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Monday, May 11, 2015

“King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War”, by Catrine Clay

416 pages, Walker & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0802716231

My Dad always said that the First World War was history’s greatest family feud, and with this book, he’s proven to have been correct (more or less). King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War gives a fascinating, up-close and personal look at Wilhelm II of Germany, George V of Great Britain, and Nicholas II of Russia and the key roles they played in the 30-odd years that led up to World War I; especially enthralling are the differences between the responsibilities and personalities of an autocrat in an empire with a parliament but little real democracy (Willy), a constitutional monarch with immense prestige but little real power (Georgie), and an absolute monarch with no restraints on his power who was, tragically, utterly unsuited for his role (of course, Nicky).

The eldest of the three cousins was Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht, later 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, Friedrich Wilhelm Nikolaus Karl, Crown Prince of Prussia, and Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, Britain’s Princess Royal. Born with a crippled left arm from a botched delivery, 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 20th Century Europe, and the wisdom to know when to back off.

The middle cousin was George Frederick Ernest Albert, later King George V or, as he was known in the family, Georgie, 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). Rather, 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 his certainly wasn’t a brilliant mind, he did have the capacity to learn, and when his elder brother suddenly died, Georgie, 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 who 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 having an enormous influence on the public, all the same.

And the third one was Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, later Tsar Nicholas II or, as he was known in the family, Nicky. 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, while Dagmar was the clever one and was able to enchant both her husband, Alexander III of Russia and the Russian people (she and Alix also shared the trait of wanting to keep their children as children for as long as possible, to the detriment of all). 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, another Alix, this one of Hesse. A great deal has been written about Nicholas and his family – some of it very good though a great deal very average – and Clay pretty much does a retread here.

Catrine Clay quotes voluminously from family letters and other sources concerning George and Nicholas, showing how the complex intertwining of relationships among the children and grandchildren of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made statesmanship and diplomacy a family affair as well as a national one in the late-19th and early-20th Centuries. One aspect I found very interesting and new is that Nicholas was anything but stupid; oh, he certainly 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. Where Clay’s book falls short is in her biased and very negative treatment of Kaiser Wilhelm. Her English roots are painfully apparent every time she talks of him, with many negative comments, few positive, and almost none of the humanizing quotes from family letters she gives from the lives of the other two monarchs. Clay’s noting of Wilhelm’s birth trauma and the lifelong problems his withered arm and other disabilities caused him does not make up for her one-sided treatment of his life, taken as a whole.

Overall, an excellent book if one wants to not only understand these three men but a major era of history where we can see one age ending and another beginning, King, Kaiser, Tsar is an impressive look into the past.

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