Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cousins at War - World War I

George V with his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II

In May 1910, the monarchies of Europe came together in London, in an opulent show of strength, for the funeral of Edward VII. War and revolution in the ensuing decade heaped assassination, defeat and exile upon them. Theo Aronson portrays the European Royal Families at War.

'The old world in its sunset'

What Winston Churchill once described as 'the old world in its sunset' had never been captured more brilliantly than at the funeral of King Edward VII in May 1910. This was the occasion of the celebrated Parade of Kings, when over 50 royal horsemen - a swaggering cavalcade of emperors, kings, crown princes, archdukes, grand dukes and princes - followed the slowly trundling coffin through the streets of London.

Republican envoys... were firmly relegated to the end of the procession.

Here was a moment of supreme monarchical glory. Republican envoys, no matter how powerful the countries they represented - even France or the United States - were firmly relegated to the end of the procession. Who, seeing this collection of royalty clattering by, could doubt that the institution of kingship was flourishing? Nothing could better have symbolised the extraordinary early 20th-century flowering of European monarchy than this spectacular parade.

Never since the days of the ancien rĂ©gime of pre-revolutionary France had monarchy seemed so firmly entrenched. Instead of diminishing in number, royal thrones had multiplied, and the second half of the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries had seen the setting up of half a dozen new monarchies, so by the year of Edward VII's death there were more monarchs in Europe than there had ever been. Without counting the rulers of the kingdoms and duchies that went to make up the German empire, there were 20 reigning monarchs - with a crowned sovereign in every country except France and Switzerland (and even France had restored the monarchy four times in the 19th century).

Whatever the powers of these rulers - whether they were autocrats as in Russia, or virtually powerless constitutional monarchs as in Great Britain - their prestige and position remained almost intact. Few of those watching, or taking part in, Edward VII's funeral could have imagined that this blaze of splendour marked, not a royal high noon, but a royal sunset.


Victoria's dynasty

Kaiser Wilhelm II and George V at Potsdam, 1913Kaiser Wilhelm II and George V at Potsdam, 1913  ©With self-preservation being one of the chief motivations of monarchy, by 1910 Europe's sovereigns, or at least their advisers, had had the foresight to adapt themselves to the more liberal tenor of the times. The French Revolution, a century before, had taught them a lesson. Because the burgeoning middle classes had demanded legal constitutions, the monarchs had granted them. Where there had been a clamour for extended suffrage, they had agreed to it. By assimilating new ideas, monarchies had to some extent converted themselves into symbols of democracy; the leaders of these same monarchies, however, remained stubbornly blind to the gradually spreading republican and revolutionary movements taking root in their countries.

Queen Victoria was sometimes called the Grandmamma of Europe...

Rendering them unassailable (or so they fondly imagined) was the fact that the monarchs of Europe were all closely related. Queen Victoria was sometimes called the Grandmamma of Europe, and there was hardly a Continental court that did not boast at least one of her relations. During World War One there were no less than seven of the old Queen's direct descendants, and two more of her Coburg relations, on European thrones. Before it happened, can anyone blame this family of kings, or their subjects, for assuming that a war between these crowned cousins was all but impossible?

One can appreciate why Kaiser Wilhelm II, at the outbreak of war in 1914, exclaimed that 'Nicky' had 'played him false'. For the rulers of the world's three greatest nations - King George V of Great Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia on the one hand, and the German Kaiser on the other - were not simply cousins, they were first cousins. If their grandmother Queen Victoria had still been alive, said the Kaiser, she would never have allowed them to go to war with each other.

Instead, World War One proved once and for all that the family ties between the reigning houses of Europe were more or less irrelevant. Their kinship simply snapped, like cotton threads, as the storm of war broke over their heads.


World War One

French infantry take cover in a trench, 1916French infantry take cover in a trench, 1916  ©lt was an act of regicide that catapulted Europe into war - an act that not unexpectedly took place in the Balkans. The region had been in a state of ferment for years, and the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist, was the culmination of a train of events leading inexorably to war.

By now, however, Europe's leading nations were locked in alliances...

Yet at first the monarchs of Europe did not take the incident too seriously. lt was expected that the Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, would demand and be given an apology from Serbia. By now, however, Europe's leading nations were locked in alliances - there was Serbia with Russia, Russia with France, France with Great Britain, Great Britain with Belgium on the one side, and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. With Serbia's apology not proving abject enough, relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were broken off. This finally alerted Europe's family of kings to the danger that threatened them.

As the alliances clicked inexorably into place, a positive snowstorm of telegrams between the crowned heads tried to avert the inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II (Willie) was particularly assiduous in keeping touch with his cousins Georgie and Nicky. But by now there was nothing they could do. Their constitutional powers counted for almost as little as their cousinhood. Although, technically, Franz Joseph, Nicholas II and Wilhelm II could perhaps have curtailed the coming hostilities, they were at the mercy of more powerful forces: the generals, the politicians, the arms manufacturers, and the relentless timetables of mobilisation. Ultimatum followed ultimatum. In the face of national pride, imperial expansion and military glory, the protestations of the crowned heads were swept aside. On such giant waves, they could only bob about like so many corks.


The Kaiser and the Tsar

Photograph of Grigori Efimovich RasputinRasputin held great sway over the Russian Tsarina, Alexandra  ©By the year 1914 kings no longer led their armies into battle. lt was just as well. Kings were no more guaranteed to be good soldiers or military strategists than they were to be good rulers. In theory, sovereigns remained in supreme command, but the actual waging of this war was entrusted to generals. All the European monarchs either remained firmly in their palaces, paying an occasional visit to their troops, or else established themselves in some country house behind the front lines. Either way, most of them had very little say in the conduct of the war.

Kaiser Wilhelm II soon revealed himself as nothing more than a bombastic sabre-rattler...

Of all the sovereigns involved in World War One - the emperors of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the kings of Great Britain, Italy, Belgium, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and, briefly, Montenegro - the most apparently warlike turned out to be the least belligerent when the reality of war hit them. Kaiser Wilhelm II soon revealed himself as nothing more than a bombastic sabre-rattler, lacking in every quality of leadership. Eventually, ignored by the High Command, be spent his days 'drinking tea, going for walks and sawing wood'. By the end of the war, with his armies facing military defeat, he was overwhelmed by the forces of republicanism and revolution that he had always more-or-less ignored, and he was forced to abdicate.

In April 1915 the equally irresolute Tsar Nicholas II took the fatal step of assuming personal command of the army. No less misguided was his decision to leave the capital in the hands of his stronger-willed consort, the Empress Alexandra, who was entirely under the influence of the mysterious starets (spiritual advisor) Rasputin. In March 1917, riots broke out in St Petersburg, and a week later Nicholas II heard that a hastily assembled provisional government had decided that he must abdicate. Without the support of either the politicians or the generals, the Tsar had to submit. In the course of a week, the previously apparently unassailable Romanov dynasty had collapsed.


Royal survival

George V visits the Western Front, c.1918George V visits the Western Front, c.1918  ©The British sovereign, in the person of King George V, handled things much better. Confining his military activities to the occasional inspecting of troops, he met the threat of social unrest by identifying the crown with the day-to-day wartime lives of his subjects: visiting hospitals, touring factories, conferring decorations. He changed the German name of his House - Saxe-Coburg-Gotha - to the undeniably British one of Windsor.

...the Russian Imperial family was left to its fate.

But possibly the best illustration of the British monarch's ability to preserve his own best interests was in the matter of a place of refuge for the Russian Imperial family. In spite of his government's offer of asylum, George V argued against it - why? He realised that, to most of his subjects, the Tsar was a bloodstained tyrant, that the Empress Alexandra was accused of being pro-German and that this was no time for a constitutional monarch, apprehensive of his own position, to be extending the hand of friendship to an autocrat - however closely related. So the Russian Imperial family was left to its fate.

By the end of World War One, the three great monarchies of Central Europe - Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary - had fallen. In the main, it was those sovereigns without personal power who kept their thrones, and those wielding too much power who lost them. And although monarchy might not have been a perfect system of government, it was perhaps preferable to what followed. World War One saw the end of the Europe of the Kings, and the beginning of the Europe of the Dictators.


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