George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter read by Rosalyn Landor
In the years before the First World War, the great European powers were ruled by three first cousins: King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Together, they presided over the last years of dynastic Europe and the outbreak of the most destructive war the world had ever seen, a war that set twentieth-century Europe on course to be the most violent continent in the history of the world.
Through brilliant and often darkly comic portraits of these men and their lives, their foibles and obsessions, Miranda Carter delivers the tragicomic story of Europe’s early twentieth-century aristocracy, a solipsistic world preposterously out of kilter with its times.
The holidays are a time for dodging responsibilities, abandoning plans, and shifting interests. After listening to three entire days of early twentieth century gobbledygook, I remain unsatisfied. If something I’ve had on hold suddenly becomes available, I’m sure I’ll switch over; but for now I only have ears for the geopolitical and socioeconomic milieu surrounding The Great War.
Like I mentioned in my Catastrophe 1914 review, our library’s digital offerings are scant, so it’s either resubscribe to Audible, which would still leave me bereft three weeks out of every month, or take what I can get and like it.
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm is a tripartite biography tracing the strange and oddly parallel upbringing of three cousins who happened to control a large portion of the globe and sent Europe into armageddon. Drawing from personal diaries as well as received history, Carter paints a portrait of mental instability, irresponsibility, and tragedy that contextualizes the relationships of the continent’s faltering monarchies prior to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
It’s tempting to look at World War I and play the game of if only. George, Nicholas and Wilhelm finally filled in many of the gaps wherein I’d been playing that game. With these three in power or struggling to assert it, there was no way way conflict could have been avoided short of one of them simply not existing. And probably not even then.
The book emphatically does not put all the blame on their shoulders. Parliaments and other governing bodies, militaries, and publics play appropriate roles. But it does provide a disturbing account of folks at the height of wealth and power, with access to others in the same position, that simply could not have been more poorly suited for it.
I had my heart set on trench diaries or partisan accounts and accepted this one reluctantly. But it surprised me. The author does some valuable work helping the dabbler understand the stubborn humanity at the top that sent a generation to the grave. It’s very much worth taking this in while forming an opinion about the inauguration of the previous century.
Even so, it’s worth noting that it dwells a bit luridly on suspected homosexuality, scandal, and appearance. Which was probably exactly what the popular press was doing at the time. It’s pro-English, ani-Russian, and sort of casually racist toward other continents. And it’s full of bizarre trivia: Nicholas eating a piece of the true cross as a child, Wilhelm’s physical challenges, and George changing his name to distance himself from his Russian cousin in 1917.
Recommended for fans of Denethor II, George W. Bush, and that kid from middle school who always had a better story.