George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I

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by Miranda Carter
     
 

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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

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Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Miranda Seymour
As a study of three equally significant figures, Carter's book was perhaps always doomed to failure. But as a study of the kaiser…and of his passionate love-hate relationship with England, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm succeeds magnificently.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
Ms. Carter…relates history on a large canvas here, and it's a story she mostly tells with vigor and parched wit…George, Nicholas and Wilhelm is an impressive book. Ms. Carter has clearly not bitten off more than she can chew for she—as John Updike once wrote about Gunter Grass—"chews it enthusiastically before our eyes."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Historian Carter (Anthony Blunt: His Lives) delivers an irresistibly entertaining and illuminating chronicle from Queen Victoria's final decades to the 1930s through linked biographies of the emperors of England (George V), Germany (Wilhelm II), and Russia (Nicholas II). Anachronisms presiding over courts that were “stagnant ponds of tradition and conservatism,” the three possessed average intelligence and little imagination. All were unprepared for their jobs and didn't improve with on-the-job training. Most fortunate was George, who performed his purely symbolic royal role dutifully, avoided scandal, and, alone of the three, reigned until his death, in 1936. More colorful but also tactless and unpredictable, Wilhelm took the German throne in 1888, dismissed his long-serving, brilliant chancellor, Bismarck, and launched an erratic reign that contributed to the onset and loss of WWI. Czar Nicholas showed little interest in governing except to oppose reform. In the end, the most violent reformers, the Bolsheviks, murdered him and his family. 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. 32 pages of photos, 2 maps. (Mar. 28)
Kirkus Reviews
Carter (Anthony Blunt: His Lives, 2002) examines the well-worn but endlessly fascinating history of the tight, treacherous ties that bound the royal families of Europe in the early 20th century. Queen Victoria's "secret weapon" had been to manage world affairs through the intricacies of her far-flung familial relationships, and all three reigning monarchs by the start of World War I were bound to her by blood and marriage: Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, was her first grandchild via daughter Vicky; George V, King of England, was another grandson, via her son Edward VII; and Tsar Nicholas II was married to one of her granddaughters, Alexandra. All three cousins spent time together when they were young, and more or less got along. Carter creates elucidating snapshots of their respective dysfunctional upbringings. Wilhelm, who resented his pushy English mother, exhibited symptoms of "narcissistic personality disorder" and went through a period of Anglophobia (he had insulted his grandmother and the English regarded him as a "bumptious Prussian"), before relations improved with his accession to emperor in 1888. Nicholas had suddenly become tsar with the early death of his father in 1894; terrified and wholly unprepared, he was comforted by his English royal cousins before his inscrutability and "opacity" isolated him in Europe in terms of affairs in Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Manchuria. George, probably dyslexic as well as given to bursts of private rage, became the reluctant king in 1910 and was deeply attached to his entitlement and hostile to change such as socialism and trade unions. When the war in the Balkans broke out, the three cousins found themselves entrenched in"deepening cracks of mistrust and tension," as events slipped beyond their control. Carter sharply sorts history in terms of the personal ruling styles of these three fallible monarchs. First printing of 50,000
From the Publisher
“History on a large canvas. . . . Carter writes incisively about the overlapping events that led to the Great War and changed the world. . . . Impressive. . . . Carter has clearly not bitten off more than she can chew for she—as John Updike once wrote of Gunter Grass—’chews it enthusiastically before our eyes.’”
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.”
Providence Journal

“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.”
—Zadie Smith

“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.”
BookPage
 
“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.”
Publishers Weekly
 
“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.”
The Spectator

Library Journal
11/01/2013
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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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400043637
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/23/2010
Pages:
528
Sales rank:
660,449
Product dimensions:
6.66(w) x 9.72(h) x 1.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

Ten Surprising Facts from GEORGE, WILHELM AND NICHOLAS
by Miranda Carter

1. King George V of Great Britain was first cousin through his mother to Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, and first cousin through his father to Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser of Germany. In fact, by the time he was 31 his grandmother Queen Victoria had ensured that he was related by blood or marriage to every royal family in Europe.

2. The British admired Queen Victoria, but the rest of Europe was less keen. In the 1880s a member of the Imperial German court described her as 'an undersized creature, almost as broad as she was long who looked like a cook, had a bluish-red face and was more or less mentally deranged. But she is very rich…' On the streets of Berlin an old lady told an English journalist that everyone knew Victoria was an inveterate tippler who drank whisky out of a teapot.

3. 'I look upon you…as one of my oldest and best friends,' George wrote to Nicholas, though they met only infrequently and for much of their lives their two countries were arch-enemies. They also looked extremely alike: when Nicholas came to George's wedding in London in 1893 he was constantly congratulated on his upcoming marriage, while George was asked how he liked London!

4. When Wilhelm was fourteen a group of doctors concluded he would never be 'normal,' but would succumb to rages when he would be 'incapable of forming a reasonable or temperate judgment on the subject under consideration,' and while 'it was not probable that he would actually become insane, some of his actions would probably be those of a man not wholly sane'.

5. Nicholas and his German wife Alexandra (another granddaughter of Queen Victoria) spoke and wrote to each other in English.

6. George's greatest passion-apart from stamp collecting-was shooting. The quantities of game shot at his home, Sandringham, were positively obscene, and he personally could bring down 1,000 pheasants in a single day.

7. Though George's father King Edward VII is now primarily famous for his extramarital adventures, by the end of his reign he was regarded as a highly successful international statesman, and credited with having revolutionized British foreign policy. Edward and Wilhelm utterly loathed each other, and the Kaiser became convinced his British uncle was out to get him. 'He is a Satan, you have no idea what a Satan he is,' he ranted to his entourage after one argument.

8. Wilhelm only ever wore military uniform-often four different ones in one day. He collected hundreds of them, and was constantly fiddling with and redesigning details. Even his closest entourage thought he took it too far and was 'obsessed…with clothes and externals'.

9. In March 1917 the Russian Provisional government asked the British government if it would grant asylum to the ex-Tsar and his family. The British government at first said yes. It was George, scared that his unpopular cousin's arrival would cast him in a bad light, who personally campaigned to have the invitation withdrawn-and it was.

10. Wilhelm took Germany to war with Britain, but during the war and even afterwards he couldn't shake off his life-long addiction to all things English: he read English papers, drank English tea, laughed at P.G. Wodehouse, and wore a tie pin with a miniature of his dearest Grandmama, Victoria.

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What People are saying about this

"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."
--Zadie Smith

"An irresistably 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."
--Publishers Weekly

"A wonderfully fresh and beautifully choreographed work of history."
--Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

"A hauntingly tempting proposition for a book . . . 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

"Fresh and enjoyable . . . Carter's thoughtful reintroduction of the vividly human late 19th century international politics is timely and welcome."
--Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

"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."
--Margaret MacMillan, The Spectator

"An absorbing book . . . a convincing and considerable achievement."
--Sarah Bradford, The Literary Review

"She handles her themes with skill and aplomb."
--Anthony Howard, Daily Telegraph

"Intelligent, entertaining, and informative . . . Carter is a shrewd and observant guide . . . She tells her story with verve and impressive synthetic reach."
--Christopher Clark, London Review of Books

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Meet the Author

Miranda Carter is the author of Anthony Blunt: His Lives, which won the Orwell Prize for political writing and the Royal Society of Literature W. H. Heinemann Award, and was chosen as one of The New York Times Book Review’s seven Best Books of 2002. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.

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George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm 4.1 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 65 reviews.
Phormio More than 1 year ago
Miranda Carter's "George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm" suffers from being a nearly perfect book; it approaches so closely to the ideal that, putting it down, a reader is impelled to remember its few near misses more than its many solid hits. The time about which she writes was the last stand of autocratic monarchy in Europe, and the biographical format fits the chief problem of the time nearly to a T. Carter is a lucid and self-effacing writer, and she successfully maps the various details while staying almost wholly clear from editorializing, and without once writing down to her audience. In both the U. K. (where it was published as "The Three Emperors") and the U. S., reviewers who were themselves biographers noted that it had a little more of history than biography tends to do, but this is a feature, rather than a bug. It is what makes Carter's book stand out among the ranks of narrative portraits. "GNW" presents greatly fair pictures of its three subjects, though the need to maintain a single-volume length leaves the end a little thinly-drawn, especially as relates to the German army and the Russian government. That being said, it is not clear that anyone could fit all the relevant detail from the period 1889-1914 into less than 500 pages without rushing. The American edition features a poorly-oriented index, which means that there are two entries under "Wilhelm II" for "anti-democratic" (both point to p. 22), but no entries for important things like Prussian wheat tariffs or Alfred von Schlieffen (which in the case of Schlieffen is just as well, given that Carter's account of him on p. 362 is one of her few slip-ups). Newspaper reviewers have been unhappy that the central characters are not presented here in a more engaging manner, but that is precisely the point: at the crucial moment, these three kings failed to engage their countries, and were to varying degrees swept aside. Carter provides a fine view of the sweep, and this is the best biography for the period since Robert K. Massie's 1967 "Nicholas and Alexandra."
Grady1GH More than 1 year ago
Queen Victoria of England not only had one of the longest reigns in royal history (her reign of 63 years and 7 months, which is longer than that of any other British monarch and the longest of any female monarch in history) but her progeny produced leaders in disparate countries that focused on three names in the pre-world War I period - King George V of Great Britain (an India), Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. In a manner of relating history more as a fascinating novel than as a history book author Miranda Carter manages to explore the personalities of these three men and more importantly the dissimilarities in these three cousins. She slowly but surely allows us to see how thoroughly apolitical King George and Tsar Nicholas were and how the paranoid Emperor Wilhelm used the relationships to foster the growing embitterment between Germany and England. In fact, Carter creates the atmosphere of the times to document how inept and out of touch with not only their duties of governance but also with the situation of the world as it developed in this curious time. The fact that the interaction (or lack thereof) among these three descendants of Queen Victoria brought to an end the concept of Monarchy in Europe makes Carter's beautifully documented book well worth the read. There is so much history and recreation of the milieu of the times in this book that reading it more closely resembles a terrific film or stage play than a book. For those who enjoy exploration of personalities as they influence world events, then this book is bound to please. Few writers have been as consistently readable as Carter in that strange gap in our history - 1914 - 1918 - that changed the globe forever. Grady Harp
Guyton More than 1 year ago
This a fascinating book about the interaction of the royal families in the late 19th century and the eve of World War I. I was particularly impressed with the astonishing amount of correspondence the author referenced between monarchs and extended family members. Additionally, the influence of Queen Victoria on her children and granchildren was discussed in great detail. The political insight and brilliance of Bismarck and Lord Salisbury are highlighted against the backdrop of the fragile nation-states, such as tsarist Russia and the Austo-Hungarian empire.In this very well written and extensively documented book,one is found to sympathize, admire, like, and dislike the many characters, both royal and non-royal, at a critical era of world history. Miranda Carter has done an excellent job.
Aggiepolo80 More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in history this is a must have for your library. The way the royal family's of Europe were entwined, and yet so far apart is fascinating. The interaction of these three cousins in the events leading up to WW1 and during the war are intriguing. I have always found the era of Tsars in Russia some of the most compelling history in the world. I have never paid a lot of attention to England's monarchy, but this book does a great job of tying all of Europe together in a very well written book.
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55T-Bird More than 1 year ago
Fascinating!  I was intrigued by the subject but I really thought this would be a tedious read nonetheless.  But from the first chapter, I was amazed with how intriguing this story turned out to be.  There is so much about these men and the events of the era they lived in that impacted and reshaped the world for generations, even down to our present time.  This book provides insight into the causes for so many other major world events-- it is definitely an essential work for understanding the twentieth century.
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brim98 More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. However, its transcription into an ebook format leaves a lot to be desired. Odd characters are imbedded, punctuation is missing or incorrect
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Ethel Vaught More than 1 year ago
Interesting and very thoroughly researched. But gets bogged down in too many details about politics. Started skipping multiple pages to grt past boring sections.
CSENYC More than 1 year ago
I always thought that 1871-1914 in Europe must have been a wonderful time to live, with democracy either emerging or established in most places and peace. Now I see otherwise- with Germany led by a nutcase, Russia led by an absolute monarch closed off from his country and more. Fascinating book with a very thorough description of the era and its leaders. The author does a good job of being unbiased- only once (on pg. 290) does she give away her political views.
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