The New York Times Book Review
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War Iby Miranda Carter
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… See more details below
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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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
—The New York Times
“Splendid. . . . This is history on a vast scale written on an intimate level, and it is immensely rewarding. . . . [Carter’s] portraits of the men are razor-sharp. She places each monarch in his unique context, providing a tapestry of the age and the maneuvering that led to the outbreak of war. . . . The reader is swept up in the pageantry, pathos and glory of an era that makes our own seem remorselessly venial and vulgar.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Engrossing and important. . . . While keeping her focus on the three cousins and their extended families, [Carter] skillfully interweaves and summarizes all important elements of how the war came about. . . . An original book, highly recommended.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“A fascinating biographical saga. . . . The personal, hidden history of King George V, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s relationship [is] incomparable, haunting and unforgettable.”
“The parallel, interrelated lives of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George V, and Nicholas II are . . . a prism though which to tell the march to the first World War, the creation of the modern industrial world and the follies of hereditary courts and the eccentricities of their royal trans-European cousinhood. . . . An entertaining and accessible study of power and personality.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Financial Times
“Some wars are inevitable. Others, such as World War I, could have been avoided. . . . Relying on apt quotations and instructive anecdotes, Carter, in this always readable history, persuasively relates [the royal cousins’] role in beginning a war that was supposed to end all wars.”
—Richmond Times Dispatch
“Entertaining and well-researched, with acute pen portraits of the major players.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“I couldn’t put this book down. The whole thing really lives and breathes—and it’s very funny. That these three absurd men could ever have held the fate of Europe in their hands is a fact as hilarious as it is terrifying.”
“History at its most entertaining, full of scathing and often witty descriptions of the follies and tragedies of royalty, and the way in which the three royal cousins’ lives, despite the deep social divide between the royals and ordinary people, became intertwined with the changes and the dangers confronting the major European powers in the early years of the 20th century. It is a splendid picture, splendidly narrated.”
—Michael Korda, The Daily Beast
“Fresh and enjoyable. . . . Carter’s thoughtful reintroduction of the vividly human to late 19th-century international politics is timely and welcome.”
—The Guardian (London)
“Carter deftly interpolates history with psychobiography to provide a damning indictment of monarchy in all its forms.”
—Will Self, New Statesman
“An attractively written, extensively illustrated work.”
—The Washington Times
“Masterfully crafted. . . . Carter has presented one of the most cohesive explorations of the dying days of European royalty and the coming of political modernity. . . . [She] has delivered another gem.”
“An irresistibly entertaining and illuminating chronicle. . . . Readers with fond memories of Robert Massie and Barbara Tuchman can expect similar pleasures in this witty, shrewd examination of the twilight of the great European monarchies.”
“Carter draws masterful portraits of her subjects and tells the complicated story of Europe’s failing international relations well. . . . A highly readable and well-documented account.”
Britain, Russia, and Germany's rulers were first cousins with personal and political ties. Carter shows how these old-world rulers operated blind to the new century's realities. (LJ 3/15/10)
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Read an Excerpt
An Experiment in Perfection
It was a horrible labour. The baby was in the breech position and no one realized until too late. The eighteen-year-old mother had been too embarrassed to allow any of the court physicians to examine or even talk to her about her pregnancy—a prudishness learned from her own mother. The experience of childbirth would cure her of it. To make matters worse, an urgent summons to Berlin’s most eminent obstetrician got lost. After ten or eleven hours of excruciating pain— the mother cried for chloroform, she was given a handkerchief to bite on (her screams, her husband later wrote, were “horrible”)—the attending doctors, one German, one English, had pretty much given up on her and the baby. (There were bad precedents for medics who carried out risky interventions on royal patients: when Princess Charlotte, the heir to the British throne, died in childbirth in 1817, the attending physician felt obliged to shoot himself.) The child survived only because the famous obstetrician eventually received the message and arrived at the last minute. With liberal doses of chloroform and some difficulty, the doctor managed to manipulate the baby out. He emerged pale, limp, one arm around his neck, badly bruised and not breathing. The attending nurse had to rub and slap him repeatedly to make him cry. The sound, when it came, the boy’s father wrote, “cut through me like an electric shock.” Everybody wept with relief. It was 27 January 1859.
At the moment of his birth, two, or arguably three, factors immediately had a defining effect on the life and character of Friedrich Victor Wilhelm Albert Hohenzollern—soon known as Willy to distinguish him, his father said, from the “legion of Fritzes” in the family. Firstly, the baby’s left arm was damaged in the delivery —a fact which, in the relief and excitement following his birth, wasn’t noticed for three days. It seems likely that in the obstetrician’s urgency to get the baby out before he suffocated, he wrenched and irretrievably crushed the network of nerves in Willy’s arm, rendering it useless and unable to grow. Secondly, and unprovably, it’s possible that those first few minutes without oxygen may have caused brain damage. Willy grew up to be hyperactive and emotionally unstable; brain damage sustained at birth was a possible cause.
Thirdly, an almost impossible burden of conflicting demands and expectations came to rest upon Willy at the moment of his birth. Through his father, Friedrich, one of the ubiquitous Fritzes, he was heir to the throne of Prussia; his mother, Vicky, was the first-born child of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and he was the British queen’s first grandchild. As heir to Prussia, the biggest and most influential power in the loose confederation of thirty-eight duchies, kingdoms and four free cities that called itself Germany, he carried his family’s and country’s dreams of the future. Those dreams saw Prussia as the dominant power in a unified Germany, taking its place as one of the Great Powers. For Queen Victoria, monarch of the richest and arguably most influential country in the world, Willy was both a doted-on grandchild—“a fine fat child with a beautiful soft white skin,” as she put it when she finally saw him twenty months later— and the symbol and vehicle of a new political and dynastic bond between England and Prussia, a state whose future might take it in several different directions, directions in which Britain’s monarch and her husband took an intense interest. Three days after his birth the queen wrote delightedly to her friend and fellow grandmother Augusta of Prussia, “Our mutual grandson binds us and our two countries even closer together!”
Queen Victoria felt a deep affinity with Germany. Her mother was German and so was her husband, Albert, the younger brother of the ruling duke of the small but influential central German duchy of Coburg. She carried on intense correspondences with several German royals, including Fritz’s mother, Augusta, and she would marry six of her nine children to Germans. Although the queen’s Germanophilia was sometimes criticized in England, the British were at least less hostile to the Germans than they were to France and Russia, and occasionally even approving. At the battle of Waterloo, Britain and Prussia had fought side by side to defeat Napoleon, and well into the 1850s as a salute to the old alliance there were still German regiments stationed on the South Coast. Thomas Hardy described the German hussars stationed in Dorset in the 1850s as being so deeply embedded in the local culture that their language had over the years woven itself into the local dialect: “Thou bist” and “Er war” becoming familiar locutions. Germany—or at least the northern part— was the other Protestant power in Europe. German culture was much admired. In turn, German liberals looked to Britain as the model for a future German constitutional monarchy, its traders admired British practice, and at the other end of the political spectrum, it was to England that some of the more reactionary members of the German ruling elite—including Willy’s German grandfather—had fled during the revolutions of 1848. There he and his wife Augusta had become friends— sort of—of the queen and her husband Albert.
Albert, the Prince Consort, an intelligent, energetic and thoughtful man denied a formal public role in England, was even more preoccupied with Germany than his wife, particularly with its future and that of its ruling class. He had seen the German royals rocked by the revolutions of 1848, their very existence called into question by the rise of republicanism and democratic movements. He’d come to believe that Germany’s future lay in unification under a modern liberal constitutional monarchy, like that of England. Prussia, as the largest, strongest state in Germany, was the obvious candidate.
Though it was not necessarily the perfect one. Prussia was a peculiar hybrid, rather like Germany itself: it was half dynamic and forward- looking, half autocratic backwater. On the one hand, it was a rich state with an impressive civil service, a fine education system, and a fast-growing industrial heartland in the Western Rhineland. It had been one of the first states in Europe to emancipate Jews, and had a tradition of active citizenship, demonstrated most visibly in 1813, when it had not been the pusillanimous king but a determined citizenry who had pulled together an army to fight Napoleon. After 1848 a representative assembly, the Landtag, had been forced on the king and liberal politicians and thinkers seemed to be in the ascendant. On the other hand, however, Prussia was stuck in the dark ages: it was a semi- autocracy whose ruling institutions were dominated by a deeply conservative small landowning class from its traditional heartland on the East Elbian plain, the Junkers. They had a reputation for being tough, austere, incorruptible, fearsomely reactionary, piously Protestant, anti-Semitic, feudal in their attitudes to their workers, their land and their women, and resistant to almost any change— whether democratization, urbanization or industrialization—which might threaten their considerable privileges. These included almost total exemption from taxation. They dominated the Prussian court, the most conservative in Germany. They regarded Prussia’s next-door neighbour, Russia—England’s great world rival—as their natural ally, sharing with Russia a long frontier, a belief in autocratic government and a pervasive military culture.
Prussia’s highly professional army was the reason for its domination of Germany, and in many respects gave Prussia what political coherence and identity it had. It had long been dominated by the Junkers, and was the heart of Prussian conservatism. Almost all European aristocracies identified themselves with the army, but since the seventeenth century the Prussian aristocracy, more than any other, had been encouraged by its rulers to equate its noble status and privileges entirely with senior military rank. It was not unusual for boys of the Prussian ruling classes to wear military uniform from the age of six. History showed that war paid: Prussia had benefited territorially from every central European military conflict since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century Frederick the Great had doubled Prussia’s size in a series of vicious central European wars. Prussia’s intervention in the Napoleonic Wars had doubled its size again, making it the dominant power in Germany. But at the same time, Prussia’s military culture had arisen not simply from a desire to expand and conquer, but quite as much from the fact that the Prussian ruling class was haunted—obsessed even—by its country’s vulnerability in the middle of Europe, undefended by natural barriers, always a potential victim for some larger power’s territorial ambitions. Territorial expansion had constantly alternated with disaster and near annihilation. During the Thirty Years War, Prussia had lost half its population to disease, famine and fighting; the scar remained in folk memory. During the Napoleonic Wars, it had been humiliated, overrun and threatened with dismemberment while the French and Russians squared up to each other. Since then, Prussia had been hostile to France and carefully deferential to the Russian colossus next door. The ruling dynasties of Hohenzollern and Romanov had intermarried and even developed genuine friendships. Willy’s Prussian great-aunt Charlotte had married Tsar Nicholas I, and Willy’s grandfather, who would become King of Prussia and then Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, enjoyed a long and close friendship with his son, Tsar Alexander II.
The contradictions in Prussia mirrored the extraordinary heterogeneity of Germany and its states as a whole. Within its loose boundaries there existed a plethora of conflicting Germanies: the Germany that led the world in scientific and technological innovation, the Germany that was the most cultured, literate, academically innovative state in Europe—the Germany of Goethe, Leibnitz, the von Humboldt brothers, Bach and Beethoven—stood alongside the Germany of resolutely philistine Junkers. In East Elbia, the heartland of the Junker estates, disenfranchised peasants lived in almost feudal conditions, and yet at the same time Germany was the most industrialized place in Europe with some of the best labour conditions. Germany had some of the most hierarchical, undemocratic states in Europe, ruled by an embarrassment of self-important little princelings, and was also home to the largest and best organized Socialist Party in Europe. Southern, predominantly Catholic, Germany coexisted with northern, Protestant Germany. It seems entirely appropriate that Berlin, Prussia’s capital, with its vast avenues, seemed like a parade ground, while also being a centre for political radicalism, for scholarship, for a wealthy Jewish community.
Prince Albert believed there was a battle going on for the soul and political future of Germany. “The German stands in the centre between England and Russia,” he wrote to his future son-in-law Fritz in 1856. “His high culture and his philosophic love of truth drive him towards the English conception, his military discipline, his admiration of the asiatic greatness . . . which is achieved by the merging of the individual into the whole, drives him in the other direction.” Albert also felt that in the post-1848 world, monarchy was under threat. He wanted to prove that good relations between monarchies created peace between countries. And he had come to the conclusion that princes must justify their status by their moral and intellectual superiority to everyone else.
One of Albert’s projects had been to design a rigorous academic regime for his eight children to turn them into accomplished princes. His eldest daughter, Vicky—his favourite—responded brilliantly to it. She was clever, intellectually curious and passionate—qualities not always associated with royalty. Her younger brother Bertie—the future Edward VII—had suffered miserably under the same regime. Albert thought that, under the right circumstances, a royal marriage between Britain and Prussia might nudge Germany in the right direction, towards unification, towards a constitutional monarchy and a safe future for the German royal families. It might even bring about an alliance with Britain, an alliance which could become the cornerstone of peace in Europe. Albert resolved to send his clever daughter on a mission to fix Germany, by marrying Vicky to Friedrich Wilhelm Hohenzollern, nephew of the childless and increasingly doddery King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and second in line to the throne after his sixty-two-year-old father, who had already taken over many of his brother’s duties.
Fritz, as he was called, was ten years older than Vicky, dashingly handsome, charismatic and an effective officer—so much the Wagnerian hero that in Germany he was actually known as Siegfried. The marriage, which took place in January 1858, looked good on paper—the heir of the rising Protestant German state marrying the daughter of the richest, stablest power in Europe. Unlike most arranged royal marriages, it worked even better in reality. Personally gentle, earnest and prone to depression—somewhat at odds with the emphatically blunt, masculine ideal of the Prussian officer—twenty- seven-year-old Fritz adored his clever seventeen-year-old wife, and she adored him. He also showed, Victoria and Albert noted approvingly, a liking for England and admirable liberal tendencies very much at odds with those of his father and the Prussian court.
At the time, the plan of sending a completely inexperienced seventeen- year-old girl to unify Germany may not have seemed quite so extraordinary as it does now. The external circumstances looked promising. In 1858 the political balance in Prussia seemed to be held by the liberals: they had just won a landslide victory in the Landtag elections. Prussia’s king was elderly and had recently suffered a series of incapacitating strokes, and his heir, Fritz’s father, was sixty-two years old. Fritz and Vicky shouldn’t have to wait too long before they would be in control.
That was the plan. It didn’t turn out that way. Firstly, Albert had been away from Germany a long time and didn’t understand how suspicious the Prussian ruling class was of Vicky’s Englishness, and how touchy about the prospect that larger powers might interfere in its country. “The ‘English’ in it does not please me,” the future chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, told a friend, “the ‘marriage’ may be quite good . . . If the Princess can leave the Englishwoman at home.” Secondly, Vicky, though extremely bright, had no talent for politics, was hopelessly tactless and held fast to her Englishness. Thirdly, Fritz’s father turned out to be astonishingly long-lived, and appointed Otto von Bismarck, the greatest conservative European statesman of the late nineteenth century, his chief minister.
It went wrong quite quickly. The Prussian court was not welcoming and was critical of Vicky’s forthright views and intellectual confidence. Prussian wives were supposed to be silent and submissive; there was none of the leeway allowed in Britain for an intelligent, educated woman to shine. It was said disapprovingly that Vicky dominated Fritz. She met intellectuals and artists, whether or not they were commoners, and this contravened the social strictures of court etiquette: princesses did not host salons or mix with non-royals. Bewildered and isolated, Vicky had no idea what to do. She responded with a social tone-deafness and complete lack of strategic tact which would become characteristic. She complained—imperiously and incessantly—about the philistine, rigid and deadly dull Prussian court; about the threadbare carpets, dirty floors, and lack of baths and lavatories in the Hohenzollerns’ ancestral castles;* about the frequent absences of her soldier husband. Worse, she displayed the insufferable habit of saying that everything was better in England, a habit that became almost compulsive as time went on. This seemed to confirm Prussian suspicions that she intended to bring Prussia under English influence, though it was actually a manifestation of loneliness and homesickness. “She loved England and everything English with a fervour which at times roused contradictions in her Prussian surroundings,” one of her few allies, her lady-in-waiting Walpurga Hohenthal, later wrote. “I was perhaps the only one who entirely sympathized . . . but I was too young and inexperienced to reflect that it would not be wise to give them too much scope.”
Back in England her parents didn’t understand. The queen tried to micromanage her, sometimes sending her four letters a week and telling her not to get too familiar with her Prussian relatives. Albert limited himself to writing once a week, and was gentler, but in his way just as insistent. He demanded essays on international affairs and told her to study chemistry and geometry—which she duly did. Her in- laws were unsympathetic: Fritz’s father, Wilhelm, was a philistine arch-traditionalist whose deepest emotional attachment was to the army. He required only that his son and daughter-in-law attend every court function and be entirely obedient to his will. Fritz’s mother, Augusta, who loathed her husband and was hugely disliked at court at least partly for being an educated woman with liberal views, was angry and difficult (the King of Belgium called her “the Dragon of the Rhine”), and made no attempt to support her daughter-in-law. The Hohenzollerns were a by-word for family dysfunction. The father of Frederick the Great (Wilhelm’s great-great-great-great-uncle) had locked him up and forced him to watch his best friend’s execution. Oedipal conflicts seemed to afflict every generation.
Within a couple of years of Willy’s birth, Vicky’s “mission” was in shreds. “You cannot think how painful it is, to be continuously surrounded by people who consider your very existence a misfortune,” she wrote to her mother. Then, just before Willy’s third birthday in 1861, Albert died and Vicky lost her guide and hero. Later that same year Fritz’s sixty-four-year-old father, Wilhelm, came to the throne for what would be a twenty-seven-year reign. He made it clear he wanted to strengthen relations with Russia, and at his coronation he announced that he ruled by divine right—a concept the English crown had abandoned 300 years before. A year later, in the midst of a battle with the Landtag over military reform, which everyone expected to end with the king giving in to more constitutional curtailments of his powers, he appointed Otto von Bismarck as his minister-president. Bismarck closed down the Landtag. Over the next twenty years, he would turn Germany into the political powerhouse of continental Europe, while also eliminating liberals from power and delivering the organs of government into the hands of conservatives and rural property-owners, the Junkers.
Vicky hated Bismarck. “That wretch Bismarck . . . has done all he could to irritate the King against London and Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell,” she complained in 1862. “Bismarck is such a wicked man that he does not care how many fibs he tells to serve his own purposes, and this is the man who is to govern this country.” To Bismarck, Vicky and Fritz were a dangerous magnet for liberal sympathies. He set out deliberately to neutralize the couple. He alienated father from son, and used every weapon at his disposal: feeding damaging stories into the Berlin rumour mill and the German press—much of which he secretly funded—to characterize Vicky as a sinister representative of British ambitions in Germany and Fritz as her dupe. Vicky thought she could take Bismarck on. “I enjoy a pitched battle,” she wrote optimistically. But she was a rank amateur prone to moments of tremendous misjudgement, and he was perhaps the most brilliant political tactician of the late nineteenth century. As if that weren’t enough, Vicky’s health collapsed: she was plagued for weeks at a time by chronic pains and fevers for which there seemed no cure, symptoms that some historians now think might have been porphyria—the illness which had caused George III’s madness.
It wasn’t surprising, perhaps, that Vicky’s family and children became one of her refuges from the hostility of the court, a place where she could express her frustration with her situation, and where she channelled all the disappointed energy. There were eight children in all: Willy, his sister Charlotte and his brother Heinrich, to whom he was closest; then five subsequent siblings: Sigismund, Victoria (known as Moretta), Waldemar, Sophy and Margaret (or Mossy), of whom the two boys died in childhood. The family dynamic seems to have been in the main warm and loving. When Fritz was in one of his depressions, Vicky believed the company of the children dispelled it. She loved her children, especially her eldest. “You do not know how dear that child is,” she wrote to her mother when he was a few months old. “. . . I feel so proud of him and it makes me so happy to carry him about.” But her love was complicated, especially for her first three children, and most of all for Wilhelm. She veered between tenderness and love, and brutal criticism, obsessively high expectations and anxiety over their shortcomings. Albert had instilled in her a belief that character could be created and moulded by education, that perfectibility could be achieved by hard work. “The welfare of the world,” he said, depended on “the good education of princes.” He’d also—along with the queen, who was a relentless critic of her children—turned his daughter into an anxious perfectionist compulsively critical of herself, and then of her own children. Vicky was determined that her son would measure up to her father’s standards. She scrutinized every bit of the boy—just as her parents had scrutinized her—frequently found him wanting and let him know it. She wrote to her mother when he was nine, “Still I dote on Willy and think there is a great deal in him. He is by no means a common place child; if one can root out or keep down pride, conceitedness, selfishness and laziness . . . I do not speak as openly of our little ones to anyone but you.” But whatever she said to her mother, she did communicate her dissatisfactions to her children. She would mark the misspellings in Wilhelm’s letters to her and send them back. She was just as bad with his brother Heinrich, describing “his poor ugly face,” and reporting that he was “awfully backward” and “hopelessly lazy.” The question of perfection (or imperfection) was constantly in the air because, of course, Willy’s stunted arm meant he was very visibly imperfect.
Within a few months of Willy’s birth it was clear that his arm wasn’t growing properly. He couldn’t lift it and the fingers had curled into a kind of claw. In Prussia, royalty was closely identified with the army and physical prowess. On Willy’s birth, in a gesture of typical Hohenzollern tact, Fritz’s father had wondered to his face whether it was appropriate to congratulate him on the birth of a “defective” prince. Vicky worried over it constantly, asking herself whether the nation would tolerate a physically disabled prince. “I cannot tell you how it worries me, I am ready to cry whenever I think of it,” she wrote to her father when Willy was six months old and had begun to undergo all kinds of peculiar treatments to mend the arm. It was covered in cold compresses, sprayed with sea water, massaged and given a weekly “animal bath,” in which it was placed inside the warm carcass of a freshly killed hare—an experience, his mother noticed, Willy seemed to like very much. Queen Victoria thought the practice medieval, and it was: the idea was that the heat of the dead animal would transmute itself into the arm of the child. At least this was harmless. Less so was the binding of his right arm to his body, when Willy reached toddler-hood, in an attempt to force the other arm to function. It left him with nothing to balance with as he tried to learn to walk. Even nastier were the electric shocks passed regularly through his arm from the age of fourteen months. “He gets so fretful and cross and violent and passionate that it makes me quite nervous sometimes,” Vicky wrote. By the age of four, Willy had developed torticollis—the right side of his neck had contracted, lifting the shoulder and making him look crooked. (One biographer has suggested that this came about through a desire to turn away from his affliction.) To try to correct this, he was strapped into a body-length machine to stretch the muscles of his right side. Vicky wrote painful, guilty letters to Queen Victoria describing and drawing the contraption, which looked like a medieval instrument of torture. “He has been a constant source of anxiety ever since he has been in the world. I cannot tell you what I suffered when I saw him in that machine the day before yesterday—it was all I could do to prevent myself from crying. To see one’s child treated like one deformed—it is really very hard . . .”
In the end two small operations severed the tendons that were distorting his body and corrected the torticollis. The arm never improved, though there was always another “specialist” with another crank “cure.” The electric shocks and stretching machines continued until Willy was ten, when the doctors noted how “nervously tense” the treatments made him. Wilhelm later claimed they caused “intolerable pain.” The only thing that made any difference was a course of gymnastics which developed a compensatory great strength in Willy’s right arm.
Willy seemed a jolly, boisterous, affectionate small boy. Vicky described him, aged three, patting her face, saying, “Nice little Mama, you have a nice little face and I want to kiss you.” He slept in her bed when his father was away with the army, and she saw much more of him than most royal parents. “Willy is a dear, interesting charming boy,” Vicky wrote when he was seven, “clever, amusing, engaging, it is impossible not to spoil him a little. He is growing so handsome and his large eyes have now and then a pensive, dreamy expression and then again they sparkle with fun and delight.” He could also be aggressive and difficult. He hit his nurses; after a trip to England in 1864, his grandmother complained that he was thumping his aunt Beatrice—who was only two years older and afraid of him. “We have a gt. deal of trouble to keep him in order—he is so jealous of the Baby,” Vicky wrote after the birth of his sister Charlotte. Aged seven or so, on the beach at the Isle of Wight, he threw a furious tantrum and tried to kick an eminent gentleman and throw his walking stick into the sea. (The eminent gentleman, a former secretary of Prince Albert’s, tripped him up and spanked him.) On another occasion, at his Uncle Edward’s wedding in England in 1863, aged four, he got bored, scratched the legs of his uncles Leopold and Arthur to get their attention, threw his sporran into the choir, and when scolded, bit one of his uncles in the leg.* W. P. Frith, celebrated painter of crowd scenes such as Derby Day, who had been commissioned to paint the occasion, muttered, “Of all the little Turks he is the worst.” To modern eyes, this seems like fairly typical obstreperous, spoilt toddler behaviour, but at the time it struck his mother and the British relatives as more than that—though this may have been just as much to do with their impossible expectations of how a young monarch-to-be should behave.
To add to the pressures and confusion there were the competing tugs of his English and German inheritances. The conflict was incarnated in his own name—to his mother and his English relations he was William, to his German relations and his country he was Wilhelm. The more Vicky felt alienated from her German environment, the more she denigrated her son’s German heritage. One ten-year-old visitor remembered Vicky reprimanding her children for dunking their cake in their tea: “None of your nasty German habits at my table!” She was determined to root out any signs of “that terrible Prussian pride” and she loathed the Prussian obsession with the army. When he was ten, Willy wrote plaintively to his English grandmother, “There were lately two parades where I marched towards the King. he [sic] told me that I marched well, but Mama said I did it very badly.” Vicky told her mother that in his miniature Hohenzollern uniform, he had looked like some “organ grinder’s unfortunate little monkey.”
Everything British, Vicky made it clear, was better. She told her son the Royal Navy was the greatest fighting force in the world and she dressed him up in a sailor outfit, aged two, feeling she’d won a great victory in managing to do it before he’d worn a Prussian army uniform. “He is so fond of ships,” she told her mother when he was five, “and I wish that to be encouraged as much as possible—as an antidote to the possibility of a too engrossing military passion.” In his teenage years, she wrote to him extolling England’s civilizing imperial mission, contrasting it with Germany’s foolish claims to be a player in Europe. She took him as often as possible to visit Queen Victoria at Osborne House, her holiday home on the Isle of Wight. Even after the First World War, beaten by the British and in exile, his memories of Osborne were golden. “How entirely like a second home to me was my grandmother’s house, and how England might well have been a second home to me also,” he wrote wistfully. “We were treated as children of the house.” He recalled a visit in 1871, aged twelve, when his uncle Arthur of Connaught took him round London and how impressed he was by the sharp figure Arthur cut in uniform; he remembered his favourite aunt Louise letting him play in her rooms and giving him sweets: he recalled going to see Nelson’s HMS Victory at Portsmouth in the queen’s paddle steamer and seeing British battleships off Spithead on the way. Osborne, he later claimed, was “the scene of my earliest recollections.” The family story went that on Willy’s first visit in June 1861, aged two-and-a-half, Albert had wrapped him in a towel and dandled him in it.
The Prince Consort died six months later, but the connection remained important to Willy and to his grandmother. “Albert,” she wrote a month after her husband’s death, “loved that dear child so dearly, felt so anxious about him, was so sure he would be clever—that it only adds to my love for . . . the sweet child . . . You know he is my favourite.” The fact that Willy would be king of the most powerful state in Germany also focused her attention. The queen had never been very keen on babies (“I don’t dislike babies,” she wrote, “though I think very young ones rather disgusting”), and by the time grandchildren came at a rate of three a year, admitted they were “a cause of mere anxiety for my own children” and “of no great interest either.” But Willy was the first, and the queen was indulgent with him as she was with few others. He called her “a duck,” and she pronounced him “full of fun and mischief, and in fact very impertinent, though he is very affectionate with it all.” In turn, Willy was fascinated by the queen. “She was a proper Grandmother,” he wrote approvingly. The two had a weakness for each other which would endure, despite everything.
It was impossible, of course, for Vicky to keep Prussian influences away from her children. Growing up in Berlin and Potsdam, which was appropriately both the military and leisure capital of Prussia, they were surrounded by the symbols of Prussian military might and ambition —parade grounds and drilling regiments—and they lived in the vast, rather chilly Neues Palais, built by Frederick the Great as an aggressive assertion of Prussian power (having built it, he decided it was a piece of architectural showing off and refused to live in it). A palace of hundreds of huge, echoing rooms, it fronted on to a parade ground. When Willy reached ten, his grandfather, now King Wilhelm of Prussia, began to show an interest in the boy, demanding that Willy turn up at military events and inviting him to dinner in his ostentatiously austere apartments where he slept on his old army camp bed, ate off a card table, and marked the level of the wine on the bottle to make sure the servants didn’t steal it. The king, who could be extremely charming when he pleased,* would talk about his Napoleonic campaigns and the grandson would listen, rapt. The criticism and expectation at home mad
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