- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010


By Miranda Carter

Knopf, $30

498 pages, illustrated


”The ball was almost over, the candles had shortened, the musicians, drunk or asleep, no longer made use of their instruments. The crowd had dispersed, everyone was unmasked, rouge and powder flowed down the painted faces [offering] the disgusting spectacle of dilapidated stylishness.” So wrote a French nobleman of the years before the French Revolution. A similar description might apply to the years leading up to World War I, the subject of an attractively written, extensively illustrated work by British historian Miranda Carter.

Historians will never agree on whether seismic events grow out of the labors of great men (think George Washington) or from popular movements, such as the campaign to abolish slavery in the 19th century. Ms. Carter does not ignore the powerful underlying factors that led to World War I, including ethnic rivalries, secret treaties and the rise of militarism in Germany. But most of her book is devoted to the weddings, regattas and other frivolities that preoccupied her three royal subjects as the world stumbled toward war.

The best was none too good for Wilhelm, Nicholas and George. When Russia’s Czar Nicholas II and his family undertook a three-week vacation in Denmark, they required 20 railroad cars and an entourage of more than 100. In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II spent millions of marks renovating his principal residence, the 650-room Berlin Schloss. The reader waits in vain for some grown-ups.

Of Ms. Carter’s three subjects, the most dangerous was Wilhelm, known to history as Kaiser Bill. Born with a deformed left arm that he went to great lengths to hide, Wilhelm grew into an arrogant, unstable prince with a canine appetite for praise. He developed a love-hate relationship toward the country of his renowned grandmother, Queen Victoria.

From childhood, Wilhelm had to have things his way. “Obsessive dislike of any criticism,” the author notes, would become one of the monarch’s prominent characteristics. A one-time governess would write, “What [Wilhelm] seemed to seek in his surroundings was a chorus of approval from persons who had sunk their own personalities … while they themselves played the role of listeners.”

The kaiser identified with Germany’s armed forces, designing army uniforms and participating in war games. He would become his country’s supreme warlord, yet at critical times, the armed forces would dictate policy. Under Wilhelm II, the German army became the most feared in Europe and the navy grew to a degree that alarmed Britain.

If the kaiser was the most dangerous of Ms. Carter’s trio, Nicholas was the most inept. “Nicky” venerated his father, Alexander III, but was also intimidated by him. A royal visitor to the Russian court observed that “Alexander’s dominating personality had stunted any gifts of initiative in Nicky.”

Nicholas succeeded his father in 1896 and gradually became his own man. Convinced that he ruled by divine right, he conquered his feelings of inadequacy and became increasingly disdainful of advice from his ministers. Isolated from the popular unrest that led to strikes and riots, the czar was tormented, confused and constantly apprehensive about the health of his hemophiliac son, Alexis. After the Japanese annihilated a Russian fleet in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, Nicholas agreed only reluctantly to make peace.

The least influential of Ms. Carter’s three monarchs was Britain’s George V. Brought up in fear of his hedonistic father, George became subject to depression and unpredictable rages. As king, George avoided public scrutiny and lived the life of a country squire.

Ms. Carter quotes one biographer as writing of King George, “For seventeen years he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.” Many contemporaries took a similar view. “The King is a very jolly chap,” David Lloyd George wrote after meeting him for the first time. “Thank God there is not much in his head.”

The kaiser’s desire for Queen Victoria’s approval served for a time to suppress his anglophobia. Whereas Nicholas once described the queen as “a big round ball on wobbly legs,” Wilhelm was delighted when he was made an honorary admiral in the Royal Navy. He told the queen that henceforth he would take an interest in her fleet as if it were his own.

The author notes that Wilhelm and Nicholas wielded real power, “more power perhaps than any individual should have in a complex modern society.” Although King George had no such power, it was he who made a decision that proved fatal to his Russian cousin. After the Russian Revolution, the Kerensky government asked whether Britain was prepared to grant asylum to the czar and his family.

On the urging of King George, who feared a popular reaction to the arrival of an unpopular autocrat, Lloyd George denied the request, effectively condemning Nicholas and his family to death at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Ms. Carter does not think the kaiser wanted war. But he had built up a powerful military establishment that was “convinced of the benefits and inevitability of a European war.” And his speeches bristling with violence “helped to bolster an image abroad of a nation hungering for conflict.” The individual who bears the greatest responsibility for World War I remains Wilhelm II.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.

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