The Cousins’ War

As readers will recall, History Imagined features the bits, pieces, and footnotes of history that authors uncover during research for our fiction. Today, I begin a new series that moves away from the Gilded Age. This new series will center upon the early 20th century whose most dominant event was, of course, World War I. I do not plan to rehash the battles. Copious volumes have been written about the military strategies that led to victories and losses. My purpose will be to share the things that do not first come to mind or perhaps are not as widely known. Today’s post will focus on a very special family. As Tolstoy said in the opening line of Anna Karenina, “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

England’s Queen Victoria was once called the “Grandmother of Europe.” When one looks at her family tree, the reason behind the nickname becomes evident. She and Prince Albert produced nine children* who married into royal houses across Europe. Those marriages produced forty grandchildren** who also married European royals and nobles. It is difficult to find a noble or royal house that is not related to her in some way. Sadly, politics too often determined the course of relationships within the sprawling family. Jealousies, rifts, and estrangements were not uncommon among even the most closely related.

The most important of those relationships was that among the young century’s most important ruling monarchs: King George V of England (1865-1936), Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (1859-1941), and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (1868-1918).

L-R: Tsar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm, King George

Intermarriage among royalty created complicated kinships with some royals being related in multiple ways. That is the case with these three. They were of the same generation with no more than nine years separating any of their ages. They were closely related by blood. On occasion, they played together as children. There was an especially close bond between George and Nicholas. All of these factors make what happened in their adults lives all the more tragic.

Tracking their lines of kinship can be confusing, but I will make it as simple as possible beginning with the most distant connection. George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm were all fifth cousins due to being equal descendants of England’s King George II. Much more closely connected, George was first cousin to both Wilhelm and Nicholas, but through different lines of his family. George’s father, Edward VII, and Wilhelm’s mother, the Princess Royal Victoria, were siblings, making the two rulers first cousins who shared Queen Victoria as grandmother. George’s mother, Alexandra of Denmark, and Nicholas’s mother, Dagmar of Denmark, were sisters, making the two men first cousins. Nicholas and Wilhelm were third cousins through their equal descent from Tsar Paul I of Russia. Nicholas married Queen Victoria’s favorite granddaughter, Princess Alexandra of Hesse, making him Victoria’s grandson-in-law and a first cousin-in-law to George. All three men could legitimately call Victoria Grandmother and one another first cousin.

With all of these close family relationships, one could be forgiven for asking why World War I was not avoided. The answer goes far beyond the actions of the three monarchs. An arms race, a race for supremacy on the seas, a desire for control of Europe coupled with secret international alliances, distrust, fear of being caught off guard by a war everyone thought was coming, and long held grudges contributed greatly to the declarations of war. Historian David Fromkin in Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914 (Knopf, 2004) makes the case that not only was war inevitable, it was in fact begun deliberately. He puts the blame squarely at Germany’s and Austria’s doors, whose elite wanted to do whatever it took to hold onto their power and achieve control of Europe. These instigating factors aside, the old saying about blood being thicker than water does not always prove valid when political power is involved.

Nicholas had advisors and the nation had a newly created Duma (parliament), but his commitment to autocratic rule undermined attempts at modernizing Russian governance. He came from a long line of absolute monarchs. Relinquishing rule by divine right ultimately eluded Nicholas. Similarly, Wilhelm dismissed the architect of the modern German state, Otto Bismark, and took the reins of government. There were advisors and chancellors, but they did not provide the governing influence of Bismark. Wilhelm proved erratic, threatening, and bombastic in diplomacy. He alarmed other nations with his unusual views on foreign affairs coupled with his determination to build a navy rivaling that of Great Britain. Cousin George reigned over a world power and Wilhelm wanted one too. Unlike Wilhelm and Nicholas, George was the head of a constitutional monarchy, possessing far less discretion in exercising authority and in influencing his nation’s policies. Their situations were different and so were their personalities.

Of the three, Wilhelm’s personality is the most complicated. The German historian Thomas Nipperdey painted an unflattering portrait of what we today might term a self-absorbed, arrogant, erratic, insecure, needy, easily bored, envious, jealous, pathologically emotionally stunted man-child, a spoiled brat who wanted what he wanted when he wanted it the consequences be damned. Reports of his behavior and unfiltered, often caustic comments also bring to mind symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Nipperdey also described Wilhelm as quick, gifted, and a modernist where industry, science, and technology were concerned. Layered over all of his negative traits was his love/hate relationship with Great Britain. It has been said that he at once hated his British relatives and all things British, including his own mother and his Uncle Bertie, George’s father, while deeply desiring to be just like them. He called the British very, very stupid while wanting to be more British than the British themselves. His secret admiration and his very public deeply held resentment made him at times appear ridiculous and petulant. It is said that while Uncle Bertie, Edward VII, and Wilhelm were both monarchs, the former never accepted him as an equal. Instead, King Edward treated Kaiser Wilhelm as a nephew and nothing more. For his part, Wilhelm resorted to calling his royal uncle “the old peacock” and “Satan.” Wilhelm desperately wanted to be accepted by his British relations, who in turn refused to give him the affection and acknowledgement he craved. It seems the only member of the family to show him courtesy and respect was his grandmother, Queen Victoria.

The most bizarre relationship Wilhelm had was that with his British mother, the Princess Royal Victoria. Wilhelm’s birth was a difficult one during which both he and his mother nearly died and he was left with a permanently paralyzed arm. Victoria insisted the disability be forever concealed and attempted ill-informed, often painful procedures to correct the arm that left Wilhelm emotionally scared, resentful, and perhaps desperate. Somewhere in this mix of poor, sometimes cruel parenting, Wilhelm developed a self-admitted unnatural, incestuous obsession with his mother. Is it any wonder the boy came to hate his mother, and by extension, her British family?

By all accounts, the relationship between George V and Nicholas II was warm and affectionate. Cousins can sometimes be as close as siblings. George and Nicholas seemed almost that close, calling one another Georgie and Nicky in letters. They holidayed together with their families. They were so similar in appearance that they looked like brothers, maybe even twins. They had the same blue eyes, same brown hair, same beards, and were very similar in size and build. Their own relatives sometimes mistook them from behind.

Although George and Nicholas shared a close bond when young, the weight of monarchy and political unrest in Russia led to Nicholas drifting away from his foreign relatives. The relatives loved the warm, outgoing Nicky, but his wife Alexandra was not held in the same esteem despite being Queen Victoria’s favorite granddaughter. Alex was somewhat distant and adjudged arrogant. When her health began to fail and hereditary hemophilia made Prince Alexei’s life painful and miserable, the royal couple began to withdraw from society and from their relatives as they moved ever closer to mystics and healers like the much-hated Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. The royal family’s reputation declined and Nicky’s grip on power faltered.

Years of frustration with his reign, with economic conditions, with the public’s desire for greater freedom, resentment about Russian losses in the war all came to a head in revolution. Nicholas was forced to abdicate and the family’s fate was sealed. There was a small window immediately after the abdication in which the former tsar and his family might have escaped to England. George worried about his cousins and initially agreed to take them in, but in the end, he believed he could do nothing to save them. Pressures from the British public indicated his own throne might be in danger.

The British public detested the tsar, calling him “Bloody Nicholas”, a name first applied when over 1300 people were killed and another 1300 were injured during a human stampede at the public celebration of his coronation. Attending a ball the evening of the disaster did not help his reputation with his people. 1905’s Bloody Sunday, during which the tasr’s troops opened fire on a peaceful protest outside the Winter Palace killing and injuring around 1000, led to two years of open civil unrest ending with the coup of 1907. The British people also detested anything and anyone German, including Tsarina Alexandra. Factoring in the public’s disdain for the Russian royal family with the Government’s fear that their presence on British soil might lead to an uprising against the British monarchy, George asked that an offer of sanctuary for his cousins be rescinded. Nicholas and his family were murdered in a basement in 1918.

Families are complicated and Victoria’s certainly proved so. While the three royal cousins might have been able to use their influence to prevent war, each in his own way either could not or would not do so.

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* Queen Victoria & Prince Albert’s


NameBirthDeathSpouse and children[233][262]
Victoria, Princess Royal21 November
5 August
Married 1858, Frederick, later German Emperor and King of Prussia (1831–1888);
4 sons (including Wilhelm II, German Emperor), 4 daughters (including Queen Sophia of Greece)
Princess Louise18 March
3 December
Married 1871, John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, later 9th Duke of Argyll (1845–1914);
no issue
Princess Helena25 May
9 June
Married 1866, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein (1831–1917);
4 sons (1 stillborn), 2 daughters
Princess Beatrice14 April
26 October
Married 1885, Prince Henry of Battenberg (1858–1896);
3 sons, 1 daughter (Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain)
Princess Alice25 April
14 December
Married 1862, Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine (1837–1892);
2 sons, 5 daughters (including Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia)
Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany7 April
28 March
Married 1882, Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont (1861–1922);
1 son, 1 daughter
Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn1 May
16 January
Married 1879, Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia (1860–1917);
1 son, 2 daughters (including Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden)
Edward VII9 November
6 May
Married 1863, Princess Alexandra of Denmark (1844–1925);
3 sons (including King George V of the United Kingdom), 3 daughters (including Queen Maud of Norway)
Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha6 August
31 July
Married 1874, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia (1853–1920);
2 sons (1 stillborn), 4 daughters (including Queen Marie of Romania)

** Queen Victoria’s Grandchildren

Name (Nickname)BornDied
Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany (“Willy”)27 January18594 June1941
Princess Charlotte of Prussia, Duchess of Saxe-Meiningen (“Ditta”, “Charly”)24 July18601 October1919
Prince Heinrich of Prussia (“Harry”)14 August186220 April1929
Princess Victoria of Hesse, Marchioness of Milford Haven5 April186324 September1950
Prince Albert Victor of Wales, Duke of Clarence (“Eddy”)8 January186414 January1892
Prince Sigismund of Prussia (“Sigi”)15 September186418 June1866
Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia (“Ella”)1 November186418 July1918
King George V of Great Britain (“Georgie”)3 June186520 January1936
Princess Viktoria of Prussia, Princess Adolf of Schaumburg-Lippe (“Moretta”)12 April186613 November1929
Princess Irene of Hesse, Princess Heinrich of Prussia11 July186611 November1953
Princess Louise of Great Britain, Duchess of Fife20 February18674 January1931
Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (“Christle”)14 April186729 October1900
Prince Waldemar of Prussia (“Waldy”)10 February186827 March1879
Princess Victoria of Great Britain (“Toria”)6 July18683 December1935
Grand Duke Ernst I of Hesse (“Ernie”)25 November18689 October1937
Prince Albert of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg26 February186927 April1931
Princess Maud of Great Britain, Queen of Norway26 November186920 November1938
Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (“Snipe,” “Thora”)3 May187013 March1948
Princess Sophie of Prussia, Queen of Hellenes14 June187013 January1932
Prince Friedrich of Hesse (“Frittie”)7 October187029 May1873
Prince Alexander of Wales6 April18717 April1871
Princess Alix of Hesse, Empress Alexandra of Russia (“Alicky,” “Sunny”)6 June187217 July1918
Princess Margarete of Prussia, Landgravine of Hesse-Cassel (“Mossy”)22 April187222 January1954
Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, Princess Aribert of Anhalt12 August18728 December1956
Princess Maria of Hesse (“May”)24 May187416 November1878
Prince Alfred of Edinburgh, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha15 October18746 February1899
Princess Marie of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, Queen of Romania (“Missy”)29 October187510 July1938
Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, Grand Duchess of Hesse, Grand Duchess Kirill of Russia (“Ducky”)25 November18762 March1936
Prince Harald of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg12 May187620 May1876
Princess Alexandra of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg & Gotha (“Sandra”) Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg1 September187816 April1942
Princess Margaret of Connaught, Crown Princess of Sweden (“Daisy”)15 January18821 May1920
Prince Arthur of Connaught13 January188312 September1938
Princess Alice of Albany, Countess of Athlone25 February18833 January1981
Princess Beatrice of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, Duchess of Galliera20 April188413 July1966
Prince Charles Edward of Albany, Duke of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha (“Charlie”)19 July18846 March1954
Princess Patricia of Connaught, Lady Ramsay (“Pat”)17 March188612 January1974
Prince Alexander of Battenberg, Marquess of Carisbrooke23 November188623 February1960
Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, Queen of Spain (“Ena”)24 October188715 April1969
Prince Leopold of Battenberg, Lord Leopold Mountbatten21 May188923 April1922
Prince Maurice of Battenberg3 October189127 October1914