Nicky, Willy and George

Christopher Clark

  • The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One by Miranda Carter
    Fig Tree, 584 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 670 91556 9

On 30 July 1914, it suddenly dawned on Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany was on the threshold of a war with three great powers. Panicking, he grabbed a recently arrived dispatch from St Petersburg and committed his agonised thoughts to paper in a frenzy of marginal scribbles. England was the author of Germany’s predicament, he scrawled. Over the years, it had gradually tightened a net of alliances around the unsuspecting Germans. Now, in its perfidy, it claimed to find in Germany’s loyalty to Austria-Hungary the pretext for a war of annihilation. As if all this were not painful enough, the malign intelligence behind the plot had been the kaiser’s uncle, King Edward VII, who had died in 1910:

This, in a nutshell, is the true, naked situation engineered so slowly and surely by Edward VII, elaborated and systematically expanded through covert talks with Paris and St Petersburg, and at last brought to completion and put into action by George V . . . A remarkable achievement, that commands the admiration even of him who will be laid low by it! Even after his death, Edward VII is still stronger than I, who am alive!

Wilhelm’s vision of Edward VII posthumously launching a world war to humiliate and destroy his nephew was obviously somewhat wide of the mark. But his outburst is a reminder of the dynastic connections and family passions that were such a distinctive feature of European high politics during the last decades before the First World War.

By the turn of the 20th century, the genealogical web of Europe’s reigning families had thickened almost to the point of fusion. Wilhelm II and George V were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, was Victoria’s granddaughter. The mothers of George V and Nicholas II were sisters from the house of Denmark. Wilhelm and Nicholas II were both great-great-grandsons of Tsar Paul I. The kaiser’s great-great-aunt, Charlotte of Prussia, was the tsar’s grandmother. Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.

As its subtitle suggests, Miranda Carter’s intelligent, entertaining and informative book folds dynastic and political narratives into a panoramic account of Europe’s road to war. The first and most successfully handled of her themes is the saga of the three cousins, Willy, Nicky and George. They were linked not just by blood, but also by their shared upbringing in a world of extreme artifice, deference and privilege. From their earliest years, all three cousins had to accustom themselves to the tedious routines of court protocol. At Easter, for example, the Russian imperial children were required to stand motionless during a three-hour church service before taking part in the ceremonial egg-giving, a protracted ritual in which the tsar greeted his 5000 imperial guards and personally presented each with a porcelain egg. In all three empires, a childhood at court unfolded in almost total isolation from the wider world. There were animal menageries at Sandringham and Gatchina and echoing nurseries full of huge toys, but little in the way of children from the same age group to play with. The most important relationships were formed with ‘servants, pets and relations, in that order’.

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