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King of Ukraine (4): The Great War and the Empires
Some Ukrainian history as we contemplate Russian war
As we contemplate a Russian invasion of Ukraine, let us begin from the people who are most concerned, the Ukrainians, and with what they have to lose. About twenty-five miles from the Russian border lies Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. The last time Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014, it staged a rebellion in the city, which failed. Its supporters charged the opera house, mistaking it for town hall. This time, Kharkiv would very likely be stormed in the first week of the war by the regular Russian army.
Last fall, Kharkiv premiered “King of Ukraine,” an opera based upon the true story of a modern aspirant to a Ukrainian throne. The libretto was written by Serhiy Zhadan, a poet and novelist who was hospitalized with head wounds after the attack on Kharkiv in 2014. He was severely beaten after refusing to kneel and kiss the Russian flag.
In a series of six posts (this is the fourth), which draw from my book The Red Prince, I will tell the true story of the man who once wished to be king of Ukraine. Its lesson: a nation is what you love, not what you inherit.
Archduke Wilhelm von Habsburg came of age during the First World War, as an old world was destroyed and a new one born, as dynasties broke and revolutions beckoned. He was a student at a military academy when the war began. His best friend there was a Croat, who hailed from the south of the empire, from the same Balkan land where Wilhelm himself was born. The Balkans would determine the fate of these cadets, and indeed that of a whole European generation. It was during Wilhelm's studies at the academy that his cousin, Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. This brought war between Austria and Serbia. His Croatian friend was killed in the first weeks of the Austrian offensive against Serbia. Wilhelm requested and received command of a unit comprised of Ukrainians.
Austria did not fight the war that it wanted. The quick strike against Serbia soon became a European war, and then a worldwide conflagration. Russia came to Serbia's aid, and Austria had to fight a war with a southern (Serbian) front and an eastern (Ukrainian) front. Germany joined Austria as an ally, and France and Britain joined Russia. Wilhelm and his men fought bravely on the Ukrainian front against the Russians, as imperial armies passed back and forth over Galicia. Wilhelm had a good military education, and was aware of his branch of the family's martial record. He was a good warrior who did not love war. "The greatest myth about battle, " he wrote, "is that one can get used to it. The first battle is the easiest."
Tall, blue-eyed, and handsome, wearing a Ukrainian shirt and speaking Ukrainian, Wilhelm could rally Ukrainian troops. They loved him, and taught him Ukrainian songs, and helped him to read Ukrainian books. The Austrian army was multicultural. Its officers were expected to know the languages of their regiments, and the empire had some dozen major languages. In knowing six languages, including the Ukrainian he now practiced with his men, Wilhelm was formidably but not unusually endowed. His contact with his men met with the approval of his superiors. They spoke of "an energetic will, a desire to be in the thick of battle" and an unusual "ability to understand the military situation under difficult conditions." Though Wilhelm was decorated several times by the Austrian command and its German allies, he wore only an armband with the Ukrainian trident on a field of maize and sky blue, the Ukrainian national colors.
As the Russian war effort collapsed, the Bolsheviks came to power in November 1917. Here was an opening in the east. Germany and Austria quickly recognized a new Ukrainian state comprised of formerly Russian territories, made peace with it in February 1918, and marched in to collect its material wealth. Wilhelm mediated between Austria's diplomats and local Ukrainians in the negotiations, ensuring generous boundaries for the new state. The vast territories of Ukraine were occupied in a matter of weeks, the Germans seizing Kyiv, the north, and the Black Sea ports; the Austrians seizing a belt of southern Ukraine extending from the eastern border of their Galicia to the unknown lands of the Caucasus. Their staff maps did not even extend that far east.
Wilhelm took command of the Austrian army's special Ukrainian unit, known as the Sich Riflemen. He made the eastward journey with them, across the Black Sea by ship to Odesa, then onward by rail and on foot through the steppes of southern Ukraine. Wilhelm was popular with his new Ukrainian soldiers, who could scarcely believe their good fortune. They now had an archduke to protect their unit, one who spoke Ukrainian, and shared their intense interest in meeting Ukrainian brethren from the former Russian Empire. Ukrainians from Austria knew that there were tens of millions of Ukrainians to the east, but very few of them had ever journeyed to meet them. The "Sich" of their unit's name was a reference to an ancient fortress of the Ukrainian Cossacks, beyond the rapids of the Dnipro River, deep in southern Ukraine. When the Sich Riflemen had chosen this name years earlier and hundreds of miles to the west, it had been a dreamy invocation of half-forgotten history, a gesture of solidarity with a community they could scarcely imagine. Now the Riflemen made for the Sich itself, deep in the Ukrainian steppe, in lands they knew from poetry and song, and made camp.
In summer 1918 Wilhelm looked up the rapids of the Dnipro River towards Kyiv, glory, and power. Kyiv was the grandest city of eastern Europe, the oldest capital in the east slavic world, the capital of a medieval state that had brought Christianity to much of Europe. The golden domes of its cathedrals, built in those days of medieval greatness, were but one of many refinements of a city that had known the Polish baroque and partaken in the Russian Imperial art nouveau. For Kyiv had long been a colony of other powers. Mongol riders had watered their horses in the Dnipro, and Polish kings had notched the city's golden gates with their swords. Cossacks from the Sich had rallied to take the city in the middle of the seventeenth century, but made an alliance with Moscow that proved their undoing. Later the Russian tsars claimed Kyiv as the mother of all Russian cities, and disbanded the Cossacks. Now that the Russian Empire had fallen, Ukraine the future seemed to be open. There were numerous Ukrainian political options at the time, of which Wilhelm was only one. In summer 1918, Wilhelm positioned himself among the claimants, and awaited the proper moment.
Great expectations were bound to arise. In Moscow the Bolshevik Commissar for War, Trotsky, believed that Wilhelm would take the Ukrainian throne and Austria would take charge of the Ukrainian occupation, leaving the Germans free to send more troops to the western front. The Germans, who had a puppet government in Kyiv, feared a coup d'état by the popular young Austrian archduke. German and Austrian diplomats alike found Wilhelm's presence in Ukraine undesirable. He brought disorder and rebellion. Denunciations arrived at court in Vienna. Wilhelm was summoned to Vienna to answer the charges. Emperor Karl greeted Wilhelm in his chambers at the Hofburg, a thick packet of denunciations in his hand. "I know that this is all untrue, " he said, passing the packet to his cousin. Wilhelm burned them in a stove on his way out of the imperial palace. He and his unit were in Ukraine to serve Emperor Karl, who wanted his own sources of information about the occupation, and a Ukrainian contingency plan should the alliance with Germany fail or the Polish nobles prove unreliable.
With such protection Wilhelm had a large, though not unlimited, freedom of maneuver. Austria was Germany's junior ally in the war, and in August 1918 Wilhelm was summoned to German headquarters in Belgium. Wilhelm was to see the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was a visit shrouded in mystery. Wilhelm was entrusted by Emperor Karl, with a secret mission. Wilhelm explained to the kaiser that Austria wished for peace, and would seek a separate peace soon if Germany did not cooperate. The Kaiser was infuriated; it probably did not help that the young archduke took the opportunity to criticize German occupation policy in Ukraine.
But Karl was right. The war was over, and Austria and Germany had lost. If Ukraine was to arise, it would have to be under other auspices.
(To be continued)