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George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 23, 2010
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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*Starred Review* The slippery slope into horrific armed conflict is a tale often told about World War I, but this author’s take on the antecedents of the European war of 1914–18 is distinct. Carter views the shifting alliance entanglements of the Great Powers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and especially the growing animosity and rivalry between Britain and Germany, with particular focus on the attitudes and actions of three royal first cousins: Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, and King George V of Great Britain (who also reigned as emperor of India, hence the book’s title reference to three emperors). Rich in concrete detail, elegant in style, and wise, fresh, and knowledgeable in interpretation, the author’s account observes a profound anachronism at play: that these three monarchs, in what they didn’t realize were the waning days of the institution of monarchy, handled foreign diplomacy as if it were a family business. Despite the reality of growing fissures separating their countries, “each emperor continued to paper over the cracks with cousinly gestures, each increasingly irrelevant.” Europe plunged over the precipice of war in August 1914, revealing in stark terms the inability of royal familial ties to control and contain national disagreements; as the author has it, the fact that Wilhelm, Nicholas, and George were out of touch with actual politics could not have been more apparent. An irresistible narrative for history buffs. --Brad Hooper
Praise for Miranda Carter's George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm:
“Miranda Carter has written an engrossing and important book. While keeping her focus on the three cousins and their extended families, she skillfully interweaves and summarizes all important elements of how the war came about…Carter has given us an original book, highly recommended.” ---The Dallas Morning News
"Masterfully crafted. . . Carter has presented one of the most cohesive explorations of the dying days of European royalty and the coming of political modernity. . . Carter has delivered another gem." --Bookpage
"Ms. Carter writes incisively about the overlapping events that led to the Great War and changed the world. . . George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm is an impressive book. Ms. Carter has clearly not bitten off more than she can chew for she -- as John Updike once wrote of Gunter Grass -- 'chews it enthusiastically before our eyes.'" --The New York Times
"An irresistably entertaining and illuminating chronicle . . . Readers with fond memories of Robert Massie and Barbara Tuchman can expect similar pleasures in this witty, shrewd examination of the twilight of the great European monarchies." —Publishers Weekly
"A wonderfully fresh and beautifully choreographed work of history." —Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday
"A hauntingly tempting proposition for a book . . . The parallel, interrelated lives of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George V, and Nicholas II are . . . a prism though which to tell the march to the first World War, the creation of the modern industrial world and the follies of hereditary courts and the eccentricities of their royal trans-European cousinhood . . . An entertaining and accessible study of power and personality." —Simon Sebag Montefiore, Financial Times
"Carter draws masterful portraits of her subjects and tells the complicated story of Europe’s failing international relations well . . . A highly readable and well-documented account." —Margaret MacMillan, The Spectator
“I couldn’t put this book down. The whole thing really lives and breathes – and it’s very funny. That these three absurd men could ever have held the fate of Europe in their hands is a fact as hilarious as it is terrifying.” – Zadie Smith
"[An] enterprising history of imperial vicissitudes and royal reversals." --The New York Times Book Review
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As the grandmother of King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicolas's wife Alix, Queen Victoria played a pivotal role in the lives of all three rulers. Though, like King George, her main functions in politics were decorative, Queen Victoria was able to strengthen her position by marrying eight of her nine children into European reigning houses, most of which had more real power than the British monarchy. All her scattered, royal children and grandchildren were brought up to believe that the close family relationships they maintained would ensure peace and harmony for Europe. Even as their countries bickered in an increasingly ominous way, the royals wrote each other loving notes, took hunting vacations together, and met on each other's yachts.
I really enjoyed this triple biography; all of its subjects are fascinating. Kaiser Wilhelm is Queen Victoria's first grandson, born to her eldest daughter. That daughter, Vicky, tried so hard to make Wilhelm venerate all things British that he alternated between rebellion, antagonizing his English family with his bombastic and pseudo-militaristic ways, and supplication, wanting only to be loved and admired by those same relations. He'd threaten dire consequences when he thought he had been disrespected, but he became happy as a child with a new toy when presented with foreign military uniforms. These were honorary tokens that he seemed to believe gave him real decision making power in the British navy and Russian army. Though he lived a cushy, royal life Wilhelm always considered himself a strong, disciplined military man. He had a withered, unusable arm from a difficult birth that was never allowed to appear in pictures. He encouraged and strengthened the Germany military--a group of men who believed in a warped social Darwinism that saw war as a necessary tool to cull the continent's population--to the point that his armed forces became so powerful they ruled themselves, unanswerable to him or the civilian government. He felt betrayed by them when he was forced to abdicate.
Tsar Nicolas was a family man who wanted nothing more than to be secluded with his wife and five children far from the seats of power. He was mainly ignorant of the devastation the Russian people were experiencing and the rebellion that was causing, and when he did have a glimpse of it he truly did not understand what he was seeing. One reason for this was that he was worried and distracted by the ill health of his only son, who had hemophilia. Also, his very religious wife kept him convinced that he alone, as the divinely appointed ruler, knew what was best for Russia, so he wouldn't listen to advisors and kept weakening and dissolving the Duma, Russia's representative assembly. The chaos this produced led to Russia's disastrous participation in World War I and then to revolution and his own death.
King George looked so much like his first cousin Tsar Nicolas that in photos of the two of them it is hard to tell them apart. Though George loved and admired his father, the rotund but stylish King Edward, he was embarrassed by his father's dalliances and so his court was much more conservative. Well into the new century he continued to dress in the fashions popular when his grandmother Queen Victoria was alive, and he insisted that his wife wear the old styles too. Miranda Carter credits his war activities--stoic visits to the front, hospitals and factories--with a resurgence in popularity of the British monarchy. His frayed ordinariness was seen as a rebuke to the claims of divine right made by the absolutist monarchies his country felt it was fighting against.
I didn't know much about this period in history before I read the book and one of the things that surprised me was the large role that Austria--land of edelweiss--played in instigating the First World War. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated Austria saw it as an opportunity to crush Serbia, the self-proclaimed leader of the southern Slavs. Empire building was seen as a key to wealth and power and Austria considered Serbia, which had doubled its size after the Balkan war, a threat to the Austria-Hungry Empire it had built. Austria's military leaders were just as enthusiastic about war as Wilhelm's German generals were, and the German military encouraged Austria to ignore all the appeasements and concessions the Serbs made in its fruitless effort to secure peace.
I became interested in the pre-WWI era while reading Juliet Nicholson's The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. While Miranda Carter's book focuses on different aspects of that era--there is nothing about socialite Diana Cooper who has a prominent role in Perfect Summer--it is just as captivating and we do learn more about some of the other interesting characters in the earlier book. There is a little bit more about George's dutiful wife Queen Mary for instance, and the sections dealing with Lloyd George, who was the first and so far only Welsh Prime minister of the United Kingdom, were new to me. I'm looking forward to reading Nicholson's new book about the post-war period--The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age.
What I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it was told. Ms. Carter chose her details judiciously, so that instead of feeling swamped by the minutiae of the privileged lives of three people who ironically tended to focus of trivial details themselves, she gives you the right sweep of psychology, politics and detail to make you understand very clearly why two of these three men were an utter disaster as autocratic heads of state, while at the same time, breathing a sigh of relief that the third (Georges V of England) was hemmed in by his parliament.
The tragedy that happened at the Ipatiev House in July 1918 haunts us still. It is hard to read about four innocent girls and their brother being gunned down by the soviets, but I didn't realize how mild-mannered, relentlessly polite "Nicky" had turned into such a monster against his own people. Nor did I realize that his hated wife had such power towards the end of their reign, that she was dismissing ministers right and left, in a fashion that would have been comical had it not been so tragic.
I also had no idea that Kaiser Wilhelm was a closet homosexual, or that he was so infantile. And what fascinated me about this book was the culture of late 19th-century Europe that promoted the infantilization of children of both sexes to such a degree that it is fair to say that in a very real way, none of these men ever grew up. It would be fascinating to read a sociological history that explains how this culture of infantilization came about. Five stars.
Wilhelm and Nicholas had much more control of their foreign policy, but there were muckrakers in both camps that probably caused more damage than any rivalry between kings or emperors or czars as the case may be. How much could the cousins have done to stop the road to war? That question is still left unanswered by this book, which is why I decide to give less than five stars. I think the Austrians used the pretext of Archduke Ferdinand's assassination to take on Serbia. They were ham fisted, and Hotzendorf and his fellow Austrians thought they could face down the Russians. In the end it became a test of honor, and in that vain, certainly Nicholas has blame as well as the Kaiser.
I think the relationship between royals also gives lie to the supposition that kings and their personal relationships could avert war. Indeed, not because but in spite of these relationships, war came and it was brutal. Personal diplomacy can only go so far in a modern world, and World War I shows it limitations.