"Three Emperors" by Miranda Carter tells the story of the road to World War I through the biographies of Nicolas II of Russia, Wilhelm II of Germany and George V of England. All three countries, courts and families had complex, cultural and historical links with one another. Both monarchs and cousins, all three represented an "Ancien Régime" clinging to the age of empires unlike the societies they ruled which were moving towards democracy.
Carter is convincing in her portrayal and analysis of the three cousins, all of whom appeared more and more out of touch with reality. The cousins failed to understand the rapidly changing nature of society both socially and economically; the role and power of the press and public opinion or indeed international politics, instead they seemed obsessed with uniforms, etiquette and appearances. Whereas George and Nicolas retreated from public life wanting to be left alone, Wilhelm, much to the embarrassment of the German politicians, claimed centre stage as sole head of the empire.
Carter's depiction of the three emperors is not flattering and she spares them little. Using diaries, anecdotes and other contemporary sources "Three emperors" brings to life their individual character as well as the era they lived in. Carter provides a revealing albeit somewhat biased study of the end of the age of empires.
All in all, I found "Three Emperors" a highly entertaining and easy to read book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in European monarchies or international politics during the late 19th and early 20th century.
This is an excellent investigation into what can happen when rulers equate divine right with competence and sound judgement. We see the results of a system of hereditary monarchy in three different cases and how their own personalities and the influences around them shaped not only their lives but their relationships with each other, which in turn filtered down to the general population and set up national prejudices which led to mass slaughter in the first world war.
The extraordinary thing is that none of these men were trained in any way for a job that required serious skills in diplomacy, political philosophy and history. It was assumed, not least by the protagonists, that just being royal was enough to carry them through. This is something unthinkable in the present age of job-training and specialisation. The author traces the development of each of the emperors within the contexts of their countries and their times.
The other extraordinary thing is that there was no REAL reason for the first world war, other than power games and juggling of alliances between countries. So much of this was influenced by the monarchs who chose their ministers accordingly.
There was the Kaiser with his war-mongering, which was just a lot of braggadoccio, and left him very distressed when the war did come. There was Edward VII who couldn't stand his nephew and tried to foster an entente cordiale with France. Then later there was George V who was sincere and decent but also boring and weak, who apparently loved his Russian relations. Luckily he was a constitutional monarch so couldn't do too much damage.
But of course the greatest tragedy was Nicholas II of Russia, who was not only weak, but also had a deep sense of divine right, no notion of the real problems of his country,a German wife who interfered in government with actually no idea of what was appropriate, and a haemophiliac son whose disease they felt they had to keep secret, so they retreated more and more into themselves, heavily under the influence of the so-called healer, Rasputin.
These three families, all blood relations, show us family drama working out on a large scale. Miranda Carter takes us into the three households where we observe and start to understand the complex factors at work among these hugely privileged but fundamentally undistinguished, people. The story makes 'Dallas' seem trivial. This is an account of how individuals can contribute to world changes, just by being who they are, with their loves, fears, weaknesses and shortcomings. In this case there were massive implications for millions of people, both in Europe and even elsewhere. It is a riveting tale of love, hate, folly, intolerance and misguided self-confidence.
I agree with the reviewer who wrote that this book had not been edited enough. The slightly informal writing style was occasionally annoyingly slangy. I also found the liberal, inconsistent and often utterly pointless use of [sic] very irritating. Surely we all know that Tsar was often spelt Czar, that the fact that Russian is transliterated means that some writers might spell names, in particular, differently, and that even Empresses might use idiosyncratic spelling at times? As other reviewers have mentioned, there was also a certain amount of repetition in this book. It seemed to me that "England" and "Britain" were used interchangeably, too.
Having said all that, this is a magnificently readable and enjoyable work that despite the often very serious nature of its subject is a real page-turner. I was reading it in every spare moment until I finished it -it really is that gripping. Having studied the causes of the First World War at school but knowing little about the late Victorian/Edwardian era I found the background information very interesting. Miranda Carter succeeds in bringing many of the historical figures she writes about vividly alive on the page, and the broad scope of the book, taking in Britain, Russia and Germany, gave a perspective that was consistently thought-provoking. The Kaiser in particular came across as a fascinating, frustrating personality. Although this is a relatively traditional work of history in the sense that it focuses on the "great men" it has a nuanced approach and never loses sight of the effect of the decisions made at the top on those at the bottom. It is sobering to think how many people were slaughtered in the First World War (not to mention the numerous other conflicts, some of which were equally pointless, and pogroms and massacres in Russia in particular, covered in the book) because of the arrogance, stupidity, greed and sheer lack of imagination of a relatively small number of people.
Overall this book is well worth reading - and is worth reading just for pleasure. I look forward to reading more by Miranda Carter.
I thought this book was very well written, considering that it had to cover the lives of three rulers along with their relationships and descent into war.
The account of their lives was generally done sections at a time (i.e a few chapters on their respective childhoods, then their adolescent lives etc.)and I found that this method worked well enough, despite leading to some repetition and I also got a bit confused with names, nicknames and obscure family members. However, there were more than enough genuinely interesting passages, as well as good amounts of humour, to negate the imperfections.
Importantly, the author does not overplay the importance of the three Emperors, and indeed their waning influence on events leading up to war is discussed. Nonetheless, reading about the changing relationships between the Emperors and their respective countries is very interesting, with the occasional repetition being the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars.
Before World War I the belief that monarchs ruled by divine right was alive and well in Europe--at least among the monarchs themselves. George, Nicolas and Wilhelm were cousins who reigned in Britain, Russia and Germany during the years leading up to the war. By the end of the war Tsar Nicolas and his family had been assassinated, and Kaiser Wilhelm was in exile having been forced to abdicate. Interestingly, only the monarch with almost no political power survived the war with his title in tact, but the experiences of the war aged and haunted King George so that it is almost impossible to see the handsome young man he had been in the worn face of his post-war photos.
As the grandmother of King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicolas's wife Alix, Queen Victoria played a pivotal role in the lives of all three rulers. Though, like King George, her main functions in politics were decorative, Queen Victoria was able to strengthen her position by marrying eight of her nine children into European reigning houses, most of which had more real power than the British monarchy. All her scattered, royal children and grandchildren were brought up to believe that the close family relationships they maintained would ensure peace and harmony for Europe. Even as their countries bickered in an increasingly ominous way, the royals wrote each other loving notes, took hunting vacations together, and met on each other's yachts.
I really enjoyed this triple biography; all of its subjects are fascinating. Kaiser Wilhelm is Queen Victoria's first grandson, born to her eldest daughter. That daughter, Vicky, tried so hard to make Wilhelm venerate all things British that he alternated between rebellion, antagonizing his English family with his bombastic and pseudo-militaristic ways, and supplication, wanting only to be loved and admired by those same relations. He'd threaten dire consequences when he thought he had been disrespected, but he became happy as a child with a new toy when presented with foreign military uniforms. These were honorary tokens that he seemed to believe gave him real decision making power in the British navy and Russian army. Though he lived a cushy, royal life Wilhelm always considered himself a strong, disciplined military man. He had a withered, unusable arm from a difficult birth that was never allowed to appear in pictures. He encouraged and strengthened the Germany military--a group of men who believed in a warped social Darwinism that saw war as a necessary tool to cull the continent's population--to the point that his armed forces became so powerful they ruled themselves, unanswerable to him or the civilian government. He felt betrayed by them when he was forced to abdicate.
Tsar Nicolas was a family man who wanted nothing more than to be secluded with his wife and five children far from the seats of power. He was mainly ignorant of the devastation the Russian people were experiencing and the rebellion that was causing, and when he did have a glimpse of it he truly did not understand what he was seeing. One reason for this was that he was worried and distracted by the ill health of his only son, who had hemophilia. Also, his very religious wife kept him convinced that he alone, as the divinely appointed ruler, knew what was best for Russia, so he wouldn't listen to advisors and kept weakening and dissolving the Duma, Russia's representative assembly. The chaos this produced led to Russia's disastrous participation in World War I and then to revolution and his own death.
King George looked so much like his first cousin Tsar Nicolas that in photos of the two of them it is hard to tell them apart. Though George loved and admired his father, the rotund but stylish King Edward, he was embarrassed by his father's dalliances and so his court was much more conservative. Well into the new century he continued to dress in the fashions popular when his grandmother Queen Victoria was alive, and he insisted that his wife wear the old styles too. Miranda Carter credits his war activities--stoic visits to the front, hospitals and factories--with a resurgence in popularity of the British monarchy. His frayed ordinariness was seen as a rebuke to the claims of divine right made by the absolutist monarchies his country felt it was fighting against.
I didn't know much about this period in history before I read the book and one of the things that surprised me was the large role that Austria--land of edelweiss--played in instigating the First World War. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated Austria saw it as an opportunity to crush Serbia, the self-proclaimed leader of the southern Slavs. Empire building was seen as a key to wealth and power and Austria considered Serbia, which had doubled its size after the Balkan war, a threat to the Austria-Hungry Empire it had built. Austria's military leaders were just as enthusiastic about war as Wilhelm's German generals were, and the German military encouraged Austria to ignore all the appeasements and concessions the Serbs made in its fruitless effort to secure peace.
I became interested in the pre-WWI era while reading Juliet Nicholson's The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. While Miranda Carter's book focuses on different aspects of that era--there is nothing about socialite Diana Cooper who has a prominent role in Perfect Summer--it is just as captivating and we do learn more about some of the other interesting characters in the earlier book. There is a little bit more about George's dutiful wife Queen Mary for instance, and the sections dealing with Lloyd George, who was the first and so far only Welsh Prime minister of the United Kingdom, were new to me. I'm looking forward to reading Nicholson's new book about the post-war period--The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age.