Here is another wonderful sounding writer to explore further, and I did buy the book after the session. Miranda Carter is an English historian and biographer, who has published two biographies, and in the last few years two books of fiction under the name MJ Carter. She has received a number of prestigious awards and prizes for firstly, her biography of British spy Anthony Blunt, and secondly that of the royal cousins Kaiser Wilhelm, King George V and Tsar Nicholas III, grandsons of Queen Victoria. This book was first published in 2009, under the title The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One. It is this book that was the subject of her session, just going to show that good books stand the test of time and are well worth reviving for a new audience.
The session opened with the author flanked either side by photos of Donald Trump, latest crazy that the world has to deal with. Carter drew regular comparisons between Trump and the three men, in particular Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. She states she is not a royalist, but became interested in the three cousins as symbolic of a very dysfunctional family, attempting to keep their place as rulers in a world they were very ill-equipped to live in, let alone rule in. It is in the years since this book was published that she sees increasing similarities between the pre-WWI climate and what is going on in the US at present.
She was also interested in looking at the power individuals have over the path history takes. She cited the example of George W Bush who won his second term as president against Al Gore under a large cloak of murkiness. If Al Gore had become president, there may not have been the war with Iraq, and climate change would be high up on the agenda. We have yet to see what the murky election of Trump will do to the world we live in over the next few years, a point Carter came back to several times during her session.
Carter traces much of the turbulence of these times back to Queen Victoria, and her grand plan to unite Europe through the marriages of her children into the various royal families of Europe. This started of course with her own marriage to Prince Albert. Even though she was an appalling matchmaker, her idea of a pan-European royal family was probably not a bad one, but it did happen at a bad time, with rising nationalism within Europe, industrialisation, an educated middle class challenging traditional ways of thinking and doing. The royal families did their utmost best to keep out the threat of the modern world by simply not changing, reinforcing further those long-standing traditions and etiquettes, digging their heels in further, but in the end going down.
She spoke about each of the three in turn beginning with probably the most boring of the three – King George V. The British royal family was pretty powerless, Parliament having the ruling control, so there really wasn’t much damage that George could do. George was a traditionalist, and worked hard at upholding that, as well as doing his best to maintain good relationships with his cousins, as his grandmother had worked so hard at.
Tsar Nicholas III was a total autocrat, had no interest or desire to modernise Russia or improve the lives of the millions of peasants he ruled. He truly believed that the day the crown was put on his head, magic rays from above entered his brain and turned him into an emperor. His father and Queen Victoria hated each other, but George and Nicholas from childhood had always got on well. Victoria changed her mind about the Russians when her favourite grandchild married Nicholas, becoming charming and embracing of Russia. Not that it did any of them any good.
Kaiser Wilhelm was a completely different kettle of fish, and I would say clearly the author’s favourite, because boy, was he bad. Carter likens him in every possible way to Trump, and you can’t help but wonder if Trump actually modelled himself on Wilhelm. He was an awful child, prone to tantrums, indulged, glorified. He was born with a wizened arm which despite all sorts of treatments over the years never improved and blighted his near perfect image of himself. Carter discussed whether Wilhelm was a true narcissist or if he was a product of his abnormal upbringing. He went through stages of hating everything English, incredibly jealous of Edward VII, writing inflammatory letters to Nicholas that England was starting a war with Russia, then once George became king doing the same to him about Russia invading England. He was determined to make Germany great again, greater than Britain, and to this end focused all his efforts on building a mighty army and navy. Quite simply he was all over the place, unpredictable, volatile, unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.
None of these men caused WWI per se, but through their inaction, inability to modernise, work together, or see what was going on around them, they did contribute to the events that unfolded. Wilhelm was clearly a nut job, his speeches the equivalent of Trump’s tweets, all of this adding fuel to the fire that led to war.
We are so lucky that every form of contact between people of these times was recorded in some way, either in journals or by letter. And what a trove of material Carter had to draw upon in her research. She read out some of the letter exchanges between Wilhelm and Nicholas, and Wilhelm and George – she could go on the stage, and even though she made apologies for her German accent, she was still very good! A most enjoyable, stimulating session, covering a topic that is scarily relevant to the world we live in today.
Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray
The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One
by Miranda Carter
Published by Penguin Books