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A Death in the Family

By (September 1, 2007) No Comment

King, Kaiser, Tsar

By Catrine Clay
Walker & Company, 2007


Europe in 1913 couldn’t have appeared more stable if it had been written to be so as the backdrop of a Hollywood movie. There were tiny fissures of unaccountability—gains in medicine that showed faint hints of a distant future in which imbecile bacteria need not wipe out whole demographics, gains in women’s rights spearheaded by a few valiant pioneers like Mrs. Pankhurst—but for the most part, give or take a boutique crisis here or there (for true stasis would have been unbelievable), things looked welcomingly steady to the average Western man on the street.

Power was concentrated in the hands of individuals, as it always had been and obviously should be (after all, where else but in the family structure could young princes and princesses go about learning the craft? Monarchy’s advocates could claim that the extensive network of balls and events and correspondence that characterized royal life existed for that sole purpose)—all, that is, except for the rogue United States, that weird anomaly where it seemed like any sort of riff-raff might gain the Presidency, only to keep it for a few seasons and then relinquish it to some newcomer (in this weird, improbable land, the newcomer was virtually never blood-related to the incoming leader). It’s plain in hindsight that not only did the gilded powers of greater Europe fail to understand anything resembling the plebeian mind frame, but also that they failed to recognize the future when it was staring them in the face.

This last is entirely understandable, since that particular future was unlike anything else seen before in the long extent of their collective memory, indeed, in the long and weary history of the planet. Commoners talking amongst themselves about the mechanics of government? Victoria would have considered it unthinkable, and all of her offspring—including all three of our principal players in this history, if we include relations by marriage—would have agreed.

They came from an intensely homogeneous world, despite their squabbling. King George V of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of the newly-unified Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia all lived a daily existence that included retinues of servants, numerous seasonal residences, and the trappings of partially ceremonial power. They liked the same music, read the same books, and fired off telegrams with the same celerity. This homogeneity was enhanced by—and an outcome of—the fact that they were all cousins: Queen Victoria’s son King Edward VII was King George V’s father, Edward’s sister Victoria was the Kaiser’s mother, and Edward’s wife’s sister was the mother of Tsar Nicholas II. From the long reign and fertile womb of Queen Victoria came a Europe ruled almost entirely by first and second cousins who had all been childhood playmates.

Catrine Clay, in her new book King, Kaiser, Tsar, makes a brave and entirely credible foray into this byzantine state of affairs, picking apart the family’s tangled lines of communication and delivering a deft examination of it all in a compact and happily readable 400 pages. The story of these three cousins has many twists and turns, and of course it has as its centerpiece Armageddon, but even so, Clay is a fairly deft writer, and the reader only feels the storm clouds gather at roughly the same point the main characters do.

King, Kaiser, Tsar begins on an ominous note that has nothing to do with the dark days of the First World War: the book opens with a protracted word of thanks to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for allowing access to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Fortunately, the specter of toadyism is dispelled the moment the reader recalls other such books, with other such permissions, in none of which was there any favoritism or white-washing. Like few other individuals in the world, the Queen is on a first-name basis with history, and apparently she feels little inclination to protect the dead from its sober judgements. This is entirely to her credit, and in any case the Royal Archives don’t feature in Clay’s endnotes with any noticeable prominence. Rather, Clay has mostly built her book on sturdy, well-chosen secondary sources like A.J.P. Taylor, Walter Goetz, James Pope-Hennessy, and A.A. Mossolov. The reader unwilling to plow through the many mammoth volumes John Rohl has written on Kaiser Wilhelm, for instance, will find them fairly and accurately represented here.

As could be expected, her account begins in comparative peace and ease. The monarchs of Europe made their stately progresses from palace to ball to seaside resort, with the greatest of them all presiding over everything from the center:

Queen Victoria’s letters and journals are filled with accounts of match-making, both significant and insignificant. The insignificant were permitted to be purely romantic, the significant were always supposed to be in “our” interest. If any of the relations disagreed, which from time to time they did, they were treated to Queen Victoria’s famous disdain.

This picture is destabilized once the near-mythical monarch is gone and her son “Bertie” rules as King Edward VII, and it’s scrambled almost beyond recognition when George V inherits the kingdom from his father. By the time Georgie, Willy, and Nicky (throughout the book, in a conceit that first grates and then manages to work, Clay refers to all of her royal characters by their childhood names, even when world events have turned grim and the trick threatens to become vaguely insulting) achieve the fullness of their power, the awesome authority of Queen Victoria has become a bloodless memory, to be nostalgically cherished or unconsciously rebelled against.

The rebelling is done by Willy, who quickly emerges as—well, if not the book’s villain, certainly the person who would occupy that role if Clay were writing fiction. He has a baker’s dozen of stereotypical villain traits: he’s bellicose, unpredictable, histrionic, and he bears a deformity (one of his arms was badly mangled during his delivery, a particularly botched operation even by the standards of the time). Clay is scrupulously fair to Willy, always giving him credit on the admittedly rare occasions on which he deserves it, but she is after all writing a narrative history, and Willy has all the best lines, at lest if we measure them by quotability rather than moral content.

  In fact, one of the best pleasures of Clay’s brisk narrative is the way her three main characters, in journals and letters and ubiquitous telegrams, take on three-dimensional life. Georgie is the quintessential Englishman, bluff, resolute, and outwardly reserved. Willy is the paranoid black sheep, quick to bluster and hypersensitive to offense. And Nicky comes off best of all, as a sensitive, intelligent man caught in a dangerously antiquated system of government. He of course suffers the worst fate of the three cousins, and such has Clay’s skill been in evoking him that the reader dreads what’s coming with fresh anticipation, as though it were somehow preventable. Not one in ten historians can manage that trick, and Clay is to be commended for so viscerally reminding her readers that her characters weren’t living historical accounts of their lives but rather the lives themselves, which were as open-ended and uncertain as our own.

She’s equally good at bringing minor characters to life, as in this deliciously catty depiction of Shah Nasr el Din of Persia’s visit to England:

The whole of London was agape at the Shah’s behaviour, which was spectacularly bad. He shouted at his servants, his table manners were disgusting, his time-keeping was rude, and his freedom with the ladies was shocking. He pulled food out of his mouth and either put it back if he deemed it good, or threw it over his shoulder if he did not. He soon abandoned knives and forks, wiping his greasy hands on the tablecloths and belching loudly.

One hopes no fatwas are forthcoming from such a description; it might have been an opportune point for Clay to mention that her dear Georgie had been known to shout at the occasional servant himself, although he was a lifelong respecter of tablecloths.

Clay’s narrative is not so simple as to characterize the events leading up to World War One as a protracted family dispute, although the organizing motif of her book often verges on making it seem so. For all their interactions with each other, these three cousins were also caught up in the movements of their time, the foremost of which was the popular uprising. From Constantinople to Cork, the gilded monarchies of the previous century were increasingly finding themselves at the center of sporadic insurrections. Popular nationalism struck at the heart of inherited power; when the conflagration of the First World War was finally extinguished (or at least contained for a time), only a handful of the monarchies that went into it would still exist.

Clay allows no hindsighted shadow of that end to fall on her wonderful portraits of prewar societies, which of course has the effect of making those portraits all the more melancholy. For Russia she quotes an observer at the court of Nicky’s father, Tsar Alexander III:

I must say there is life and merriment at the palace now. All the princely youth who have gathered here are letting their hair down. There is sunshine and laughter in all the corners of the palace, in all the corners of the park, as if a swarm of twittering birds had arrived.

Those glorious princely youth can’t imagine the sound of merciless gunfire in a basement at Ekaterinburg; the reader cannot help but imagine it. Likewise the Kaiser’s Germany:

Germany was determined to become a world power, with Berlin as a world capital. The Prussian military was unstoppable, and Bismarck was God. The earlier philosophical and sceptical outlook … had disappeared, replaced by a fervent and simple belief in Germany’s glorious future.

Again the reader, knowing the atrocities lying dormant in the heart of one insignificant member of that unstoppable Prussian army, will read such passages thinking of an evil that makes the Kaiser, with his wardrobe full of gaudy military outfits, seem quaint and harmless.

(Although Clay dutifully records the Kaiser on the subject of Germany’s Jews: “There are far too many of them in my country. They want stamping out.”)

As the Kaiser ages (one hesitates to say “matures”), the reader watches him go from blunder to blunder, constantly saying and doing the wrong thing and then overcompensating with anger and self-righteousness. Clay is even-handed always in her accounts, but the reader suspects that some lines were written with a smile on the author’s face:

On 10 March 1888 the Prince and Princess of Wales celebrated their silver wedding anniversary at Marlborough House. Bertie gave his long-suffering wife a diamond and ruby cross. From Russia, Minny and Sasha [Tsar Alexander III and his wife] sent her a beautiful ruby diamond necklace. Queen Victoria arrived bearing a very large silver loving-cup. Three hundred and sixty-five society ladies gave a diamond tiara, the United Grand Lodge of Freemasons a diamond butterfly; and Lord and Lady Rothschild outdid everyone by sending a gold bouquet holder encrusted with precious stones and a huge pair of diamond and pearl earrings. The Kaiser and Kaiserin sent a couple of dreary Dresden vases.

Likewise through Clay’s selection of material Nicky comes alive as he seldom has in the vast historical record pertaining to him (this is especially true in the wonderful selection of photos Clay has supplied; in shot after shot, while everybody else is striking a pose and looking at the photographer, Nicky is looking slightly above the photographer, right into the eyes of the person viewing the photo … the effect is distinctly eerie). On the evening of the day on which the Kaiser declares war on Russia, the Tsar is just stepping into his bath when a servant presents him with an urgent telegram:

I read the telegram, read it again and repeated it out aloud … but couldn’t understand a word. What on earth does Wilhelm mean, I thought, pretending that it still depends on me whether war is averted or not! He implores me not to let my troops cross the frontier! Have I suddenly gone mad? Didn’t the Minister of my Court, my trusted Fredericks, at least six hours ago bring me the declaration of war the German Ambassador had just handed Sazonov?

Every large family has at least one member whose behavior is erratic and even destructive; Nicky’s exasperation, even on the brink of war, is made all the more immediate because it’s so emphatically recognizable. Clay’s readers will not know what it feels like to be Tsar of all Russia, but every one of them will at some point have blurted a variation on that “what on earth does Wilhelm mean?” Clay’s narrative is tensed along this divide, a world being torn apart and a family being torn apart.

Armageddon comes, and nearly ten million people die (20,000 in one afternoon, at the Somme), and Clay largely steps aside and leaves the narrating of military events to other authors, although by this point the steady, amenable beat of her prose is such a delight that the reader might wish she’d told the story and doubled her book’s length (a greater look at how the three cousins’ day to day lives were led during the war would have been nice), but that is not her task. She’s inquiring into just how much blame for the cataclysm of those ten million can be placed on the shoulders of our three cousins.

Georgie is generally exonerated: Clay is right to point out that as the figurehead leader of a constitutional monarchy, he had virtually no practical authority to influence events (our British author seems studiously unaware of how self-serving this conclusion is—very little mention is made of the social maneuverings conducted by Georgie’s father and then by himself designed explicitly to ostracize Germany and therefore guaranteed to enflame Willy’s touchiness). Willy and Nicky, both of whom ruled as well as reigned, are allotted greater culpability. This war prompts rounds of “what if” more than any other, and Clay cannot resist such speculation herself:

Had Nicky been able to make concessions to the Duma in the autumn of 1916 and accepted the necessity of sharing some power with an effective Prime Minister, his fate, which in retrospect seems so inevitable, might have been different. But it was impossible for Nicky, with his upbringing and temperament, to change. Nor could Alix [his wife], favourite -daughter of Queen Victoria whose empire extended across a quarter of the globe, or the wife of a Tsar, ruler of an empire almost as vast. Had Alix been weaker, she might have been forced to give way. Had Nicky been stronger, he might have stood up to Alix and, being more intelligent, might have acted differently.

[…] Had Wilhelm been surrounded by an entourage who calmed him and advised him well, things might have been different. But his entourage was almost exclusively military, almost all from the narrow background of Prussian nobility and with no more understanding of or liking for the Social Democrats and Socialists than Wilhelm himself. Most of them … were war-mongering reactionaries, completely out of touch with Germany as it had developed since the 1870s….

Such speculations are oddly soothing when done in the shadow of a disaster as comprehensive as the First World War, in which so much destruction sprang from so little cause, in which the stability of 1913 is revealed as a pernicious illusion. Under Clay’s patient excavation, those garden parties and glittering balls come to seem as though they couldn’t have happened in a 20th century so changed. The West would no longer concentrate real power in the hands of royal families, much less one extended royal family. The intermixture of family and sovereignty that Clay depicts here would no longer exist:

His [Kaiser Wilhelm’s] brother Heinrich had told him that Georgie had said, during a private conversation, cousin to cousin, that Britain would try to stay out of a war, and remain neutral. Whether or not this was true, or merely exaggerated, this was not the British position, as Wilhelm should have known. But confused as ever by his dual identity, he informed Tirpitz: “I have the word of a King and that is enough for me.”

Future Armageddons would follow, but henceforth we would have only ourselves to blame.

Steve Donoghue trained as a fighter pilot during the Great War, though, unfortunately, the Armistice was proclaimed before he could fly in any sorties. Under the impression that there would be no more world wars, he turned to writing and today hosts the literary blog www.stevereads.blogspot.com