Book Review: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to WWI

By Miranda Carter

George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the last Tsar Nicholas II should have been friends (because cousins are always friends of course) - but they happened also to rule Europe's three most powerful states. This potent combination together with their own destructive personalities - petty, insecure, bullying, absurdly obsessive (exceedingly obsessive stamp collecting) means they don't really get along . . . much. When one chooses to look a little closer at what actually led to the onset of the First World War, one realises the relationship between these three men was actually fairly irrelevant. Despite the ubiquitous over general tag lines used to plug this book, its contents, thankfully and to my unbounded relief, stops short of arguing that the First World War was a 'family feud'.  Instead Carter offers an accessible human side of absolute monarchy.

Price: £10.99
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: 2010
ISBN: 978-0141019987
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In the 1850s Prince Albert had a dream that one day the thrones of Europe would be populated entirely with his and Victoria's descendants. Any potential aggression, diplomatic incident or violation of social norms could be reconciled over an appeal to shared bloodlines. By the turn of the 20th century, Albert's vision had come to remarkable fruition. 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.

As is now widely understood, Albert's dream failed dramatically. The collapse of that grand dynastic plan throughout an age of rapid technological progress and expanding international markets, provides the narrative structure for “The Three Emperors.” Many historians have examined the pre-war links between England and Germany; fewer have attempted (until Catrine Clay's King, Kaiser, Tsar, 2006) to incorporate Russia, a major player in the conclusive defeat of Albert's dream of a royal, unified Europe.

The Kaiser is the most unstable subject of this triple biography, afflicted with a lethal combination of inferiority and a desire to dominate, and exhibiting many symptoms of what Carter defines as a "narcissistic personality disorder" along with "attention deficit hyperactivity". Carter quotes foreign minister Marschall saying of him: "It is unendurable. Today one thing and tomorrow the next and after a few days something completely different."

But of course the most tragic subject is Nicholas II of Russia, who was not only weak, but also had a deep sense of divine right, no notion of the real problems of his country, a German wife and a haemophiliac son whose disease they felt they had to keep secret. Eventually, as from 1905, domestic political troubles started to envelop him, he increasingly became putty in the hands of his strong-minded wife. But, whatever his weaknesses, Nicholas certainly did not deserve the fate that lay in wait for him: being slaughtered along with his family, in the cellar at Ekaterinburg.

The Three Emperors is rightly unsparing in its criticism of the role of George V in bringing about that grisly outcome. The man who claimed to be Nicholas II’s “devoted friend” stands accused of having stood in the way of any attempt to bring the Imperial family to Britain. In the damning words of Carter, the king “panicked and placed his own worries ahead of the family relationship which he had always said counted for so much”.

The story is fascinating enough to bear the wealth of recent literature re-telling it from multiple angles. More entertaining than analytical, I'd recommend The Three Emperors and a well told accessible history -and we can never have too much of that.