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This site in Ukrainian The Habsburg
who became Vyshyvanyj

on the 90th Anniversary of the Struggle for Independence (1918-19)

The name of the Austrian crown prince, Wilhelm Habsburg, is not at all well known in Ukraine. No one names streets and squares after him, or unveils monuments or memorial plaques in his honor. Yet this heir to the ancient European dynasty of Habsburg-Lothringen deliberately resolved to champion the Ukrainian cause. Repudiating his family and famous name and integrating himself into Ukraine’s political, military, and cultural life, he became known as Vasyl Vyshyvany.

The life of Wilhelm Habsburg ended in Kyiv 60 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1948. To this day the whereabouts of his remains are unknown.


Wilhelm Habsburg was born on Feb. 10, 1895, near the town of Pula in Dalmatia, on the family estate of his father Archduke Karl Stefan Habsburg. This branch of the Habsburg-Lothringen dynasty produced several Austrian kings and emperors, including Franz Joseph, who was the second cousin of Wilhelm’s father. Throug hout various eras the Habsburgs ruled over Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

Karl Habsburg was an admiral in the Austrian Navy, and thanks to this position his six children, particularly his youngest son Wilhelm, traveled frequently on the Adriatic Sea, starting in their childhood. From the age of 10 Wilhelm began traveling throughout Europe, Africa, North America, and Asia.

His father’s decision to leave military service and move to the Polish town of Zywiec did not put a stop to young Wilhelm’s wanderlust. At the age of 14 he set out on the main journey of his life, traveling incognito through Ukraine’s Hutsul region until he was found by gendarmes. He came up with the idea for such a journey thanks to the Polish noblemen who often stayed at the estate of the Austrian archduke and described Ukrainians as brigands and bandits. The romantic image of Ukrainian brigands appealed to the young Wilhelm, who later recalled:

“This happened in the summertime. I arrived in Vorokhta via Lviv and Stanyslaviv. I got off the train and went to the village. On the way, I met a 40-year-old Hutsul peasant and asked him in Polish whether he had a place for me to stay. He said he did, and I stayed at his place. I would go to the mountains, ride horses, and travel by cart to Zhabia (today: Verkhovyna — S. L.). I looked everywhere for the Ukrainian cut-throats. But my efforts were in vain! I became disillusioned. Then I developed distrust to my informants whom I had believed for so long. Since that time I changed considerably, and I returned to Zywiec a changed person.”

After this journey Wilhelm cast about for opportunities to learn more about Ukraine. When he began his studies at the military academy with his brother Leo, he chose Ukrainian Language as an optional subject.

Wilhelm already had a good education: all the children spoke Italian at home, they mastered German thanks to their father, and were taught French and English by private tutors. Wilhelm recalled that in his childhood he became fascinated by the works of Heinrich Heine, Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio. After the young archduke learned Polish, he became interested in the works of Henryk Sienkiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki.

The education of Karl Stefan’s sons was not limited to languages and travels: their father wanted his children to receive a professional and high-quality military education. This attitude was untypical of the Habsburgs: boys of the imperial family were automatically granted the rank of officer. Wilhelm had to live in barracks with other cadets.


The beginning of World War I coincided with Wilhelm Habsburg’s appointment to the 13th Uhlan Regiment, which consisted mainly of Ukrainians from the Zolochiv district (today in Lviv oblast). Archduke Wilhelm soon turned his unit into a Ukrainian one and got rid of the Poles and Hungarians. With the help of a soldier from Ternopil region named Pryimak, he continued to study Ukrainian and later read his first Ukrainian book — the short Istoriia Ukrainy (History of Ukraine) by Mykhailo Hrushevsky.

The soldiers’ affection for their commander is reflected in the gift that they presented to Wilhelm — a Ukrainian embroidered shirt. Later this shirt could be seen peeking out from underneath Habsburg’s military uniform, and on Feb. 4, 1917, the Visnyk Soiuzu Vyzvolennia Ukrainy (Herald of the Union of Ukraine’s Liberation) published a photo featuring Wilhelm Habsburg in an embroidered shirt, which earned him the nickname of “Vyshyvany” (the embroidered one).

Vasyl Vyshyvany in a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt

The respect that Ukrainians extended to Archduke Wilhelm was inversely proportional to his perception by the Poles, who called him the “Red Prince,” meaning “Red Rus’” — Galicia. However, the archduke made his first appearance in Ukrainian affairs only in the fall of 1917, when the Habsburgs entrusted him to welcome to Lviv, on behalf of Emperor Karl, the greatest Ukrainian authority — Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky — who was returning from Russian captivity.

Wilhelm’s impact on Ukrainian affairs predated 1917. As a member of the Senate, the archduke became acquainted with Ukrainian parliamentarians, who viewed the involvement of Wilhelm Habsburg in Ukrainian problems as the greatest success of Ukrainian politicians. It is believed that the archduke’s assistance was instrumental in the appointment of the Ukrainian Ivan Horbachevsky as Austro-Hungary’s first health minister (Horbachevsky was the first person in the world to be appointed a Minister of Health).

Wilhelm and Ukrainian politicians’ political plans to create a single crown region in the empire did not come to fruition, but the archduke was appointed commander of the Battle Group of Archduke Wilhelm, which included a battalion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen (the USS).

In southern Ukraine Habsburg took under his protection several Ukrainian otamans, who were facing punishment from the Germans. After more than a decade General Omelianovych-Pavlenko mentioned this incident in his memoirs: “In my opinion, this is something more than romanticism or any other specific egotistical or political combinations that attract Vyshyvany’s regiment to our cause, and it is so fundamental that even our military and political defeat does not stop him from defending our cause together with his constant adjutant, Captain Liaryshenko.

“When the struggle for independent Ukraine was a synonym for ‘second-rate Bolshevism’ in Europe, the archduke would always adorn himself with our national ribbon. Colonel Vasyl Vyshyvany left good memories of himself as a man, an officer, and a politician in the Katerynoslav region. So, although not immediately, the case of our otamans was investigated once again and ended rather mildly for them...”

Wilhelm Habsburg was so famous among Ukrainians that both military men and politicians frequently asked him to lead the uprising against Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky and assume power. On three occasions Skoropadsky sent notes to Berlin with a request to recall Archduke Wilhelm from Ukraine. The latter had to explain his position on the Ukrainian question to the emperors of Austria-Hungary and Germany. He was then sent together with some Sich Riflemen from the Dnipro region to Chernivtsi, where the question of declaring the independence of Ukraine’s western regions had emerged.

Although Habsburg did not intervene in political events, the Ukrainian citizens of Bukovyna appealed to him to head the Ukrainian government. After the Western Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR) was proclaimed, the government of the new republic proposed that he spend some time at the Basilian Monastery in Buchach, far from the maelstrom of political events and the desire of certain groups to see him in power.

Archduke Wilhelm, who was an excellent soldier, once again found himself at the crossroads of Ukraine’s political internecine struggles.

The Directory of the UNR again used Wilhelm Habsburg’s services, and this turned to be the last time. Chief Otaman Symon Petliura accepted him under the name of Vasyl Vyshyvany and assigned him the rank of colonel. However, not Ukraine, Petliura, or Habsburg-Vyshyvany could avoid the looming military catastrophe.

Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky and Vasyl Vyshyvany
(Photo from archives of Vasyl Stets (UGCC)


In 1921 a collection of Vasyl Vyshyvany’s poems called Mynaiut dni (Days Are Passing) was published in Vienna. These melancholy words reveal the situation of the representative of the Habsburg dynasty after the defeat of the Ukrainian liberation movement.

Petro Karmansky, a Ukrainian writer and member of the ZUNR government, met Vyshyvany in Vienna: “I often ran into this Ukrainian colonel, who was full of dreams, at various Ukrainian functions and holidays. I saw him not simply listening but capturing with his entire soul the melodies and words of the Sich songs, finding there his sole enjoyment after the loss of the recent fairytale of fighting for the Ukrainian state. Our audience, as usual, was not very kind to this victim of youthful impetuousness and dreamy disposition, and he usually stood in a corner lonely and forgotten by everyone, for now he was not wearing the aureole of the Habsburgs, but was simply Colonel Vasyl Vyshyvany, who wore the uniform of the Ukrainian army and a grey overcoat and lived on the miniscule wages of a military man that the emigre government managed to pay.”

On Jan. 9, 1921 an event took place that had a fatal impact on Vasyl’s relations with his family and the political circles around the Directory. The Austrian newspaper Neues Wiener Journal published an interview with Vasyl Vyshyvany, in which he condemned the Polish occupation of Galicia. This sparked a sharp reaction from his father, who was one of the candidates for the Polish throne. In addition, the diplomatic corps of the UNR demanded a retraction from the newspaper.

Vyshyvany also disapproved of certain parts of the article, which had been distorted by the journalist, but he was mostly offended by the words “it was also noted: ‘As the Ukrainian citizen Vasyl Vyshyvany, I cannot and dare not call myself Archduke Wilhelm of Austria.” However, he did not disavow the article.

Vasyl Vyshyvany was left face to face with his “Ukrainian question.” However, Ukrainian monarchist circles sought to promote Vyshyvany as a candidate to the Ukrainian throne, but in the newspaper Soborna Ukraina he denied all such initiatives.

In the following years Vyshyvany set up a business and helped Ukrainian emigres with his earnings. As an authoritative Ukrainian figure, who had not disgraced either his military uniform or his aristocratic name, he organized meetings between Ukrainian political opponents. During World War II he refused to cooperate with the Nazis. He was later kidnapped in Vienna by the Soviet counterintelligence organization SMERSh (Russian for “Death to Spies”) and brought to Kyiv, where he denied all accusations.

Accused of links with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and cooperating with English and French counterintelligence, Habsburg faced a 27-year prison sentence, the verdict handed down by a special council. However, on Aug. 18, 1948, Vasyl Habsburg-Vyshyvany died in the hospital of Kyiv’s Prison No. 1, diagnosed with “pulmonary tuberculosis.”

The Ukrainian writer Karmansky, recalling Colonel Vyshyvany, asked Ukrainian society a question that we still have not managed to answer: “For the sake of what is this noble soul of a former aristocrat suffering, which to its misfortune fell into the eddy of our liberation drama? And will there be many among us who will be able to make a proper assessment of this idealist and dreamer...”

Of Special Interest...

From the correspondence of Karl Habsburg and Vasyl Vyshyvany:

«I read with regret in various periodicals different news about Archduke Wilhelm. I regard it as my duty to calm down public opinion with the assurance that, after the collapse of Austria, Archduke Wilhelm did not return home, and all connections between his family home and him have been broken. Both our family and I disapprove of his behavior. Both of my elder sons serve in the Polish army. One of them was wounded in battle near Radekhiv. Finally, I declare that no member of our family solidarizes with the behavior of Archduke Wilhelm.

Karl Stefan Habsburg»

«My father is publicly stating that he and our family neither agree with my actions nor approve of them. This may refer only to my national-political activity because I have not done anything in my private and family life that could evoke my family’s public reaction. As for my national-political activity, I have the honor to state publicly:

First of all, I am of full legal age on the basis of Ukrainian Civil Law, which I recognize; I am also of full legal age according to family law, which does not oblige me, but possibly obliges my father. All this considered, I do not recognize any guardianship over me and behave in the way I find appropriate.

Second, I confirm that I do not approve of the entire policy that my family has conducted against the Ukrainian people, doing constant harm to this people for centuries. And therefore this was one of the motives that made me serve the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian republic. And I will fulfill this service to the end, without regard for the position given to me by the Ukrainian legal government and without regard for the fact whether my father or my family likes this or not.

In any case, after being publicly insulted, I must publicly express my surprise at the fact that my father has succumbed to such a degree to the influence of the Poles, whose role is not noble either with regard to the peoples that are seeking freedom or with regard to those to whom they swore fidelity on their knees.

Vienna, Feb. 10, 1921
Vasyl Vyshyvany»

- Svyatoslav Lypovetsky  
(CYM in Ukraine)  

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