Miranda Carter uses the cousins' correspondence and a host of historical sources to tell the tragicomic story of a tiny, glittering, solipsistic world that was often preposterously out of kilter with its times, struggling to stay in command of politics and world events as history overtook it. George, Nicholas and Wilhelm is a brilliant and sometimes darkly hilarious portrait of these men--damaged, egotistical Wilhelm; quiet, stubborn Nicholas; and anxious, dutiful George--and their lives, foibles and obsessions, from tantrums to uniforms to stamp collecting. It is also alive with fresh, subtle portraits of other familiar figures: Queen Victoria--grandmother to two of them, grandmother-in-law to the third--whose conservatism and bullying obsession with family left a dangerous legacy; and Edward VII, the playboy -arch-vulgarian- who turned out to have a remarkable gift for international relations and the theatrics of mass politics. At the same time, Carter weaves through their stories a riveting account of the events that led to World War I, showing how the personal and the political interacted, sometimes to devastating effect.
For all three men the war would be a disaster that destroyed forever the illusion of their close family relationships, with any sense of peace and harmony shattered in a final coda of murder, betrayal and abdication.
A family history of the Great War
There are history books that entertain and others that offer information; some are well-researched and some are well-written. In George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, Miranda Carter has given readers a book so complete that it possesses all of those qualities. Carter, whose only previous work is 2002’s critically acclaimed and award-winning Anthony Blunt: His Lives, has spent the past eight years researching the lives of King George V of England, Nicholas II, the last of Russia’s czars, and Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser of Germany. Clearly, she did her research well. The result is a masterfully crafted exploration of the enormous, dysfunctional extended family that ruled Europe during the latter half of the 19th century and which presided over what was effectively the end of monarchy as a viable political system.
The three men were cousins, descendents of generation upon generation of European royalty. Carter presents each of them as men born to greatness but incapable of achieving it. Their petty pursuits and inability to forge viable political relationships, despite the family they shared, would eventually result in the collapse of Europe’s fragile stability in the days following the assassination of Wilhelm’s friend, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
Whether Wilhelm, George and Nicholas might have averted the First World War, as Carter suggests, or whether World War I was a necessary and inevitable political revolution, is certainly a subject for debate. There is no question, however, that Carter has presented one of the most cohesive explorations of the dying days of European royalty and the coming of political modernity, though her book is not for novice readers or history students new to the subject. Indeed, the complexity of the relationships among the Hohenzollerns, Windsors and Romanovs alone demands at least a basic familiarity with 19th-century Europe and the house of cards that was Europe at the dawning of the 20th century. Students of modern Europe, however, will find George, Nicholas and Wilhelm to be a necessary addition to their libraries. After an eight-year wait, Carter has delivered another gem!
David G. Mitchell writes from Orlando, Florida.