Everyone knows that one chap who is constantly sticking his nose into things that don’t concern him, badgers people about issues he knows nothing about or constantly insists that they know what is going on and everyone should listen to them. These people are all around us and, let’s face it, are incredibly annoying! Imagine how much more annoying that would be if that person was your Emperor and Warlord…
This was the case in Germany where the excitable and megalomaniac Kaiser Wilhelm II was keen to don the ancient mantle of Frederick the Great and march his country off to war, glory and dominance in Europe. His styling of Warlord put him in the same category of Arminius, who is renowned for having defeated the Roman Army at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. However, in reality, he was a hyperactive child who was being indulged by his chancellor and his generals. But, in effect, how much influence did the Monarchs of Europe on the brink of World War One truly wield? Was Wilhelm really the stuffed shirt that we assumed him to be? Let’s take a look at a brief rundown of the Monarchs in Europe at the time and the parts they played in one of the most destructive conflicts the world has ever seen.
Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859 – 1941) – ‘Could have been wiser’.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), had a schizophrenic relationship with England. One minute he would be rhapsodising about his “darling grandmamma” and the next he would be damning England and her “hateful, lying, conscienceless people of hagglers”. This was hardly the best relationship to have when you wield authority in a country that was quickly challenging Britain for superiority in Europe.
Having ousted the great statesman Otto Von Bismarck from power in 1890, the Kaiser had been involved in a kind of ‘Personal Rule’ over Germany, in which he was involved in every minute detail of the German state. Hyperactive and misguided he may have been, but Wilhelm was a devout monarch, determined to better the lot of the German people whilst ignoring the “monkey house”, as he described the German Parliament. Despite his protestations in an interview for the Daily Telegraph that he was a friend of Britain and her allies, the Kaiser was bitterly jealous of Britain and her vast and expanding Empire.
So, when the July Crisis kicked off following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Wilhelm was keen to ensure that Germany came out on top. Whilst I don’t personally believe that Germany is wholly responsible for the First World War, it is certainly clear that the Kaiser was paranoid that Britain, France and Russia were conspiring to bring about Germany’s demise. Perhaps the clearest example of the Kaiser believing that he wielded genuine power can be seen in the now famed, but not often enough read, Willy-Nicky Correspondence. These telegrams, exchanged between Wilhelm and his cousin Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, are full of childish affirmations that, under the guidance of the benevolent and considerate monarchs, Russia and Germany need not fight. They are ridiculous telegrams and almost bring a smile to ones face; but not quite. Queen Victoria’s belief in a “Family Monarchy”, where the fortunes of each country would be directed by monarchs talking to one another, and avoiding calamities that would drive the family apart, was ludicrous to the extreme as Generals and Parliaments started taking over from Emperors and Kings.
Wilhelm had more and more power stripped from him until he was made an effective Constitutional Monarch. He was delegated to handing out medals and visiting hospitals – Germany was effectively a Military Dictatorship run by the Generals. The final nail in the coffin was the Kaiser losing the support of both the military and the executive power, along with US President Woodrow Wilson announcing that Wilhelm could no longer engage in peace talks on behalf of Germany. He was forced to abdicate in November 1918 following the mutiny of his beloved Navy and the outbreak of the German Revolution. But 825 miles to the East, things were very different… sort of.
Tsar Nicholas II (1868 – 1918) – ‘Went a bit too far’.
Tsar Nicholas II, despite being as weak as a wet tissue, was an autocrat in every sense of the word. He governed the biggest land-based Empire in Europe and had the final word on everything that happened in his vast Empire – it was so vast in fact that when the sun was setting on its western boarders, it was rising again on its eastern side! Big huh?! Upon the outbreak of war in Europe, Nicholas was facing big problems in Russia. A series of riots, strikes and a dodgy economy had left the political and social situation strained and close to breaking point. Russia’s enormous regular Army and reserves numbered over five million men was poorly equipped, slow to mobilize and poorly led. On top of all this, Nicholas’ wife Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was German. As seen above, Nicholas was sure that under the guidance of its Emperor, Russia could avoid war with Germany. Sadly, he was wrong. The war started out well for Russia and then went catastrophically wrong very quickly. In 1915, following two major defeats at the hands of the Austrian Army, Nicholas took over supreme control of the Army, and headed off to the front… well 500 miles away from the front but still; not too bad really! This was, in my humble opinion, the first step on the road to his overthrow and death, but that’s another matter. Under the guidance of his Generals, Nicholas dictated the course of the war for his country whilst leaving the politics to his despised wife in St Petersburg. This is an example of the Monarch genuinely wielding power during the First World War. Unlike Wilhelm, Nicholas wasn’t nudged out of the way to handle the ceremonial and the ceremonial only. He oversaw dispatches, directed battle groups and sat in on war councils with his Generals. Sadly Russia’s total defeat at the hands of the highly military German War Machine meant that dear old Nicky, the well-spoken, kindly but fundamentally flawed Tsar of Russia, was seen as directly responsible for the over three million deaths sustained by the Russian Empire. So did Nicholas actually wield power? In a word; yes. Certainly more so than the Kaiser, and ten times more than his cousin George V. Whilst Nicholas’ power was uncurbed, boundless and absolute, it was wielded badly and upon taking up his position at the front, palmed off to his incompetent wife and her nefarious advisor Rasputin. I find it interesting that the two monarchs who wielded the most power, were the two to lose it. George V, on the other hand, came out of the First World War unscathed and, in a sense, more secure than ever before. However, this came at a cost.
King George V (1865 – 1936) – ‘He knew his stuff’.
In contrast to the faltering Russian Empire, the British Empire was doing rather well. However, there was one thorn in the side of the King-Emperor, and that was Ireland. The long running issues in Ireland that had plagued the monarchy and country for centuries had come to a head when the Irish demanding an end to Home Rule. The Kaiser and German Government were sure that because of these troubles, Britain’s involvement in the war would be minimal. However, his cousin George had other intentions. In a letter that has recently been discovered, it has been uncovered that George V informed the Foreign Secretary, the illustrious Sir Edward Grey, that it was “absolutely necessary” for Britain to go to war. His position as a Constitutional Monarch makes this declaration an interesting one as the Monarch can advise but not demand. Perhaps George had more to do with Britain’s entry into the war than previously thought. The letter mentions how Sir Edward “has got to find a reason,” to enter the war. Britain was obviously obligated after the Germans invaded Belgium, who was bound by treaty to Britain, but for George to insist that the country do so is a remarkable discovery. Yet, for the majority of the war, George played the Constitutional Monarch perfectly. Touring factories, reviewing troops and dishing out medals to the valiant and the brave was a daily occurrence for the King. His routine was altered to share in some of the difficulties the soldiers were facing in France – cold water in the palaces, electricity intermittent, dull and boring food being served at banquets that used to be the height of sumptuousness; George was the epitome of Monarchical responsibility. However, there is one occasion where George crossed the line of involvement, and it was to the detriment of his “dearest cousin Nicky”. Following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the new Government in St. Petersburg were keen to remove the Imperial Family. The British government offered the Romanovs asylum in Britain to get them away from the political upheaval engulfing Russia. George, always determined to maintain the strength and safety of his throne, interjected. In a series of letters between Sandringham and Downing Street, the King bombarded the Prime Minister with demands that the invitation be revoked as the King feared “opposition to the Emperor and Empress coming here is so strong” that it would endanger his own peaceful existence. To cut a long story short, the invitation was revoked and the Imperial Family suffered miserably at the hands of the Bolsheviks, abandoned by their family across the sea.
So, the Monarchs of Europe certainly did wield power in those ghastly years of the First World War. The Kaiser exercised the imagined power of “Warlord” and relished in his position as the “Siegfried” of modern Germany. Sadly, this power was purely imagined and he wasn’t able to save the fortunes of the Hohenzollern family. Wilhelm was forced to abdicate and seek exile in Holland, and probably died old and bitter, dwelling on the mistreatments he had suffered. The Tsar genuinely wielded both political and military power, and was Supreme Head of the Army during Russia’s greatest trial. Sadly, this power he held on to so tightly was ultimately the power that sealed his fate; crownless, powerless, and murdered in a basement in Siberia, his power was not enough to save the 300 year old Imperial dynasty. And the King? The Monarch who held the least power avoided the fate of his two cousins. The new Windsor dynasty survives to this day, stronger and more popular than ever. And yet, the badgerings of a Constitutional Monarch can have lasting effects – effects that can be seen to this day.
Photo credits: Olivier CABARET, Mary Harrsch and Sue Clark via photopin cc
Thank you for this elaborate and entertaining essay, this comparison is really interesting!
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