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

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

King, Kaiser, Tsar
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

King, Kaiser, Tsar

by Catrine Clay.
Walker Publishing Company, 2006

King Edward VII
The Great War in all its tragic proportions was, in some measure, a family feud: among its leaders, decision makers and victims were three cousins who knew each other, played together, and, ultimately, were among the war’s victims. King, Kaiser, Tsar is their story.

We should begin with the dramatis personae of this tragedy and their family trees. Two ancestors are prominent figures. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom was grandmother of King George V of the United Kingdom, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Empress Alexandra of Russia. King Christian IX of Denmark was the father of Queen Alexandra of the UK, who was mother of George V, and Princess Dagmar who by marriage to Emperor Alexander III, became Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia and mother of Tsar Nicholas II. To simplify, the King, Kaiser, and Empress were first cousins through Victoria, and King and Tsar were first cousins through their Danish mothers.

This work begins with introductions to the early lives of its three subjects followed by examinations of their educations. Willy had a bad start with a rough birth from which his left arm was damaged and virtually useless. Though often spending time with his British relatives his antics generally made him disliked, so much so that excuses were sometimes made so as not to invite him to functions. His behavior, both private and governmental, was erratic and unpredictable.

Kaiser Wilhelm II
George, being the second son, pursued a naval career until the death of his older brother made him the heir apparent. He grew up as the son of a Prince of Wales who was largely excluded from affairs of state during Victoria’s lifetime. Surprisingly to some, George was raised without the sense of class that many expect of an upper-class Englishman.

Nicholas grew up in the embrace of his family but isolated from the country that he was to rule, partly because of seething revolution and assassinations that made intimacy with their people dangerous for the Imperial Family. Nicholas was small and weak compared to his father when thrust to the throne on the latter’s untimely death.

The three monarchs knew each other from summers in Denmark, racing at Cowes, and visits to each others’ lands during which they exchanged honorary military commissions. The relationships formed during the reign of Edward VII when his nephews, Willy and Nicky, were already on their thrones, evolved with the ascent of George in 1910.

Tsar Nicholas II
The roles of the three royal cousins in the Great War varied because of the nature of their countries’ constitutions. As King in a constitutional monarchy George’s role was limited to that of cheer leader and rallying point. Wilhelm and Nicholas, as absolute autocrats, had much more authority as their nations contemplated going to war and its prosecution. It was they who issued the ultimatums, peace proposals and orders to their armies. Willy and Nicky were most involved in the origins of the war as it was Willy’s support of Austria-Hungary and Nicky’s determination to protect Serbia that set the wheels of war in motion. Wilhelm would approve actions of his country and Nicky would assume command of Russia’s Armies, tying his prestige to their performance.

Their ends were in accord with the fates of their nations. As Russia’s armies recoiled in disaster and hardship crept across the land Nicholas lost his throne, the world he knew, and, ultimately, his life and those of his family. With the recognition that victory would elude Germany, Wilhelm’s power slipped away to his generals as he became less and less their master and more and more their puppet. He would be forced to abdicate and spend his remaining years in exile in Holland, a bitterly disappointed man until his death in 1941. Through the war, George shared the privations of his people, wore the uniforms of his warriors, and would emerge from the war, as would his country, diminished in power, but loved by his people more than ever.

So how did the relationships of these cousins, anchored in consanguinity, survive the war? Very poorly. After the wedding of Wilhelm’s daughter in 1913 they never saw each other again. Hard feelings of their nations, if not themselves, prevented George from ever reaching out to Willy—who was in no position to open channels to his conqueror.

The one issue on which George did exert his influence was to discourage his government from extending asylum to Nicholas and his family. Fearing for his own throne if the arrival of the Romanovs set off waves of protests, George encouraged his government to withdraw its offer of asylum, thereby leaving the fate of Nicholas and his family to the revolutionaries who held him prisoner.

King, Kaiser, Tsar is an excellent triple biography of lives that were intertwined in rivalries and which made and shared the tragedies of their times. Its pages are enhanced by family photographs taken in happier days. The tale of the Great War is comprised of those who lived and suffered through it, died in it, and lived in its shadow. King, Kaiser, Tsar is the tale of those who wore the crowns.

James M. Gallen


  1. Thank you for the review, James.
    Interesting to think of the divide as one not of Entente vs Central Powers, but monarchies (UK, Germany, AH, Russia, Turkey) and democratic republics (France, US; not sure if Italy counts).

  2. Ah, the Kingdom of Italy, both sides, both wars.