Queen Victoria was sure that having royal cousins on the great thrones of Europe would lead to stability and prosperity. George V occupied the British throne, Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled Germany, while Tsar Nicholas II held absolute power in Russia. The arrangement fell apart in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist.
The three royals had corresponded and visited with each other all their lives, yet at the end, King George refused Nicholas asylum in England, and the former tsar and his family were shot in a basement in Ekaterinburg.
Forced to abdicate, Kaiser Wilhelm fled to the Netherlands, spending his years in exile feeding the ducks in his moat, chopping wood and railing against England, the “land of Satan.” For his part, King George wrote in his diary about Wilhelm, “I look upon him as the greatest criminal known for having plunged the world into this ghastly war.”
Anachronistic and out of touch, the royals could not prevent a global conflict that killed more than 15 million people, redrew the map of Europe and largely destroyed their own dynastic powers.
I spoke with Miranda Carter, author of “George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I” (Knopf), on the following topics:
1. Bubble Boy Royal Cousins
2. Powerful Britain
3. Great Russian Bear
4. Industrial Germany
5. July, 1914
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)