George, Nicholas and Wilhelm
Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War One
Vintage: 498 pp., $19 paper
Queen Victoria's grand plan to marry as many of her descendants as possible into the reigning families of Europe resulted in her progeny sitting on the thrones of no fewer than 10 nations. After all, as the saying went back then, "blood is thicker than water," and so with this network of rulers related to the woman who was dubbed the "Grandmama of Europe," surely then peace would prevail. But of course, little more than a dozen years after Victoria's 1901 funeral, attended by a host of these relatives, cousin was pitted against cousin in unprecedentedly hideous global combat.
In "George, Nicholas and Wilhelm," a finalist in the biography category for this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, British biographer Miranda Carter focuses on the nexus among the heads of state in three of the major combatants, Britain, Russia and Germany. The allied King George and Czar Nicholas were not only first cousins (their Danish mothers were sisters) but they looked so much alike that people frequently mistook one for the other. Nicholas' wife was also a first cousin to George (on his father's side) and Kaiser Wilhelm bore the same close relationship to both. (He was also related twice over to the czar.) In Carter's capable hands, what could so easily be little more than an annotated family tree springs to life full of vivid, flesh-and-blood characters and replete with family attachments, feuds and quarrels. As her story unfolds, we see just how determinative — and sometimes irrelevant — these turned out to be.