|George V looked so like|
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
that they were
But their world was changing. Each empire needed to grow and there were inevitable tensions as their colonists and merchants clashed in various parts of the world. More particularly, the industrial revolution had created a working class that increasingly demanded a share in power. With their educations, isolated by privilege, they were unable to understand and were all fundamentally reactionary.
At least George was powerless. The British constitution ensured that he understood that he had to work with parliament and obey 'his' prime minister. Nicholas and Wilhelm were autocrats. They believed in personal rule (Nicholas was the only man in Russia who could authorise divorces and name changes) and attempted to enforce their will on 'their' people.
Not only was it fundamentally absurd that a single person could possibly rule complex modernising countries such as Germany and Russia but their isolation from the governed both because of the layers of courtiers through whom all information was filtered and distorted and because of the conceptual gaps between emperor and plebeian meant that autocracy was doomed.
In the end they didn't want the first world war. The Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1905 had sparked revolution and the Russian ministers were well aware that another war risked revolution (although Nicholas seems not to have had any idea that he could possibly be deposed). Wilhelm, for all his aggressive posturing, was frightened of war and tried at the last minute to back out of it as he had done several times before. But the Austrian's aggressive response to the Serbians abject apologies after the assassination at Sarajevo tipped the balance. War was inevitable. The colonial clashes and the militarisation of German society (which had been encouraged by Wilhelm) had led to several crises in the previous few years in which last-minute diplomacy had just averted war. At some point the tipping point would be reached.
The war destroyed the idea of empire. Although George V clung on the Tsar had abdicated and been assassinated before the armistice. Kaiser Bill abdicated on armistice day as did the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Also in 1917 the 'tsar' of Bulgaria and the king of Greece both abdicated. The last Ottoman Sultan was deposed in 1922.
A beautifully written book about a fascinating period in history.
June 2011; 500 pages