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King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War Hardcover – Bargain Price, July 10, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. How did WWI happen? Was it the inevitable product of vast, impersonal forces colliding? Or was it a completely avoidable war that resulted from flawed decisions by individuals? Clay (Princess to Queen), a documentary producer for the BBC, inclines strongly to the latter explanation, and she brilliantly narrates how just three men led their nations to war. Forming a trade union of majesties, King George V (Britain), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany) and Czar Nicholas II (Russia) were cousins who together ruled more than half the world. They were a family, and thus subject to the same tensions and turmoil that afflict every family. They had "played together, celebrated each other's birthdays... and later attended each other's weddings," but still, while George and Nicholas were close, Wilhelm was something of an outsider—a feeling exacerbated by his paranoia and self-loathing. Over time, his sense of exclusion and humiliation would avenge itself on the family and eventually contributed strongly to the murder of Nicholas and the loss of his own throne. Clay's theory does have a hole—though not ruled by the "cousins," France and Austria-Hungary also played major roles in the outbreak of war—but that does not detract from the ingenuity and pleasure of her narrative. 35 b&w photos. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Events in Europe leading up to--precipitating--World War I are viewed through a purposefully narrow lens in this excellent example of consistently gripping, smoothly flowing narrative nonfiction. Clay sets herself the task of investigating the degree of personal responsibility for contributing to the outbreak of war in 1914 that can be placed on the shoulders of three European monarchs who not only ruled more than half of the world but also were cousins on close terms with one another: erratic, out-of-control Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; likable but ineffectual Czar Nicholas II of Russia; and the much more ordinary but much more successful keeper of his throne, King George V of Great Britain. The author inquires into their upbringing, education, marriages, and relations with each other--in essence, everything about them as individuals that can speak to how and why World War I broke out. As so graphically witnessed here, family history back then, when the family happened to be royal, often made national history. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Author Catrine Clay takes the documentary that she did*, and expands it into a scholarly study of the three men involved, and their families. While this is a topic that has been very well covered in other works, Clay takes the interesting step of exploring the childhoods, education and familial ties between the three men to see how Europe and eventually the United States were on an inevitable path to conflict. It's an intriguing premise.
All three of the cousins were related either by marriage or by blood to one another, and less than a decade would separate them in age. Of the three, one would manage to survive WWI and stay on his throne, one would die in exile after being ousted from his throne, and the third would be murdered. Each one would face unique difficulties, and each one had a spouse that would influence their direction in life.
The eldest of the three was the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, or as he was known in the family, Willy. The eldest grandson of England's Queen Victoria, Willy had a less than amiable relationship with his parents, Fritz of Prussia, and Victoria, England's Princess Royal. Born with a crippled left arm from complications, Willy grew up with a determination to succeed, and a craving need of approval from his parents, made all the worse by a mental struggle that centered around his identity -- was he German or English? Surrounded by flatterers, distained by his English relations for his bad manners (at his uncle Bertie's wedding, he bit one of his uncles on the leg), Willy lacked the social skills to successfully navigate through the tact that being a ruler in early twentieth century Europe, and the wisdom to know when to back off.
The middle one was the King, George, whom no one had expected to become king. His elder brother Eddy was trained to become King of England, and ruler of the British Empire, but was rather slow-witted; Georgie was expected to be supportive, and was destined to join the Royal Navy -- indeed, he loved serving in the Navy, proving himself to be a capable leader of men. While he certainly wasn't a brilliant mind, he did have the capacity to learn, and when his elder brother suddenly died, Georgie, as he was known, was in the direct line for the throne. Not only did he inherit the destiny of a crown, he also inherited a bride -- Princess May of Teck, a woman who was determined and steadfast, and would prove to be just the right wife for him. Unlike his two cousins, George was to a constitutional monarch, not welding true political power, but he would have an enormous influence on the public.
And the third one was the Tsar, Nicholas II. His mother and George's mother were sisters -- Alexandra and Dagmar of Denmark. Alix would marry the future Edward VII of England, and was considered the most beautiful princess in Europe. Dagmar -- or Minnie, as she was known -- was the clever one, and was able to enchant both her husband, Alexander III of Russia, and the Russian people, around her tiny fingers. She and Alix also shared the trait of wanting to keep their children as children for as long as possible. Unfortunately for Russia, this was the case especially with her eldest son, Nicky. History has painted him as a dull weakling, unable to stand up to anyone, and dominated by his wife -- Alix of Hesse. A great deal has been written about Nicholas and his family, some of it very good, and a great deal very average, and Clay pretty much does a retread here. But one aspect that I found very interesting and new is that Nicholas was anything but stupid -- he had problems with being decisive, and had a genuine urge to please people, but the letters and comments that he wrote show that he had a smart brain inside of that head. Like Georgie, he detested cousin Willy, and the king and the tsar would remain the very best of friends throughout their lives.
How all of this plays out is what makes this book so interesting. Clay takes the time to describe the experiences these men and their families shared, and the wider political repercussions that it would bring about. Most interesting was the emphasis set on Wilhelm II, and his personal life. I had no idea of his latent homosexuality and how scandal would shake up his regime, nor that he suffered from mental breakdowns. It's this that divides this study from the usual collections about European royalty.
Clay's writing is very clear, and full of detail, making this a very enjoyable read. To untangle the relationships, there is a genealogical chart, and an insert of black and white photographs. Both the index and the bibliography are extensive and worthy of further exploration. For those who are interested in the history of Europe before WWI and some of the causes of that conflict, or are just interested in the lives of Royals, this is worth finding.
Four stars overall. Recommended.
Added to that difficulty, there is a lack of footnotes in the text, a deficiency I find troublesome in a history.
The Kindle version presents its own challenges. Words like "of" are italicized for no reason. The ampersand--frequently used by King George in his writings--is often displayed as "8c" in several sentences, then correctly shown as "&" in the same quotation. Apostrophes are inconsistently displayed--sometimes missing, sometimes present, and sometimes rendered as something else (as when "Alexander's" was turned into "Alexander Us"...repeatedly.) And ending punctuation, especially periods, were often missing. Reading often became a chore of trying to decipher the text.
All in all, I much preferred Miranda Carter's treatment of the same subject, in her book "George, Nicholas and Wilhelm."
Nowadays King George V is usually regarded as a successful monarch but unsuccessful father, while Nicholas II is usually praised as an excellent husband and father but a terrible ruler. Until fairly recently Wilhelm II was considered a monstrous ruler, while his private life was generally ignored. Catrine Clay's biography confirms many of these preconceptions but often provides some intriguing new information and insights.
Nicholas and George were first cousins because their mothers were sisters, daughters of the King of Denmark. George and Wilhelm were first cousins because they were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Nicholas was married to one of Victoria's granddaughters and was also more distantly related by blood to Wilhelm. The three men grew up in a vast extended family and knew each other from early childhood. Nicholas and George were good friends, but Wilhelm was regarded with distaste by them both because of his bombastic, domineering manner. Clay points out some interesting psychological differences and produces evidence from the men's early childhoods to account for them. She tells many entertaining anecdotes, including many that I, though I've been a student of early twentieth century royal history for many years, had not previously run across. Her psychological comparisons continue through the men's adulthood, comparing the women they married, their relationships with their children, their attitudes towards monarchy and the role they had to play in their governments, and many other details. Among the most interesting of these are the comparisons of the monarchs' advisors: George V's elected officials who held the real power in Britain, Nicholas' shady and unscrupulous priests and monks, and Wilhelm's even more bizarre circle.
The saddest part of the book comes towards the end, after World War I had torn the extended royal family apart and isolated the three men. Nicholas and his family perished during the Russian Revolution, while Wilhelm was forced into exile at the end of the war and only George maintained his position. Clay does a good job of tracing the lives of the three men throughout the book, occasionally mixing up the chronology or getting (forgiveably) some of the many similarly-named royalties confused. By the end the reader is left feeling grateful that the British had George V to rule them and intensely sorry that Russia and Germany had rulers who, while of similar intellect to their British cousin, were far less able to adapt to changing times.