If Katie Couric quizzed you about your knowledge of World War I, you might well agree that, yes, it was a war to make the world safe for democracy. That was a clear enough reason for the United States to step in, even if many of those pesky European countries that had started the damn thing seemed to be run by kings and emperors. Which of them exactly, you might then be asked? Well, practically all of them! And you would be right.
Apart from the French, the great powers that gaily or grimly rode to war in 1914 had heads of state who luxuriated in imperial titles and imperial pomp, hoary with antiquity, real or alleged. The Austrian Emperor claimed a title that went back to the Roman Empire. The Russian Tsar also claimed to be a successor to the Caesars. In Germany, the name Kaiser self-evidently resurrected similar pretensions, though this promotion only dated from 1871—but at least that was five years longer than the title of Emperor of India, now held by the British King.
Putting it this way suggests the inherent rivalry of great powers locked in atavistic dynastic struggles. But there is another way of looking at the actual persons who occupied these unsteady thrones in 1914 (only one of whom survived the war). None was any great shakes as a Caesar. Though Wilhelm II of Germany aspired to such a role, his actual performance fell far short of heroic, instead veering between tragedy and farce. As for his first cousin, George V of Britain, he struck everyone as a distinct let-down on succeeding his father Edward VII in 1910.
Edward’s widow, Alexandra of Denmark, continued to live in the big house at Sandringham, which her son never plucked up the courage to claim in her lifetime. Not only was she now the British Queen Mother, but her sister Dagmar (or Minny) simultaneously had a similar position as the Russian dowager Tsarina. So George V was not only a first cousin of the Kaiser, both of them grandsons of Queen Victoria, but also a first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, both of them grandsons of King Christian IX of Denmark.
Luckily, Miranda Carter supplies some helpful family trees at an early point in her engaging and accessible study. The genealogical links between her protagonists were in fact more complex than a simple triumph for the marital strategies of the Danish royal house. Drawing on fortuitous natural talent—both Alexandra and Minny were strikingly beautiful—the Danes had enthusiastically joined in a game in which Queen Victoria made herself simultaneously the mistress of the board and the grandmother of half the royal houses of Europe.
The struggle for mastery in Europe was thus all in the family. True, Kaiser Wilhelm II, on succeeding his father in 1888, was impatient to get rid of Bismarck and rule all by himself, and was determined to reject the relatively liberal tendencies of his own English mother. But whenever the young man paid his dutiful visits to his reclusive English grandmother at Osborne House, her home on the Isle of Wight, he was simply Willy again, as the old lady never allowed him to forget. Nor did Willy grow out of the habits of family piety. The long-serving Prince of Wales, whom he knew all too well as his Uncle Bertie, continued to exerted a lifelong influence over his nephew—as over his other nephew, Nicky.
The paradox of this story, then, is that these extended blood relationships, intricate and interlocking, gave the various family members strong motives to defuse international tensions between their different countries. In fact, they did not have different countries in the usual sense of nationalistic or cultural loyalties. The younger members of the British and Russian royal families used to meet for family holidays in Denmark, where Aunt Alexandra and Aunt Minny could get together again, just as Willy continued to make the yachting at Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight a highlight of his summer holidays in England.
Willy was delighted that he had been made a British admiral (by an obliging grandmother) and loved the uniform. Everyone used to remark on how similar in looks young George and young Nicky were, and even in 1909, when they met as the Prince of Wales and the Tsar of all the Russias respectively, the striking similarity was brought out when they too both posed in their white British admirals’ uniforms. All three cousins were into uniforms, all famous for their punctilio in spotting a button or a medal out of place.
Even Edward VII, a fat playboy whose clothes were always too tight for comfort, had a similar obsessive concern with correct dress. Carter recounts that he once reprimanded the great Conservative statesman Lord Salisbury for the poor sartorial example that he set. The Prime Minister replied: “I am afraid that my mind must have been occupied by something less important.” This was not a problem for the indolent Bertie, nor for his ill-educated son George, nor for his two nephews: Nicky in his state of wilfully maintained ignorance and Willy in his manic swings from listlessness to hyper-activity.
Yet it was the great game of international politics, mastered by the likes of Bismarck and Salisbury, that continually threatened to disturb the cosmopolitan royals. When the German Kaiser decided that he had better intervene himself with the new Russian Tsar in 1895, he wrote a series of letters—‘Dear Nicky,’ ‘Dear Willy’—intended to reshape European diplomacy. The correspondence later achieved considerable fame, not least in the United States, when it was published after the war. And one reason why these missives proved so quotable, as an indictment of old Europe, was that they were written in English.
Of course they were: English was the language in which both these men were accustomed to converse with their Uncle Bertie, soon to become King Edward VII. In fact, one of the few non-English phrases in their letters was when Willy, after disparaging British parliamentary politics, instead implored Nicky to uphold the “principe de la Monarchie.” This advice was hardly necessary. Although the Tsar was later forced to make a small step towards a parliamentary model by instituting a Duma in 1905, he soon enough showed himself ready to dismiss it and, successively, its hobbled successors. “One must let them do something manifestly stupid or mean,” he explained to the dowager Tsarina Minny, “and then—slap! and they are gone.”
Minny’s sister Alexandra knew, as soon as her own son became King George V in 1910, that he faced more taxing political difficulties. The House of Commons was now dominated by an assortment of Liberals, Labour, and Irish Nationalists—all of them bad hats in King George’s view, and probably with their buttons all wrong. His special ire was reserved for David Lloyd George, now at the Treasury, whose ‘People’s Budget’ had been rejected by the House of Lords. Yet the poor British king, even before he was crowned, had to accept the Liberals’ demand that he break the power of the House of Lords, by creating enough new peers if necessary.
In the eyes of his cousins, George may have looked like the weakest upholder of the “principe de la Monarchie,” but when World War I steam-rollered dynastic Europe, things looked different. It was a war that they had all dreaded—even Wilhelm, whose wayward actions had helped to precipitate it. Beforehand, he had growled that the British had “no idea who is master here, namely myself.” But by November 1914, only three months into hostilities, he had a more realistic insight: “The General Staff tells me nothing and never asks my advice.” Willy learned more quickly what Nicky learned more painfully; in 1917 revolution finally disposed of the Tsars—slap! and they were gone.
In Britain, where Lloyd George had become prime minister, the King was intent on keeping his head down. But an obvious question arose: was asylum a possibility for his Russian cousin’s family? After all, their Aunt Alexandra had that big house available at Sandringham. The ultimate withdrawal of any invitation has usually been attributed to Lloyd George, which is consistent with the impression given in his war memoirs. But Carter’s quotation of documents in the British royal archives gives us a different story. It was the King’s private secretary who intervened at the crucial stage: “I feel sure that you appreciate how awkward it will be for our Royal Family who are closely connected with both the Emperor and Empress.” The awkwardness was duly avoided: Nicky and his family perished at Yekaterinberg. Willy went into exile in Holland, and George lived on to hear his praises sung as a fine constitutional monarch, the safest kind to be.
Peter Clarke’s new book Keynes: The Rise, Fall and Return of the Twentieth Century’s Most Influential Economist is published by Bloomsbury Press.