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

by Miranda Carter


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Tuesday, January 29

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400079124
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2011
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 165,362
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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.

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

Table of Contents

Family Trees ix

Maps xiii

List of Illustrations xv

Author's Note xix

Introduction xxi

Part I Three Childhoods, Three Countries

1 Wilhelm An Experiment in Perfection 1859 3

2 George Coming Second 1865 28

3 Nicholas A Diamond-Studded Ivory Tower 1868 50

Part II Family Ties, Imperial Contests

4 Wilhelm Emperor 1888-90 75

5 Young Men in Love 1891-94 100

6 Wilhelm Anglophile 1891-95 125

7 Perfidious Muscovy 1895-97 150

8 Behind the Wall 1893-1904 180

9 Imperial Imperatives 1898-1901 205

Part III A Bright New Century

10 The Fourth Emperor 1901-4 235

11 Unintended Consequences 1904-5 260

12 Continental Shifts 1906-8 280

13 A Balkan Crisis 1908-9 306

14 Edward's Mantle 1910-11 321

15 Celebrations and Warnings 1911-14 334

16 July 1914 357

Part IV Armageddon

17 A War 1914-18 379

Epilogue 415

Notes 427

Bibliography 469

Acknowledgements 479

Index 481

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

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 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.
Randyflycaster on LibraryThing 5 months ago
think this book could have been a little shorter, but for anyone interested in the road to World War I (and World War II) this book is a must, as it offers a very unique, and sad, prespective.Ms. Carter brings the three flawed monarchs to life and paints a vivid picture of the royal courts. She also shows how the character defects of Nicholas and Wilhelm lead to a war that neither monarch wanted.
zen_923 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I really enjoyed this book. It is well-written and informative. The author was able to detail almost everything about the life of these three monarchs.It also contains awesome pictures! The only thing that disappointed me is the fact that the author focused mainly on what happened pre-war while using only one chapter and an epilogue to explain what happened during the war and the events after it. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this amazing book!
michaelbartley on LibraryThing 5 months ago
a lively and very readable history of europe entering the modern age. this studies the end of divine right kings, thank god!
willmurdoch on LibraryThing 5 months ago
They were uneducated, petty men who led their countries into WW I. Otherwise untalented they all shared an aristocrat's love of "sport" shooting animals and killed many thousands a year. Karma-wise this could explain the huge carnage of the war they couldn't prevent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago