First cousins


Tsar Nicholas II and King George V


Kaiser Wilhelm II

“Wilhelm’s left arm was damaged during birth; throughout his life he could not dress or cut his food without help. He was jocular but cold and arrogant and prone to flattery. He loved military uniforms and practiced his ‘fierce’ look for photographers. Alas, Ms. Carter writes, quoting a German general, Wilhelm could not ‘lead three soldiers over a gutter.’

“A world-class narcissist, Wilhelm had an inane opinion about everything. ‘He would personally inform the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg that he was conducting Peer Gynt all wrong,’ Ms. Carter writes, and ‘tell Richard Strauss that modern composition was “detestable” and he was “one of the worst.” ‘

“George was a dull mediocrity — he feared clever people and intellectuals, calling them ‘eyebrows’ — who spent much of his time as an adult collecting stamps and shooting. He didn’t mix with interesting people, spoke no foreign languages and had what Ms. Carter calls a ‘barking temper.’ He sulked if he was not allowed to win at tennis.

“Nicholas grew up, even by the standards of European royalty, in almost unimaginable luxury — Ms. Carter describes a childhood spent in ‘a series of snow-covered palaces.’ His family’s pile outside St. Petersburg contained 900 rooms. ‘One estimate put the number of royal servants across the Romanovs’ palaces at 15,000,’ she writes. Nicholas called the secret police who guarded him ‘naturalists’ because they were always leaping from behind trees.

“Nicholas loved rural life, so much so that he quickly fell out of touch with his country and had little idea of the changes that were sweeping over it. He too was an obsessive hunter: ‘667 dead creatures for 1596 shots fired,’ he noted one day in 1893.

“Ms. Carter writes incisively about the overlapping events that led to the Great War and a changed world. It was not a good time to be a king — or a kaiser or czar. New winds were whipping on the political stage. In England the statesman David Lloyd George was an especially articulate class warrior, declaring: ‘All down history nine-tenths of mankind have been grinding corn for the remaining tenth and have been paid with husks and bidden to thank god they had the husks.’ People listened. They paid attention, too, to their increasingly unfettered press. The London newspaper The Daily Mail, Ms. Carter points out, ‘would identify Germany as Britain’s key enemy well before the British government did.’

“The real tragedy was that neither George, Nicholas nor Wilhelm was built to adapt to a changing world; their time was evaporating. ‘As great mass movements took hold of Europe,’ Ms. Carter observes, ‘the courts and their kings cleaved to the past, set up high walls of etiquette to keep the world out and defined themselves through form, dress and precedence.'”

—Dwight Garner, New York Times review of Miranda Carter’s George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I

About Ernest Shackleton

Polar Explorer. Leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917.
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