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’.

Little was done to prepare the future rulers for the challenges of life on the throne. Grigory Danilovich, the hopelessly mediocre ‘military governor’ who took charge of Nicky’s education when the boy turned ten, is said to have told the tsarevich that he would learn all he needed to know from the ‘mysterious forces’ released by the ‘sacrament of taking the oath on the day of the coronation’. After 12 years under the tutelage of John Neale Dalton, a 32-year-old curate with an ‘impressively booming voice’, George was still ‘deficient in even the most elementary subjects’, including spelling and grammar. Georg Ernst Hinzpeter, the man selected to oversee the education of the adolescent Wilhelm, was a far more impressive figure in intellectual terms, but his pedagogical regime, which aimed to break down the ‘crystal-hard egoism’ of the prince by relentlessly exposing him to his own inadequacies, may well have done more harm than good. As one of Nicky’s Russian cousins later put it, ‘the education that was given us atrophied our powers and limited our horizons.’ It would be unfair to blame the teachers alone. The parents, with the exception of Willy’s parents, Vicky and Friedrich, cared little for the accoutrements of a ‘bourgeois’ education, and none of the three boys was an especially talented or co-operative student. Willy’s teachers complained endlessly of his short attention span and Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the reactionary jurist drafted in to give the teenage Nicky a master-class on the inner workings of the tsarist state, later recalled: ‘I could only observe that he was completely absorbed in picking his nose.’

The men who emerged from this extraordinary milieu were, in their different ways, sadly ill-equipped for the tasks they would face. Even George, whose constitutional status protected him from the burdens of executive responsibility, found the public duties of monarchy excruciating. When he read his speeches to open Parliament, his hands would shake so hard that the text had to be set in large type. Max Beerbohm reported feeling a stab of pity for ‘the little king, with the great diamonded crown that covered his eyebrows, and with the eyes that showed so tragically much of effort, of the will to please . . . such a piteous, good, feeble, heroic little figure’. The ministers who came to know him in later years were withering in their appraisals of the royal intellect: ‘The king talked more stupidly about the navy than I have ever heard him before,’ Churchill wrote in 1912. ‘Really it is disheartening to hear this cheap and silly drivel with which he lets himself be filled up.’ Nicky, who was expected to rule as well as reign, knew next to nothing of the workings of the tsarist system and was incapable of regular work. When, in the early 1890s, he began to receive state papers and attend government meetings, he was overwhelmed. ‘I am simply unable to understand how one can possibly read this mass of papers in one week,’ he wrote in 1891. To reduce the burden, he restricted himself to reading ‘one or two more interesting files while others go directly into the fire’. He had scarcely any understanding of economics, and no idea of what ordinary people paid for everyday commodities. ‘It is one of the big gaps in my education,’ he told the head of his chancellery, Alexander Mossolov. ‘I don’t know the price of things; I have never had reason to pay for anything myself.’

Willy was probably the most intelligent of the three, but as an adult he, too, proved incapable of dealing with matters of state in a disciplined and systematic way. Routines were disrupted by virtually constant travel – the kaiser spent less than half his reign in Berlin and Potsdam. As early as 1889, only a year after his accession, a senior aide observed that ‘the frequent journeys, the restless activity, the many and varied interests have as their natural consequence a lack of thoroughness’; there was no order in the conduct of affairs, no timetable in which certain hours of the day were set aside for specific tasks. The result of the kaiser’s curious way of absenting himself one minute and intervening the next was a style of monarchical government strikingly similar to that of his cousin the tsar, of whom the state councillor Polovtsov observed in July 1901 that ‘in no field of policy is there a principled, well-considered and firmly directed course of action. Everything is done in bursts, haphazardly, under the influence of the moment.’ The tsar and the kaiser personified a generic mismatch between the quite phenomenal demands of monarchical office in highly developed authoritarian systems and the modest capabilities of those placed on the thrones by dynastic providence.

Carter is a shrewd and observant guide to the inner life of the monarchical clan that reigned over most of Europe at the start of the 20th century. She captures the flavour of a relationship in a few sentences and her portraits of the many dynastic and political figures that crowd the background of her story are masterpieces of miniaturisation. She conveys a sense of wonder at the fact that the Europe of fast cruisers, radio telegraphy and electric cigar-lighters still carried at its heart this weird, glittering institution yoking large and complex states to the vagaries of human biology.

How much difference did the dense nexus of bloodlines make? Did dynastic relationships shape the course of European history on the road to 1914, or were the monarchs (to paraphrase Fernand Braudel) mere crests of foam that the tides of international history carry on their strong backs? The book is less successful in its attempt to integrate the story of the clan with the grand narrative of European politics. The sheer scale and complexity of the task is the main problem. Monarchs played an important role in the stage-management of international relations in late 19th and early 20th-century Europe, and politics was often on the agenda at royal family get-togethers. From this one might be tempted to infer a close causal linkage. But in order to understand the place of the monarchs in the larger scheme of things, we need to establish how much traction they possessed within their respective executives, a matter of lively debate within the relevant specialist literatures. The extent of the kaiser’s power, for example, is still disputed. According to John Röhl, a biographer of Wilhelm II, the kaiser was an ‘invincible monarch’ who ‘personally directed German domestic, external and armaments policy’. For Hans Ulrich Wehler, by contrast, he was a ‘shadow emperor’, ‘one actor among many’, a man who operated at the margins of the political process. There were policies on which the kaiser undeniably did exercise a direct and personal influence, such as the decision to build ships in sufficient numbers to challenge the British, but there were also decisions of world-historical importance, such as the non-renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1890 or the decision to give the Austrians free rein in Serbia during the last days of July 1914, in which the kaiser was sidelined by his ministers.

Did the existence of transnational dynastic links motivate or modify the behaviour of the imperial cousins? The answer is not at all obvious. The key to the bipolar system of the pre-1914 era was the Franco-Russian alliance, a military convention between two governments with no dynastic ties whose style and ideological orientation were diametrically opposed. Germany’s most important partner, conversely, was Austria-Hungary, whose Habsburg monarch stood at some remove from the Coburg-Hesse-Romanov cousinage. Much has been written on Willy’s tormented relationship with his domineering, obsessive and emphatically English mother, and it is reasonable to suppose that this may help to explain the confusion of dewy-eyed admiration and red-cheeked rage he displayed in his attitude to England. But even a kaiser with no English relations at all would surely have hit on the idea that Germany, like all the other great imperial powers, needed a formidable fleet. And England was not by any means the only subject to induce mood swings in the fretful Wilhelm.

The political record suggests that where the cousins used personal diplomacy to counter prevailing international trends, they generally failed. A good example is the Treaty of Björkö of 1905, agreed between Wilhelm and Nicholas on a yacht in the Gulf of Finland, but subsequently dropped at the insistence of the tsar’s ministers, because it conflicted with Russia’s all-important commitment to republican France. On the other hand, there were moments when a monarch could capture, symbolise and amplify broader trends – an example is Edward VII’s involvement in the warming of relations that preceded the Anglo-French Entente of April 1904. Monarchs could clearly provide a focus for collective emotions and associations. When Parisian onlookers gawped at Edward VII sprawled in a chair outside his hotel smoking a cigar, they felt they were looking at England in the form of a very fat, fashionable and confident man. And who embodied the most disturbing aspects of German foreign policy – its vacillations, lack of coherence and angry, frustrated ambition – better than the febrile, tactless, panic-prone, overbearing Wilhelm, the man who dared to advise Edvard Grieg on how to conduct Peer Gynt? He may not have made German policy, but he certainly personified it for Germany’s opponents. As symbolic persons, monarchs could become powerful tools for understanding – and misunderstanding – international relations.

Errors inevitably crop up here and there in Carter’s account, but she tells her story with verve and impressive synthetic reach. Only in the last years before the outbreak of war does the narrative fray as its component strands – cousins, empires and high politics – are forced apart by the sheer diversity of the material. The Three Emperors may not transform our understanding of how war came about in 1914, but as an atmospheric, transnational exploration of the lost world of European monarchy in the most perilous phase of its history, it succeeds admirably.