour of Europe looking for someone to lend her husband support and nearly became catatonic when she failed. She never would admit that Max had died for the rest of her life.

Max was asked to come to Mexico. It probably never crossed his mind to bring an army with him. History is filled with tragic figures.

The whole idea of Franz Ferdinand's death starting WWI is preposterous, but it did serve as a way to get the ball rolling for countries looking for a way to expand their territories. I doubt anyone realized how wide it would escalate.

Thank you Dolors! I've always wanted to be erudite with arm patches on the elbows of my jacket and the cloth frayed under my left arm where I always carry a book.


message 7: by Michael (new)

Michael Great history lesson for me. The Habsburgs seem to have mastered breeding their way to success. Though in the end their empire crumbled, they didn't have as awful a legacy as those upstart uncouth dictators.

So if Maximillian was invited to govern Mexico, where did Napolean fit in the scheme? (a personal interest derives from having a great-great uncle who, as part of the Confederate force that refused to give up after the Civil War, set up shop in Mexico and made the poor choice of serving as mercenaries for Maximillian)


message 8: by Edwina (new)

Edwina Callan Another fascinating review!


Jeffrey Keeten Michael wrote: "Great history lesson for me. The Habsburgs seem to have mastered breeding their way to success. Though in the end their empire crumbled, they didn't have as awful a legacy as those upstart uncout..."

Well even though Maximilian was invited to Mexico by the aristocracy it was at the instigation of Napoleon III, the nephew of the Waterloo Napoleon. They intended for him to be a French puppet. Knowing what I know about Max I'm not sure that would have worked very well. In 1866 Nap III decides that he's had enough of this Mexican debacle and evacuates his troops. The French cabinet disbands. The mercenaries from Europe say screw this and it was a pell-mell rush to the ships. Nap III did urge Maximilian to evacuate with the French troops. He refused. I'm speculating, but probably out of some sense of Habsburg honor. I really need to read a book on Max. That Mexican History class was 25 years ago.

Did your great-great uncle survive his stint in Mexico? If so did he come back and take the oath.


Jeffrey Keeten Edwina wrote: "Another fascinating review!"

Thank you Edwina!


message 11: by Rowena (new)

Rowena As always, your reviews are brilliant and informative. Thanks Jeffrey:)


Jeffrey Keeten Rowena wrote: "As always, your reviews are brilliant and informative. Thanks Jeffrey:)"

Thank you Rowena! I appreciate the feedback!


message 13: by Florence (Lefty) (new)

Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh Wonderfully entertaining review/history lesson - and the photos you added are terrific. Thanks Jeffrey.


message 14: by Nishar c i (new)

Nishar c i Jeffrey i no you how no one day i see you these face and these dress


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