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Archduke Wilhelm
Personal details
Born (1895-02-10)10 February 1895
Lošinj, Austria-Hungary (present-day Croatia)
Died 18 August 1948(1948-08-18) (aged 53)
Kiev, Soviet Union (present-day Ukraine)

Archduke Wilhelm Franz of Austria, later Wilhelm Franz von Habsburg-Lothringen (10 February 1895 – 18 August 1948), also known as Basil the Embroidered (Ukrainian language: Василь Вишиваний ), was an Austrian archduke, a colonel of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen,[citation needed] and a poet.

Background and early life

Archduke Wilhelm was the youngest son of Archduke Karl Stephan and Archduchess Maria Theresia, Princess of Tuscany. He was born in a family estate on the Lošinj island, Austrian Littoral (present day Croatia).

Accommodating the 19th-century rise of nationalism, Archduke Karl Stephan decided that his branch of the Habsburg family would adopt a Polish identity and would combine a loyalty to their Habsburg family with a loyalty to Poland. Accordingly, he had his children learn Polish from an early age and tried to instill in them a sense of Polish patriotism. His oldest son, Karl-Albrecht, would become a Polish officer who refused to renounce his Polish loyalty even under torture by the Gestapo. Karl Stefan's two younger daughters would marry into the Polish noble families of Radziwill and Czartoryski. Wilhelm, the youngest child, rebelled, and came to identify with the Poles' rivals, the Ukrainians. He developed a fascination with Ukrainian culture, and as a youth escaped from his family's estate, travelling incognito to Hutsul villages in the nearby Carpathian mountains and Bukovyna (the Land of Cheremosh and Prut). This interest in the relatively impoverished Ukrainian people earned him the nickname of the "Red Prince". Eventually the Habsburgs came to accept and encourage this interest, and he was groomed by them to take a leadership role amongst the Ukrainian people in a manner similar to the one in which his father and older brother were to take amongst the Habsburgs' Polish subjects.[1]

Activities in Ukrainian nation-building

Eventually approved by his father, his as well as his father's ambition became for Wilhelm to become the king of Ukraine. Despite his youth, he played an important historical role. As a member of the Habsburg imperial house he came to work closely with Ukrainian deputies to the parliament of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in an effort to gain more rights for the Ukrainian minority, serving as a liaison between the Ukrainian community leaders and Austria's emperor Charles I. During the First World War he commanded a detachment of Ukrainians from Halychyna, serving as a lieutenant with the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. During the German and Austrian occupation of Ukraine in 1918, he commanded a separate Sich Riflemen regiment that fought against Bolsheviks in Southern Ukraine.

During the time of his stay in Southern Ukraine, Wilhelm became the focal point of a quiet struggle between the two allies, Austria-Hungary and the German Empire, for the future of Ukraine which they both occupied. The Habsburgs hoped for Ukraine to be a politically self-sufficient ally in order to counter German power.[2] Accordingly, they planned for Wilhelm to eventually become Ukraine's king and supported his efforts to gain popularity among Ukraine's people as well as to promote Ukrainian patriotism. The Germans, on the other hand, were primarily concerned with obtaining grain, and supported Pavlo Skoropadskyi's rule.

Promoted to the rank of captain, Wilhelm was made commander of "Battle Group Archduke Wilhelm," created by the Emperor Charles I, and provided with approximately 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers and officers under his command. His troops occupied a small area near the site of the old Zaporozhian Sich, and were tasked with supporting the Ukrainian national cause in any way possible. This was done by screening officials by ethnicity, creating a newspaper, and engaging in cultural work with local peasants. Wilhelm mixed easily with the local peasants, who admired his ability to live simply like his soldiers. Within Wilhelm's personal occupation zone, peasants were allowed to keep the lands that they had taken from the landlords in 1917, and Wilhelm prevented the Habsburg armed forces from requisitioning grain. Ukrainians who had resisted requisitioning elsewhere - including those who had killed German or Austrian soldiers - were given refuge within Wilhelm's territory. These actions outraged Germany and Austrian officials in Kiev, but increased his popularity among local Ukrainians, who referred to him as affectionately as "Prince Vasyl." The Germans feared that Wilhelm would create a coup and overthrow the Hetmanate. Indeed, several attempts by Ukrainians were made to make Archduke Wilhelm a sovereign of Ukraine, transforming the country into a monarchy. Each time he deferred to the opinion of the Austrian Emperor, who at the time denied Wilhelm's requests for diplomatic reasons. Nevertheless, Charles I resisted German pressure to have Wilhelm removed from Ukraine. Wilhelm and his soldiers were finally ordered out of Ukraine in October 1918 due to the revolutionary conditions there, moving to Bukovina.[3] Through his intervention, in October 1918 two regiments of mostly Ukrainian troops were garrisoned in Lemberg (modern Lviv).[4] This would set the stage for the declaration of the West Ukrainian National Republic on November 1.

With Petr Bolbochan in the Ukraine (1918)

Following Austria's dissolution, Wilhelm ordered his men to travel from Bukovina to Lviv to fight for the Ukrainian cause. He himself fled to that city after Romanian forces captured Bukovina, but was told by the president of the West Ukrainian National Republic that his services were not needed, and retired to a nearby monastery. As a Habsburg, he had become a liability to the Ukrainian cause, which was being portrayed to the Allies by its Polish enemies as an Austrian plot.[5] After pledging loyalty to the Ukrainian People's Republic, in 1919 he was made a colonel of its army and worked for the Ministry of Defense of the country. In protest at Petlura's peace treaty with Poland in 1920, which he considered to be a betrayal of Western Ukraine, he resigned and lived in exile in Vienna and Paris.

Later life

In an interview in a Viennese newspaper in January 1921, Wilhelm publicly rebuked Poland, condemning the pogroms in Lwów as something that would never happen in a civilized country, and referring to Poland and Poles as dishonorable. This caused a permanent, public estrangement between Wilhelm and his father Stephan. In 1921 Wilhelm published a book of poetry in Ukrainian, Mynayut Dni (Минають дні - The days pass).

That same year, he became involved in various plots by monarchists and other wishing to overthrow the new order following the first world war. He founded a Ukrainian veterans' organization in Vienna, briefly reconciled with his one-time rival Pavlo Skoropadskyi, and established contact with German counter-revolutionaries and monarchists such as Max Bauer and Erich Ludendorff, who helped fund a Ukrainian paramilitary organization in Vienna known as the Free Cossacks (estimated by Austrian police as numbering 40,000). Wilhelm's uncompromising attitude towards Poland made him popular among Ukrainian exiles, and he spent much of 1921 recruiting an invasion army of Ukraine. At this time, he was viewed by French and Polish intelligence as the Ukrainians' unquestioned leader and a viable candidate for the Ukrainian throne, respectively. Such plans aroused the anger of the exiled Ukrainian People's Republic, which had been discredited by its alliance with Poland (and continued to receive subsidies from the Polish government) and saw in Wilhelm a rival for Ukrainian allegiance. Seeking to upstage Wilhelm's planned invasion, the Ukrainian People's Republic invaded Soviet Ukraine on its own in November 1921 with several thousand soldiers. Its quick defeat discredited the idea of an invasion of Ukraine, and caused Wilhelm's German financial supporters to cease their subsidization of his project, which then collapsed. Under his Ukrainian name Vasyl Vyshyvani, he left Austria for Spain in 1922 from which he hoped in vain to obtain financial support for his Ukrainian adventure from his cousin, King Alfonso XIII.[6]

When all of his attempts to gain power in Ukraine failed to produce results, Wilhelm moved to Paris where he led a bisexual and increasingly hedonistic lifestyle. He spent part of his time in salons among other aristocrats, but the remainder in gay bars - favouring black rent-boys and sailors. An informant for the French police claimed that Wilhelm carried on a sexual relationship with two of his male assistants.[7] In 1935 he became enmeshed in a legal situation caused by his lover Paulette Couyba, who had used Wilhelm without his knowledge to swindle investors of hundreds of thousands of Francs.[8] During the sensationalistic and well-publicized trial, Wilhelm fled Paris for Vienna.

In the mid- to late 1930s, Wilhelm resumed his nationalistic Ukrainian activities. He established contact with old comrades-in-arms from the Galician Sich Rifles Yevhen Konovalets and Andriy Melnyk, who now headed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Although as a young man he had been pro-Jewish, Wilhelm began to espouse anti-Semitism and grew close to a circle within the Nazi party, led by Alfred Rosenberg, who advocated an allied Ukrainian state.

When by 1941 it became clear to Wilhelm that the Nazis would not support Ukrainian independence, however, he turned against the Nazis, spying for the British during much of the Second World War. His last years were as a spy for the French against the Soviet Union.[9]

Soviet imprisonment

File:Bw5 4.jpg

Wilhelm of Austria in Soviet captivity

In 1947 he was arrested by Soviet military counter-intelligence SMERSH in Vienna and brought to Lukyanivka Prison in Kiev. During his imprisonment he insisted on speaking the Ukrainian language at interrogations.[10] On 12 August 1948 the decision was made to transport him to the western Ukraine in order to serve a 25-year prison sentence. Before this could be carried out, on 18 August he died of untreated tuberculosis.[11]



  1. Timothy Snyder (2008). Red Prince: the Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke. New York: Basic Books
  2. Snyder (2008). pg. 100 - In the words of Austria's military intelligence officer responsible for Ukraine - "We, as the creators of the first Ukrainian military unit, are called upon to enter Ukraine as leaders - against Germany!"
  3. Snyder (2008). pp.101-116
  4. Snyder (2008). pg. 117
  5. Snyder (2008). pg. 122
  6. Snyder (2008). pp.138-148
  7. Snyder (2008). p. 156
  8. Snyder (2008). pp. 173-181
  9. Snyder (2008).pp. 230, 233-4
  10. Snyder (2008). pg. 4
  11. Snyder (2008). pg. 245

Further reading

  • Timothy Snyder, The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of A Habsburg Archduke (Basic Books, 2008);

External links

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