Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War — Reviewed by Dennis Linton

King, Kaiser, Tsar: 
Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War
by Catrine Clay
John Murray Publishers, 2006

Once Georgie came to the throne, things might have improved. But by then the friendship between Georgie and Nicky, nurtured through the years by their mothers, was well established, and they did not include Willy in "the Club". It was anyway too late.

King, Kaiser, Tsar is a compelling comparative biography of the formative lives of George V of Great Britain, Wilhelm II of Germany, and Nicholas II of Russia, who would lead their countries into World War I. The three future leaders grew up knowing each other since early childhood in a vast extended family overseen by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. At times, it is hard to believe that the first cousins — who affectionately called each other Georgie, Willy, and Nicky throughout their lives — could not have found a way to avert the march to war. The book details the grandeur and dysfunction of each of the three royal courts that molded each of the men on both sides of the turn of the century. As the narrative unwinds, the reader learns not only to decipher the individual personalities but also how their roles as a constitutional monarch, a defacto autocrat, and an absolute monarch formed the way in which they dealt with each other and their respective governments. Each in their own way was unsuited to hold together a crumbling empire, let alone lead their countries into war. Regardless of their family connections, the three rulers were playing the game of international politics on a world stage, and power was the more motivating factor than family.

Catrine Clay weaves a tale not only of the three cousins as they grow up but also of the intertwined relationships of the children and grandchildren of Queen Victoria and their influence in the coming of age of the eventual King , Kaiser, and Tsar. The author is at her best revealing the role of Queen Victoria and the women in the rulers' lives in statesmanship through the letters and correspondence they shared across a continent in which Queen Victoria attempted to influence by matchmaking many of the monarchial households. Clay does a magnificent job of describing the extravagant state visits and weddings where the three cousins interact, each measuring the other and then backbiting in subsequent correspondence and diaries. It is through these diaries and correspondence that the reader begins to uncover the animosity, as well as the alliances, between the three cousin's relationships which will mirror their countries' parts in the impending war.

It becomes almost amusing that with every state visit each of the men bestow honorary military titles among each other in their respective armies and navies. At one point, Wilhelm, already the Kaiser during this particular visit to England, arrived on the royal yacht accompanied by a court of 67 men. Wilhelm always wore varying military uniforms and this time he is wearing the uniform of a British admiral. At dinner, he proceeds to address the weaknesses of the British Navy in the Mediterranean. George, in attendance as a lowly prince who was in the navy and had spent years at sea, humorously noted in his diary that Wilhelm must have forgotten that the title of admiral was purely honorary. While each of the leaders is amply covered in the book, the most attention is given to the lengthy, oft-times quixotic reign of Wilhelm II and his frequent mood swings. Wilhelm is clearly painted as the villain of the three in his responsibility for the war. Clay describes the Kaiser as a virulent anti-Semite who could not decide whether he loved or despised England. The biography becomes a bit tedious with Clay's obsession detailing the possibility that Wilhelm was a closet homosexual who was manipulated first by Bismarck and then by Count August zu Eulenberg, who knew Wilhelm's liking for "lange Kerls", long-limbed young men. While this all may be true, however never proved, Clay spends more time in the book on this titillating issue than the entire four years of the Great War.

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Throughout the book, it becomes evident that the relationship between George and Nicholas is stronger, and both begin to despise Wilhelm. Wilhelm's overbearing and patronizing attitude toward Nicholas culminates in the Willy-Nicky telegrams of July 1914. It is almost incredible that, although they were discussing war against each other, they still ended each telegram with "Willy" or "Nicky".

The book almost comes to an abrupt ending, leaving the reader looking for a missing chapter or two. Barely 30 pages cover the entire four years of the war, and most of those pages deal with July 1914 or the final fates of the royal cousins. Even though the subject of the individual rulers is covered in many formats, this book is ultimately a worthwhile read because it weaves the tale of three cousins who rise to power in a world they cannot change but forever changes them and the countries they lead.

Our Reviewer: Dennis Linton, COL, U.S. Army, retired. Assistant Professor, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. Museum Docent at the National World War One Museum at Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri.

Dennis Linton


  1. In addition to Catrine Clay's excellent King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War (2006), let me also recommend George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter (2011), which covers much of the same ground. The cousins' families were indeed extensively intermarried, and they visited each other frequently throughout their lives before 1914 for family and imperial celebrations. While closely related, all three were not first cousins by blood. George V and Nicholas were, as their mothers were sisters, former Danish princesses, daughters of Christian X. George V and Kaiser Wilhelm also were, both grandchildren of Victoria and Albert. Nicky and Willy's most recent common ancestors were their great-great-grandparents, Tsar Paul I and Sophia Dorothea of Wurttenberg. A second set of common ancestors were Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm III and Duchess Louise, who were Willy's great grandparents and Nicky's great-great-grandparents. Willy was, however, first cousin to Tsarista Alexandra, who was also a grandchild of Victoria and Albert.