King George V, Tsar Nicholas II & Kaiser Wilhelm II: Cousins at War

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There was a time where royals ruled over almost every country in Europe, and through colonization, everywhere on earth. However, moving into the 20th Century, this was changing rapidly. The First and Second World Wars wiped out many monarchies in Europe; by 1947 the monarchies of Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Russia, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, and Yugoslavia no longer existed. Times were changing and it seemed as though royals were no longer wanted in the world. 

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with all 9 of their children
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert photographed with all nine of their children: From left to right: Alice, Arthur (later Duke of Connaught), The Prince Consort (Albert), The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), Leopold (later Duke of Albany, in front of the Prince of Wales), Louise, Queen Victoria with Beatrice, Alfred (later Duke of Edinburgh), The Princess Royal (Victoria) and Helena, 26 May 1857.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and Ireland and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had 9 children that married into various royal families across Europe. All had children, so Victoria had 42 grandchildren scattered across Europe with the potential to one day rule a nation. In this article, we will be focussing on 3 of Victoria’s grandchildren – King George V of the United Kingdom and Ireland, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Exactly how were they related and how did they influence the First World War?

George V, King of the United Kingdom and Ireland

King George V
King George V of the United Kingdom, 1910.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

King George V of the United Kingdom was born on the 3rd June 1865 to Edward VII of the United Kingdom and Ireland (child of Victoria) and Alexandra of Denmark. He was the 2nd oldest child but his older brother, Prince Albert Victor, died on the 14th January 1892 making George the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom. Following his father’s death on the 6th May 1910, George became King. Unlike some other monarchies in Europe at the time, the UK was a constitutional monarchy giving George limited to no power to make decisions. When Britain joined the First World War on the 4th August 1914, George had been King for just over 4 years.

Nicholas II, Emperor of All Russia

Tsar Nicholas II
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, 1913.
Credit: Museum of Photographic Arts // Public Domain

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was born on the 18th May 1868 to Tsar Alexander III of Russia and Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark) making him first cousins with George through his mother, who was the sister of George’s mother Alexandra; Nicholas also married a first cousin of George, Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, so technically he is a cousin of blood and marriage. Nicholas was the oldest son of Alexander making him the heir to the throne following his father’s death. On the 1st November 1894, Nicholas took the throne at the young age of 26 after his father died of kidney disease. He was unprepared to become Tsar as his father believed that he would rule for many years to come. Russia entered the war on the 1st of August 1914 after Germany declared war on the nation.

Wilhelm II, German Emperor

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor, circa 1910.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was born on the 27th January 1859 to Frederick III and Victoria, Princess Royal, who was the sister of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom (George’s father). This means that he is first cousins with King George V. Wilhelm and Nicholas were not first cousins, but they were third cousins. Wilhelm was the firstborn and the heir to the throne of the German Empire when his father died. By the time his father, Frederick III, ascended the throne on the 9th March 1888 following his own father’s death, he was suffering from an incurable throat cancer that meant he ruled for only 99 days before Wilhelm succeeded at the age of 29. Germany declared war on Russia on the 1st August 1914 after Russia began mobilizing its troops on the 31st July 1914 as a reaction to Austria-Hungary, an ally of Germany, attacking Serbia, an ally of Russia.

World War I

British soldiers and German Prisoners of War
British soldiers watch German Prisoners of War walk by following the British victory at the Battle of Guillemont, 3 September 1916.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

World War I was not necessarily a war led by 3 cousins as King George V of the United Kingdom did not declare war on anyone as this was a power that the Prime Minister held. The British Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, declared war on Germany after warning them to leave Belgium by the 3rd August 1914. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II both held the power to declare war on each other (and they did) as both were rulers in an absolute monarchy. It would be assumed that family relationships would help reduce tension between countries but unfortunately, this was not the case and all sides received huge amounts of casualties. 700,000 Brits were killed, 1.7 million Germans died, and 9.7 million Russian soldiers died with a further 10 million civilians perishing as a result of the war.

What Happened to the Monarchs After World War I?

Wilhelm II in exile 1922
Kaiser Wilhelm II photographed with his dog in exile at what is likely his country house in Doorn, the Netherlands, 1922.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

The war led to the end of the short-lived monarchy that existed in Germany since the foundation of the nation in 1871. Wilhelm was ordered to abdicate before any armistice was signed and he did so on the 9th November 1918 leading to the cease-fire being signed on the 11th November 1918. The former Kaiser moved to the Netherlands and on the 28th November, he released his soldiers and officials from their oaths of loyalty to him with the Statement of Abdication: “I herewith renounce for all time claims to the throne of Prussia and to the German Imperial throne connected therewith. At the same time, I release all officials of the German Empire and of Prussia, as well as all officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the navy and of the Prussian army, as well as the troops of the federated states of Germany, from the oath of fidelity which they tendered to me as their Emperor, King, and Commander-in-Chief. I expect of them that until the re-establishment of order in the German Empire they shall render assistance to those in actual power in Germany, in protecting the German people from the threatening dangers of anarchy, famine, and foreign rule. Proclaimed under our own hand and with the imperial seal attached.” This marked the end of the 47-year monarchy in Germany with some minor attempts to restore it in the following years, none were successful, and Wilhelm lived the rest of his days in various locations in the Netherlands. He died in Doorn on the 4th June 1941 at the age of 82. In his memoirs, Wilhelm calls his third cousin Nicholas “weak and vacillating” and stated that he tried to mend the relationship between the two countries because of a promise he made to his grandfather on his deathbed. It does not appear that Wilhelm felt any guilt regarding the execution of the Tsar. He said, “The blood of the unhappy Tsar is not at my door; not on my hands” to General Wallscourt Waters in 1935.

Last photo of Nicholas II
The last photograph taken of Nicholas II. It was taken at Tsarskoye Selo shortly after his abdication in March 1917.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate on the 15th March 1917 and was promptly arrested after extreme unrest in the Russian Empire caused constant protests against the government and monarchy in power. A cease-fire was signed between Russia and the central powers on the 15th December 1917 and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on the 3rd March 1918 formally removing Russia from the war. Nicholas and his family were transported to various locations throughout the Russian Empire before being placed in Ipatiev House on the 30th of April 1918. Nicholas, his entire family, and 4 servants were executed in this location by Bolshevik forces on the 17th July 1918. Nicholas is believed to have said “You know not what you do” when told that he and his family would be executed. Nicholas was shot multiple times in the chest and was the first to die. The women in the family initially survived the first wave of bullets due to wearing a large number of diamonds that offered them protection; they took the diamonds as they were under the impression that they were being relocated rather than executed. The news of the Tsar’s execution was announced 3 days later but the death of the rest of the family was not revealed until late August.

King George Christmas broadcast
King George V of the United Kingdom making his annual Christmas Broadcast to the UK, 1934.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

King George V of the United Kingdom was the monarch of the winning side and was also the only monarch of the three to remain in power following the end of the war. Nicholas and George V were fairly close and when George found out that Nicholas had been executed, he was devastated. In 1917, Great Britain had the opportunity to offer sanctuary to the Tsar and his family but when the offer was accepted, the government of the United Kingdom withdrew the offer out of fear that it could cause unrest in their country. It is believed that George had a strong say in this decision. Whilst in hindsight this seems to have been a very bad decision to make as it led to the death of the entire Romanov family, there was no indication that they were going to be murdered. George was extremely upset with what happened and despite making the decision, he blamed the politicians for what happened. Following the war, George and Wilhelm did not interact again marking the end of a friendly relationship that existed before the war between the three cousins. Wilhelm also believed that England was the land of Satan and held anti-England views for the remainder of his life.

Cousins Nicholas and George
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (left) & King George V of the United Kingdom (right) together wearing military uniform in Berlin, Germany, 1913. 
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain
Cousins Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II together 1913.
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (left) and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany together in a carriage, 1913.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Cousins Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V photographed together
Kaiser Wilhelm II (standing) and King George V (sitting) photographed together with seven other royals at the funeral of George’s father, King Edward VII, 20 May 1910.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The war that pitted 3 cousins against each other in turn ended the life of one (Nicholas) and the power of another (Wilhelm) with only one (George) still in the same position he was in prior to the war. It is unfortunate that this indirect family feud could have been prevented due to the family ties but were not utilized correctly. Had Queen Victoria still been alive, it may have been possible that the ‘Grandmother of Europe’ could have put a stop to the conflict that resulted in 37 million casualties.

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