This BBC Two documentary series, which aired earlier this week on Wednesday and Thursday evening, reflects on the complex relationship between King George V, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. In 1914, these three cousins ruled over the greatest powers within Europe. However, this series debates whether these rivalries stemmed from when the cousins were just young boys, and how such contentions would later lead to a fatal break with family ties and result in the bloodiest military conflict which dominated the early twentieth century.
In the first episode, appropriately named A House Divided, it reveals how the growing tensions and divisions amongst the leading European dynasties began in the 1860s. Interestingly, the documentary describes how Princesses Alexandra and Dagmar of Denmark both advantageously married the future heirs of the British and Russian thrones. By doing this, both of these princesses became the leading powers of the anti-Prussian movement during the wars of the Unification of Germany after Prussian forces invaded Denmark. Coincidentally, the sisters’ political standing, and their friendship, also influenced the next generation of Royals. Both of their sons, the later Tsar Nicholas II and King George V, were to become great friends and companions. It was these friendly family ties that were to greatly impact European politics later on in their reigns.
The documentary also reveals the accounts of the summer holidays that young George and Nicholas enjoyed together, with their Danish mothers and the other members of their royal family, in Copenhagen at the home of Christian IX of Denmark. One story from these holidays reveals the time that the royal children playfully used a garden hose to soak the Tsar. Due to the increasingly hostile relations between Denmark and Prussia at this time, it is unsurprising that Wilhelm did not receive an invite to these family occasions.
As similarly discussed in the Channel 4 documentary Queen Victoria and the Crippled Kaiser, which was broadcast in November last year, this documentary exposes the dysfunctional relationship between Wilhelm and Victoria, his mother and the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. After a difficult birth, resulting in one of the future Kaiser’s arms being permanently damaged, Victoria felt it increasingly difficult to bond with her son. This relationship became strained as the family around Wilhelm continued to attempt to hide his disability from public view. This lead to the young boy being subjected to numerous painful and scarring experiments in an attempt to ‘correct’ his disability. In many ways, the documentary proposes that Wilhelm was seen as an embarrassment to his family from the offset, and therefore his detachment from his family later on in life could have certainly have stemmed from his early experiences.
Queen Victoria attempted to keep the relations between her extended family positive or, at least, peaceful. She kept in contact with her grandson, Wilhelm, and showed interest and respect for him. He too appreciated the attention his grandmother gave him and he become increasingly attached to her. The documentary highlights how the Kaiser even pleaded with his grandmother to allow him to travel to the Royal festivities at Cowes in the late 1890s. Much to the surprise of the guests, Wilhelm excelled at the yachting competitions and was even made an Honourable Admiral in the Royal Navy.
However, the relations changed in 1901 as it become known that Queen Victoria was dying. Wilhelm travelled as fast as he could to be by her side in her last few hours. At the funeral, the Kaiser rode alongside Edward VII behind Victoria’s casket. But now, Queen Victoria’s peacekeeping incentives disappeared, and cracks began to splinter among the leading European powers.
Episode two, Into the Abyss, looks at the increasing tensions after the turn of the century. This episode shows how even though Edward VII had no real power over European politics at the time, he was however able to impress diplomats by becoming one himself. Sadly, it seems his attempts at forging an alliance with France through the Entente Cordiale, alongside issuing a treaty with Russia, only isolated the Kaiser even more from the family and European politics. This episode stresses how Germany was now encircled by allied foreign powers. This was apparently made worse by Wilhelm’s erratic and unpredictable personality, which led him further down the path of opposition to his cousins George and Nicholas.
The documentary uses footage from the wedding between Princess Victoria Louise and Prince Ernst August of Cumberland from 1913. Princess Victoria was Wilhelm’s only daughter. It was here that all of Queen Victoria’s decedents gathered for this special day. One newspaper used the headline ‘Guests who rule a third of the world’ when reporting on the wedding, stressing the themes of leadership, empire and dynastic rule. However, as we see from this episode, this was more of a momentous day than may have been felt at the time. This was to be the last time that all of the leading powers of Europe were seen together. Many could not have presumed that just a year later these family members would plunge into a bitter and bloody war against one another.
The series takes a serious look at how the relationships between George V, Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm influenced the months leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and discusses the grave events surrounding George V’s refusal to allow Nicholas and his family asylum in Britain in 1917 after the Russian Revolution.
The historians involved in the contributions to the episodes include Karina Urbach, Miranda Carter and Piers Brendon.
Tamsin Greig was the voiceover for the series, while Richard Sanders directed and produced the episodes, and Denys Blakeway was the executive producer.
The first episode of the series, A House Divided, will be available online until Monday 17th February, while the second episode, Into the Abyss, will be available online until Thursday 20th February.
Photo credits: BBC/Blakeway Productions/TopFoto/Zeepvat