For Russia, even more than for most countries, war had often proved disastrous. The Crimean War and the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s had been disasters. Both had left Russia in debt and near-bankrupt, had crippled development, created internal disaffection and lasting hostility with foreign powers. The government and its institutions were in no state to bear the strains of war, and unlike, say, Britain, the country couldn’t bear the expense. It was a lesson the Russian government would have done well to remember before it found itself at war with Japan in February 1904.
The two countries had clashed over rival claims to Korea—the country, connected like a small appendix to the edge of northern China, which lay between Siberia and Japan—and Manchuria. In fact most Russian government ministers opposed the war, while the court hailed it. Nicholas was in constant denial about the ricketiness of Russia’s institutions. The tsar had told his war minister the year before that he dreamed of extending the Russian empire to China, Tibet, Afghanistan1 and Persia—and his actions had directly contributed to the hostilities. He had taken the running of the Far East out of the hands of his ministers and put it under the command of the hawkish and incompetent General Alekseev—who was said to owe his senior position in the army to having rescued Nicholas’s favourite uncle, Grand Duke Alexis, from a French brothel.2 He had given policy-making to a “special committee,” a group of inexperienced, over-excited court aristocrats who included his own cousin Sandro, who wanted to annex Korea. And whether deliberately or through sheer incompetence, he’d allowed pre-war negotiations with the Japanese to descend into insults. According to Edward VII,3 whose country had an alliance with Japan, the tsar had rejected his personal attempts to bring about a diplomatic resolution.
The truth was the Russians expected to beat the Japanese. No Great Power had ever been defeated by a minor one, certainly not one with an army as huge as Russia’s, and most Russians regarded the Japanese as an “inferior race”: Nicholas referred to them as “little short-tailed4 monkeys.” The head of the army in Manchuria, General Alekseev, claimed that he needed only two Russian soldiers for every three Japanese. In the world of the Great Powers, making an aggressive demonstration seemed a sure way—and perhaps an overly easy one—of reminding everyone of, or even restoring, one’s status, especially when one felt insufficiently respected.
When the Japanese sent torpedo boats into Port Arthur, Russian military headquarters in China, in February 1904, and sank the two most modern ships in the whole Russian navy, then declared war, the entire government and military seemed completely surprised and unprepared. The government found out only when Sergei Witte was informed by a telephone call from a Russian trader in Port Arthur. The Russian war effort went downhill from there. Defeat followed defeat. At every turn the conflict exposed the staggering incompetence of overstretched Russian institutions—the army in particular. War planning had been virtually non-existent. Russian generals, whose average age was sixty-nine, spent more time infighting than actually fighting. The conflict would cost 2 billion roubles—all the money Witte had saved up to stabilize the Russian economy. Even then, there wasn’t enough to give the soldiers hot breakfasts, or supply them with powder for their guns. Despite an early surge of patriotic enthusiasm, support for the war soon began to haemorrhage. By May 1904 the new British ambassador in St. Petersburg, Sir Charles Hardinge, Edward’s former protégé, reported that 75 percent of the population were “absolutely indifferent”5 to the war, and most of the educated classes were furious at the incompetence and expense; rising opposition was making itself felt in a series of assassinations of hated senior officials.
One predictable consequence of the war was an outbreak of virulent Anglophobia in Russia. It was almost too easy to blame Russia’s disasters on Britain’s secret support of its ally. At court, Nicholas and the pro-war clique around him fulminated against Britain. The tsar took to referring to the English as “zhids”6—Jews. Sandro, the tsar’s cousin, muttered darkly about the “British-built7 battleships of the Mikado,” and in St. Petersburg the British ambassador was boycotted by society. Wilhelm, so good at spotting his fellow monarch’s vulnerabilities, had been writing to Nicholas since 1903 informing him that the British were helping with “the Japanese8 mobilization.” He sent copies of British newspaper articles demanding the government help plucky Japan against the beastly Russian leviathan. “To us …9 this hypocrisy and hatred is utterly odious and incomprehensible,” he wrote. “Everybody here understands perfectly that Russia is following the laws of expansion.”
The war demonstrated the ambivalence of British feelings towards Russia too. The British government initially worried that the war would destroy the Entente by forcing France and Britain to back their allies, but at the same time toyed with helping the Japanese. It had hoped the Entente Cordiale12 would bring Britain closer to Russia, but now also hoped the war would disrupt Russia in Asia. In the end Britain, like France, had agreed on friendly neutrality. As Balfour said, even if Japan was beaten—as the British at first assumed it would be—“nothing could be10 better for us than that Russia should involve herself in the expense and trouble of a Corean [sic] adventure.” But to cover their bets, Edward, at Lansdowne’s suggestion, sent a personal message11 to Nicholas guaranteeing British goodwill and non-intervention. The British version of “friendly neutrality” didn’t seem particularly friendly. Russian ships were refused access to British ports around the world to refuel. The Entente Cordiale, announced in April 1904, looked to the now-harassed and vulnerable Russians like an attempt to snatch France away from them. And just as Russia had exploited British vulnerability during the Boer War, now the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, sent a military force to Tibet, led by the British soldier and explorer Sir Francis Younghusband, in March 1904.
Wilhelm, by contrast, was only too eager to help his Russian cousin. He offered Nicholas the use of German coaling stations, while telling him repeatedly that the British were pressuring him not to. He promised to “guarantee” the Russian Western Front from attack. German support came at a price, however: Bülow demanded an enormous hike in the German tariffs13 on Russian imports.
Lord Lansdowne, the British foreign secretary, who after his agreements with Japan and France had gained a reputation as an adept international player, still saw an Entente-like agreement on colonial issues with Russia as an appealing prospect. A bad war might produce a Russia so chastened that it would at last succumb to British overtures. He recruited Edward to massage his Russian relatives. Through the spring and summer of 1904 the king energetically—as energetically as a very large sixty-two-year-old man could manage—demonstrated his goodwill. He wrote to Nicholas to reassure him about the Entente, and offered himself as a mediator with Japan—an offer Nicholas unsurprisingly turned down. In Copenhagen with Alexandra, Edward spotted Count Alexander Izvolsky, Russian minister to Denmark,* a coming man in Russian politics, not least because he was known to enjoy the patronage of Minny—she may possibly have tipped the king off about him. Izvolsky, like most of Nicholas’s leading government ministers, opposed the war with Japan; he also saw an agreement with Britain as a future necessity for peace. And he was very ambitious. The king expressed his desire for an agreement, and Izvolsky showed him a copy of the extravagantly flattering letter he planned to send to Lamsdorff about their meeting: that Edward’s views on a deal with Russia were so important “that I ought to transmit them to Your Excellency as verbatim as possible,” and attributing the Entente Cordiale “above all to the great personal influence of his Majesty.”14 When Hardinge took over as ambassador in St. Petersburg in May, the king gave him a letter for Nicholas which personally recommended Izvolsky as “a man of remarkable intelligence and … I am sure, one of your ablest and most devoted Servants.” He added that it was his “earnest desire15 … that at the conclusion of the war our two countries may come to a satisfactory settlement regarding many difficult matters.” And when on 30 July, at the imperial couple’s summer residence of Peterhof, just after the soup, thirty-two-year-old Alix finally gave birth to a baby boy, Alexis, Edward proposed himself as godfather.
While war continued, there could be no real resolution. Edward’s patronage might give Hardinge entrées to the highest Russian social circles, including to the imperial couple themselves. “… I am looked upon16 as the bearer of an olive branch,” he told the king. But when Russian warships from the Black Sea sailed into the Suez Canal and began to seize British cargo ships, claiming they were carrying contraband bound for Japan, the British press howled, and Lansdowne threatened reprisals if the ships weren’t released.† And in September 1904, late at night, Hardinge discovered an intruder hiding17 under a sofa in the embassy drawing room, and almost killed him with a curtain pole. It transpired it was one of the footmen trying to break into the embassy safe in order to find evidence that England was helping the Japanese. The tsar, moreover, Hardinge observed, was utterly committed to the war with Japan, and surrounded himself with Anglophobes. The same month, having killed a couple of thousand Tibetans, the Younghusband expedition signed a deal with the rulers of Tibet guaranteeing trading concessions and the exclusion of other powers—Russia specifically. The Russian press breathed fire. In Britain the expedition had been extremely controversial. Since the Boer War the country’s “right” to murder a few natives in the prosecution of its business was no longer felt to be a given—but Edward, the alleged champion of a Russian rapprochement, met Younghusband and told him, “I approve18 of all you did.”
For the Germans, news from St. Petersburg of Edward’s overtures19 to the Russians suddenly cast the Entente Cordiale in a rather different light. Though some German observers had seen it as a dangerous shift, Bülow had initially decided to be unconcerned by it—it was, after all, a purely colonial agreement—and he told the kaiser that it couldn’t20 last. He may also have thought that anything which might alienate Russia from France was to the good. Now British diplomacy—and Edward’s efforts—didn’t look so innocuous. Wilhelm began to complain that Edward seemed to want alliances with everyone except him.
To mitigate his nephew’s frequently expressed feelings of rejection, Edward agreed to attend the Kiel regatta in June 1904. Regarded by both sides as a chance to relieve some of the friction between the king and the kaiser, and between England and Germany, the visit would have one big unintended consequence.
Preparations for the visit were epic. It was apparent to Wilhelm’s entourage that, however much he might dislike his uncle, the kaiser was painfully desperate to impress him. An observant new comptroller of the imperial household, Robert zu Zedlitz-Trützschler, kept a diary in which he confided his daily amazement at the excesses of the large child whose household he managed. “The importance21 the Emperor attached to this visit was extraordinary,” he wrote. “He interfered with the smallest details of decoration.” The Hohenzollern was decked out with great canopies and spouting water features. Every cabinet minister was present, every secretary of state, and “a whole troop of22 Excellencies, magnificent in Orders and gold braid, were arranged in a dignified row along the shore. All the Royal Princes had been ordered to swell the Guard of Honour.” Wilhelm grew so overexcited that he put on his parade uniform hours in advance and paced the deck “hardly able to wait for the appointed time.” When Edward did arrive, Bülow later cruelly remembered, Wilhelm looked agitated, while Edward appeared positively serene. He was at his zenith: even to Wilhelm’s people his glamour seemed palpable. He was a “man of the world, ten times tried in the furnace, who had every move of the game at his finger tips,” Zedlitz-Trützschler wrote. Wilhelm by contrast was an “idealistic big child, who had grown up with none but flatterers about him in ignorance of the world.” The king’s private life might be open to criticism, “but to-day he has all the glamour of a personality that has gained the high esteem of his country. I believe that he has acquired in his life an experience of the world such as seldom falls to the lot of a royal personage. He has a keen knowledge of men, the value of which for a prince cannot be overestimated.”23
Edward talked about peace—“a universal necessity,” he said, “since all countries groan alike under the burden of their armaments taxations”—and the peaceful aims of the Entente. His “one desire,” he added, was “to reduce all points of frictions between the Great Powers.”24 Wilhelm wrote, “Bertie’s visit is going, of course, off well,” experiencing that surge of desire to have a real relationship with his uncle that often occurred when they first met. “He is very lively25 and active and most kind. His wish for peace is quite pronounced as is his motive for his liking to offer his services wherever he sees collisions in the world.”
But everyone knew the amicability was phoney. “Everyone is26 pretending that we are on the best possible terms with England. As a matter of fact, however, all the differences between the English and the German people remain as they were,” Zedlitz-Trützschler wrote. The smiling veneer between the two monarchs cracked just once. They disagreed volubly on the Russian-Japanese War. Wilhelm talked about the “Yellow Peril” and how it must be crushed. Edward said there was no such thing. The Japanese were morally in the right, Nicholas had rejected their diplomatic approaches, and they had done brilliantly. They were “a brave, chivalrous and intelligent people—every bit as civilized as Europeans from whom nothing except the colour of their skins distinguishes them.” Bülow observed that Edward spoke of the tsar “with all the affection of a kinsman,” and noted how much he enjoyed giving his German nephew a “rap on the knuckles.”
Wilhelm, meanwhile, simply couldn’t resist the urge to impress Edward. Tirpitz and Bülow would have preferred the visit to take place almost anywhere in the world rather than at Kiel, which was where the German navy was being built. They had tried to extract a promise from the kaiser that he would curb his wish to show off how it had grown, and that its expansion would be played down as much as possible. But the night before the naval review, he personally instructed his naval cabinet to send “everything, down to the smallest boat”27 to Kiel. At a gala dinner for 180 the next day, he drew attention to how large the navy had grown, observing to his audience that King Edward had “been greeted by28 the thunder of guns of the German fleet.” And with tears in his eyes he described how his desire to build a navy had been born when he had visited Portsmouth as a child: “There awoke in me the wish to build ships of my own like these some day.”
The new German navy certainly impressed the British spectators—but not in a good way. In his memoirs Bülow wrote that the king warned him there was a growing “conviction in England that the Germans are only building their navy with the intention of falling on England as soon as they have made it strong enough, of ruining her for ever, either by breaking her commerce or even by an invasion.”29 Naturally, he didn’t think this, but since England’s safety depended on her fleet, the British Admiralty would always build two new English ships for every new German one. It was advice which Bülow and Tirpitz might have done well to take. Among Edward’s party was Lord Selbourne, First Lord of the Admiralty—who in 1902 had written a cabinet paper arguing that the German navy was being expanded to target the Royal Navy—and Louis of Battenberg, who ran British naval intelligence. A month after the visit, Selbourne gave his formal support to radical plans to update and expand the Royal Navy, drawn up by the energetic, eccentric and increasingly anti-German Admiral Jackie Fisher. The plans included the commissioning of the Dreadnought, a new species of enormous battleship which would render all other warships obsolete, and which in turn would spawn a new, paranoid and vastly expensive wave of rivalrous shipbuilding in Britain and Germany.
The bad feeling1 between Britain and Russia reached a crisis on 21 October 1904 after the Russian fleet fired on a small flotilla of fishing boats from Hull, sinking two boats and killing two fishermen. Nicholas had ordered the Russian Baltic fleet to travel round the world to the Pacific to replace the Russian Pacific fleet, which had been destroyed by the Japanese. The Russian admiral in charge panicked and failed to stop to pick up survivors, or to inform his own government. Edward, who heard the news as he was watching his horses at Newmarket Racecourse, fired off splutteringly angry letters to Lansdowne demanding satisfaction. “Mere apologies to us will not suffice. Some punishment must be meted out to the Russian officers,” he wrote. He sent a telegram to Nicholas telling him what a “painful impression”30 the squadron’s failure to stop had caused. The Russians were irritatingly impenitent. The British refusal to allow Russian ships into their ports was making the fleet’s journey much harder, and St. Petersburg was in the grip of a Japanese spy scare. There had been rumours that Japanese torpedo boats were shadowing the Baltic fleet—which was why the warships had been so trigger-happy. “These suspicions,”31 one Russian minister wrote years later, “of course, existed only in imagination,” but the government couldn’t shake off the thought that the British were somehow colluding with the Japanese. Nicky insisted to Edward that the Japanese had been “luring”32 the fishing boats to camouflage their torpedo boats. Even the usually pragmatic Lamsdorff charged round to the British embassy and accused Hardinge of “English perfidy.” “The politest man in the world was nearly rude to me,”33 Hardinge wrote. “If they imagined34 they were Japanese destroyers,” George told his father, “all I can say is they must have been drunk or else they must have been in such a state that they are not fit to go to sea in Men of War.”
For five days the atmosphere between the two countries was extremely tense. “The English are35 very angry and nearly at boiling point,” Nicky told his mother. “They are even said to be getting their fleet ready for action. Yesterday, I sent a telegram to Uncle Bertie expressing my regret, but I did not apologize—I do not think the English will have the cheek to go further than to indulge in threats.” Lamsdorff, however, apologized to Hardinge for having lost his temper. Angry as they were, the Russians could not afford another enemy. In the meantime, Edward, taken aback by a violent British press reaction, calmed down. “Strongly deprecate36 pressuring for punishment of Admiral. Russia could not accept such a humiliation,” he telegraphed Lansdowne, and Nicky had “a violent military party to contend with.” In a face-saving move, the Russians suggested the matter be taken to arbitration at The Hague, and eventually paid £65,000 in damages.
Escalation had been avoided, but Nicholas was still furious. “I have no words37 to express my indignation with England’s conduct,” he wrote to Wilhelm, who had been terribly sympathetic. British public opinion seemed to overwhelm the “more reasonable attitude of her government,” Nicholas wrote. British attempts to stop Germany from coaling Russian ships were indefensible. “It is certainly high time to put a stop to this. The only way as You say would be that Germany, Russia and France should at once unite upon an agreement to abolish Anglo-Japanese arrogance and insolence. Would you like to lay down and frame the outlines of such a treaty and let me know it?”
Wilhelm didn’t need telling twice. Two days later he sent Nicholas a draft treaty, assuring him that it was entirely secret—though in fact Bülow had written it. He added that a “private source” had assured him that the Hull fishing fleet had seen foreign vessels—“So there has been foul play.” The alliance, he told Nicholas, would be “purely defensive, exclusively directed against a European aggressor or aggressors … a mutual fire insurance company against incendiaries.”38 The gist of it was that if either country was attacked by a third European power, the other would come to the aid of their ally with all their forces, though they both knew it was really directed against Britain.
The treaty, however, left many questions unanswered. What if France attacked Germany or Austria Russia? Within a couple of weeks both sides were hesitating. Nicholas wanted to show it to the French before he signed it. Wilhelm said no, the French president and foreign minister “not being39 Princes or Emperors I am unable to place them … on the same footing as you my equal.” Then he told Nicholas he was worried the British might see the treaty as “direct provocation.”40 The two monarchs exchanged urgent assurances41 of their absolute loyalty to each other, and the whole idea was dead before Christmas.
One reason was that Wilhelm had fallen into the grip of a paranoid conviction that Britain was about to attack Germany. Since Edward’s 1904 visit to Kiel, the British had been increasingly sensitive to the growth of the new German navy. In fact, the new First Sea Lord, the excitable Admiral Jackie Fisher, who had taken up his post in October on the day of the Dogger Bank incident, had made a speech advocating “Copenhagening”—i.e., making a pre-emptive strike on—the German fleet. Fisher was known to be capable but eccentric, and though the government clearly didn’t approve, the right-wing press did. Then after the Russians agreed to arbitration, the British papers suddenly turned on Germany, accusing its government of inciting the Russians against Britain. Incitement was precisely what Wilhelm had been engaging in. He seems to have worried that his letters to Nicholas had leaked out. In November he told his entourage that he was “convinced that it is42 England’s aim to bring a serious conflict about.” It was certainly now accepted by Wilhelm’s officials that, as Bülow said, the British were “absolutely apprised43 of his habit of stirring behind their back.”
“The Emperor has often44 … expressed himself without restraint, not to say vulgarly, about their Majesties,” Zedlitz-Trützschler wrote, “and this naturally has come to their ears.” As if to confirm this, Edward told45 the French ambassador in mid-November that he knew all about his nephew’s intriguing, especially with Russia, and had been writing to the tsar to counteract it. The kaiser’s anxiety may also have derived from his own guilty, vivid, destructive fantasies about England. In early December he told his entourage he had dreamed of the Russian Baltic fleet46arriving in Asia and descending on British India.
The other reason the German-Russian treaty idea lapsed was that by Christmas Russia was in absolute crisis. Nicky’s cousin Grand Duke Konstantin wrote in his diary that the country was like a piece of cloth “that is beginning47 to rip up and tear along the seams.” The war was an ongoing disaster. Port Arthur surrendered to the Japanese after a 156-day siege on 21 December 1904 (2 January 1905 in the Russian calendar). “A terrible and48 painful event,” Nicky wrote. “… It is the will of God!” Two weeks later, the imperial guard shot into a large, peaceful demonstration of workers and their families gathered in front of the Winter Palace to deliver a petition begging the tsar to help them and support their pleas for workers’ rights. They killed about 1,000 people. “A terrible day,”49 Nicholas, who had absented himself and given permission for the troops to shoot, wrote in his diary, but “… the troops had to shoot.” Even the ever-tactful Hardinge couldn’t disguise his disgust for the Winter Palace massacre. It was, he wrote, “indisputable” that the crowd was “both peaceful and harmless.” He recalled the “tragic” men who had stood for hours in the freezing cold bareheaded, “for fear that the ‘little Father’ might look from the window and see them standing in the street with their hats on.” He thought the emperor had “missed the chance of his lifetime … if he had received at the Winter Palace a small deputation and promised to give them what has sincerely been promised to them in his name, he would have obtained the undying loyalty and admiration of the lower classes.”50 The Winter Palace massacre was the moment in Russia when the loyalty of even those with a stake in the system broke irretrievably. It was an occasion when Edward did not send messages of support. Wilhelm, however, did. “I am glad51 your soldiers showed themselves reliable and true to their service to their sermon [sic]* to the Emperor.” But later he too suggested that Nicholas might have done things differently: he should have showed himself to the crowd—as Wilhelm himself loved to do—“such an appearance52 would have calmed the masses.”
After the Winter Palace massacre Nicholas met a small, carefully chosen delegation of workers and told them they had been “duped” by “the traitors and53 enemies of the country,” and that they must have “patience and consideration for their employers.” By the end of January 1905, 400,000 workers were on strike in the environs of St. Petersburg. In February Nicholas’s uncle Sergei, the now utterly loathed governor-general of Moscow, was blown up in his coach. His boots, apparently, were the only bits that remained intact. The country was in revolution, but “the Tsar viewed54 the internal tumult rather indifferently; he … kept repeating that it had spread over only a very small part of the country and could not be very significant.” Nothing, indeed, seemed to penetrate the carapace of the emperor’s inscrutability and received ideas. “He lets everything55unpleasant run off him,” the latest interior minister sighed exasperatedly. Hardinge was amazed at how even the terrible defeat at Mukden in February 1905—90,000 casualties—seemed to have no effect on him. The rest of the world, meanwhile, adjusted itself to the fact that a Great Power was on the way to being beaten by a second-rank one.
The British ambassador told Edward that the tsar was almost preposterously out of touch. “I feel very sorry for the Emperor and Empress,” he wrote to Knollys, the king’s secretary. “They live at Tsarskoe Selo in a world apart, and are almost like prisoners since it is not considered safe to come even to St. Petersburg.” The fences around Tsarskoe Selo had risen higher and higher, until by July 1905 the barbed wire was ten foot high and accompanied by spiked railings. It looked “like some zoo enclosure for wild beasts.” “I often wonder,” he added, “whether the Emperor realizes upon what a volcano he is living—I am told he never speaks of either the war or the internal state of the country if he can help doing so, but that he seems perfectly happy, interesting himself in all sorts of trivial affairs and that the Empress is beaming with happiness.”56 It had also been remarked that the empress was exercising increasing influence on the emperor, urging him—with all the zeal of a convert—never to give way, and fixing him with “her fierce stare”57 if she felt he might be weakening. When asked by English visitors, as she often was, about the state of Russia, the empress, who had been raised in one of the most liberal states in Germany, would say that the “illiterate Russian”58 was simply not ready for “freedom of thought.”
Behind his habitual inscrutability, Nicholas felt utterly confused and powerless. He seethed and blamed his ministers. “It makes me59 sick to read the news,” he wrote to his mother. “Strikes in schools and factories, murdered policemen, Cossacks, riots. But the Ministers instead of acting with quick decision, only assemble in council like a lot of frightened hens and cackle.” But there were other reasons why he seemed so oddly detached from events outside Tsarskoe Selo. The excitement of his son Alexis’s birth had given way to anxiety when it was discovered six weeks later that the child was haemophiliac—his blood wouldn’t clot, or at least could take days to do so. Small knocks and tumbles produced ugly dark blue swellings on the boy’s body, and terrible pain. The gene came from Queen Victoria and within the extended royal family of Europe the subject seems to have been unmentionable, even though the queen’s youngest son, Leopold, had died of it, as had one of Alix’s brothers and a nephew. As a father and husband, Nicholas was tirelessly supportive, giving, warm and loving. The contrast between his sensitive responses within his little domestic world and his blinkered insensitivity beyond it is almost painful to observe. Fatefully, the couple decided to keep the illness a secret. Doctors were sworn to silence; palace servants weren’t told what was wrong with Alexis, they had to work it out for themselves. The imperial couple’s instinctive tendency to keep the world at arm’s length, together with court etiquette which forbade the discussion of the health of the royal family, convinced them not to reveal the problem. They may also have worried that if Alexis’s situation was known, it would call into question his suitability as heir. George and May took a similar decision some years later when they discovered their youngest son, John, a year younger than Alexis, was epileptic, and probably also what we would now call autistic. George knew that Alexis was prone to illness, but he appears never to have mentioned John to Nicholas at all; the child seems not to have been present when the Romanovs came to visit the Isle of Wight in 1909. Either way, the decision to keep up appearances, somehow so characteristic of fin de siècle royalty, might have denied the imperial family much sympathy and support they might otherwise have enjoyed.
It was only after the Baltic fleet, having steamed around the world, was annihilated by the Japanese at Tsushima, the largest sea battle since Trafalgar, at the end of May 1905, that Nicholas reluctantly agreed to a peace conference. Acknowledging defeat was a prospect he could hardly bear. “All reports seem60 to agree that he is for continuing the war at all costs,” Hardinge wrote. “The Government and the great majority of the people are strictly in favour of peace.” Several weeks later Hardinge reported that the governing classes had been thrown into utter panic by the Potemkin mutiny. They had assumed that as long as the army and navy could be relied on, “the agitation and disturbance61 throughout the country presented no real danger to the dynasty.” Sedition, he added, was rife. A Russian officer friend told him that “they would have got rid of the Emperor long ago if there had only been a capable Grand Duke to take his place.” Even as he agreed to the peace conference, Nicholas was talking of sending another 200,000 men to Manchuria, and in August told his ministers that St. Seraphim had appeared to him in a dream to let him know that Russia would defeat Japan and Britain and emerge stronger than ever. “Such nonsense is62 incredible,” Hardinge commented drily, “but the Emperor is known to be mystic and all things are consequently possible.”
Nicholas stalled, but in the autumn sent Sergei Witte to the peace conference at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, brokered by President Roosevelt, who complained all the way through of Russia’s chaotic behaviour and “literally fathomless mendacity.” Russia continued in free fall. What had gone wrong was not all Nicholas’s fault—the military had been degraded over decades, the hunger for imperial success as a salve for internal failure was deep-rooted across the whole governing and educated class, the institutions of government had long been incapable of running the country, repression had long been a substitute for real governance, and such a large and complex state simply couldn’t run properly with one man making all the decisions. But Nicholas, the wrong man at the wrong time, by taking his country into a war it couldn’t afford and could have avoided, by encouraging the system’s repressions, by allowing his personal revulsion to reform to trump reality, had certainly helped to bring his country to crisis.
It was something Wilhelm never really wanted to do that brought his relationship with Edward to its absolute nadir. On 31 March 1905, in the midst of a Mediterranean cruise, the kaiser made an unscheduled visit to Tangier, on the northernmost tip of Morocco, which France was trying secretly to turn into a French protectorate. The plan, hatched by Bülow and Holstein, was to make a demonstration of German force to frighten France while its ally Russia was busy, humiliate France and perhaps elicit a concession or two, and create division in the Entente—the British, they believed, would not sweep to France’s defence, because its underhand attempts to gain control broke international agreements and because Germany would look as if it meant business. The idea was that if Germany appeared dangerous and threatening enough—willing to risk even war—everyone else would back down. It seemed a perfect example of what Bülow had intended “Weltpolitik” to be. As an attempt to gain face and status, it was not unlike Russia’s almost enthusiastic initial dive into the Japanese War; like that conflict, it would have devastating, unintended long-term consequences for Germany.
But the kaiser initially refused to go. He wasn’t interested in Morocco and had been toying with the idea of making up with France in order to gather together a European alliance against Britain. Besides, the thought of landing in a strange place, dealing with a strange horse, frightened him. Bülow, however, was determined and bombarded him with telegrams telling him that if he didn’t go to Morocco he’d be seen as a victim of French pressure, whereas if he did he would be a hero to the German people. Wilhelm relented. At the port of Tangier, before a crowd, and sweating profusely, he struggled down the ship’s ladder in full dress uniform and sword, clutching on with his one usable hand. By the time he reached the bottom, he had to be virtually carried onto the quayside, visibly pale and shaking. With the German consul, he rode nervously on a large, unfamiliar white horse to the sultan’s palace, where he made a speech promising to defend Moroccan independence with German might. When a bunch of flowers hit him in the face, the horse—made jumpyby rounds of ammunition let off by enthusiastic locals—nearly threw him. “The horse was within an inch of costing me my life,” he told Bülow later. Within a few hours he was on Gibraltar, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean headquarters, boasting about the incident to Louis of Battenberg and happily taking responsibility for it.
The visit provoked an international crisis. Everyone saw it as dangerously provocative. Lamsdorff thought it gratuitous. Lord Lansdowne called it “clumsy.”63 Edward said it was “The most mischievous64 and uncalled for event which the German Emperor has ever engaged in since he came to the throne … one can have no faith in any of his assurances.” He didn’t stop there; he told Louis of Battenberg it was “A gratuitous65 insult, and the clumsy theatrical part of it would make one laugh were the matter not a serious one … I have tried to get on with him and shall nominally do my best to the end, but trust—never. He is utterly false and the bitterest foe that England possesses.” An attack on the Entente, Edward felt, was an attack on him. It didn’t help that he’d just discovered that Wilhelm had been badmouthing him to President Roosevelt66—to whom the two men had simultaneously been writing.*
The personal and the political were now quite as confusingly and unhelpfully intertwined for Edward as they were for Wilhelm. He probably could not have said whether he was angry because Wilhelm had attacked the Entente or himself. He believed that fellow monarchs could have relationships across national boundaries, but any sense of family kinship with Wilhelm, a relationship which had once been a strong link between Germany and Britain, was now broken. As a riposte to Wilhelm he made his own provocative, partisan gesture. He went to Paris and sent Delcassé—now under pressure from the French Left to resign for inflaming relations with Germany—a personal telegram encouraging him to stay in office. As soon as Edward left Paris, however, the German government demanded Delcassé resign and the French government accept an international conference to decide Morocco’s status, or it would find itself at war with Germany in Africa and Europe. Delcassé resigned on 6 June, and the French government agreed to a conference on Morocco. The British government was dismayed by what it saw as French weakness. The Germans’ intervention had worked splendidly. The kaiser made Bülow a prince. He rather spoilt the effect, however, by subsequently telling a French general that he had no intention of going to war over Morocco—a crack in Germany’s threatening stance which had Bülow biting his tongue. In fact, Delcassé’s departure was the catalyst which stiffened French resolve. In July the French asked Lord Lansdowne if the British would be prepared to discuss secretly a cooperative military strategy in the event of a war. He agreed. Wilhelm’s day in Tangier had released ugly and dangerous tensions in Europe. The Entente, which Edward had seen as a means to peace in Europe, had done nothing to head them off. The kaiser’s gesture had made the Entente look like a treaty based on European priorities rather than colonial ones. The focus of international politics seemed suddenly to have shifted from imperial conflict back to the crowded continent of Europe.
As a result of Tangier the king and the kaiser’s relationship lapsed into arm’s length tit for tat. George had intended to attend the German crown prince’s wedding, but Edward cancelled, claiming his son had a prior engagement. The kaiser refused to let his son, the crown prince, go to England for the king’s birthday. He accused his uncle of trying to “divide father and son,” and of corrupting his son’s morals—the last time “Little Willy” had stayed with Edward there had been “unseemly romping in unlighted corridors” and a lady had “removed her slipper.”68 Willy, aged twenty-three, disappointed by his father’s strictness and distant lack of interest, was in the grip of a familiar Hohenzollern filial rebellion. He had both identified himself with the extreme far Right who criticized the kaiser for being insufficiently nationalist and aggressive, and upset his father even more by deliberately modelling himself on Edward and his English playboy style. At Willy’s wedding Wilhelm snubbed Sir Frank Lascelles, who was so upset he immediately tendered his resignation. Bülow talked him out of it. Then at the Kiel regatta in June, the kaiser made off-colour remarks69 about Edward’s relationship with Alice Keppel, all of which got back to Edward. In mid-1905 the French chargé d’affaires in London reported to Paris that there was no trace left of the German sympathy that had existed at the English court in Queen Victoria’s day. What worried the older generation of diplomats like Lascelles, who was looking increasingly out of place at the Foreign Office, however, was not the family feud, but that it mirrored a wider loss of confidence in Germany among British politicians and diplomats. It could be seen in George, who had exchanged a dislike of Wilhelm for a dislike of Germany. “Although I like70 Lascelles very much,” he wrote, “I fear he has become too German in his ideas for my taste.”
There were older diplomats and officials in Germany who felt quite as anxious as Lascelles about the shift in feeling. In August 1905 Count Gotz von Seckendorff, a former and loyal member of Vicky’s household, was so worried at the bad turn in royal relations that he wrote personally to Edward begging him to meet Wilhelm on his way back from his annual spa trip to Marienbad. A meeting, he suggested, “might create71 wonders.” Edward treated the letter as an impertinence. His reply, written by Knollys, was crushingly haughty. He insisted he had no quarrel with Wilhelm, but refused to “run after [him]72 … it would be undignified for him [Edward] to play such a part, and it would not meet with the approval either of the British Government or the British Nation.” He added that he no longer knew whether Wilhelm had “any affection for him, but from one or two things which he had heard recently, he should say not.” There was no doubt that both men were not far off hating each other. Lord Lansdowne wrote of Edward, “he talks and73 writes about his royal brother in terms which make one’s flesh creep.” As for Wilhelm, his descriptions of Edward were said to be unrepeatable.74
On 24 July 1905 Wilhelm and Nicholas met secretly off the coast of the northern Swedish town of Björkö. Wilhelm had brought the draft treaty Nicholas and he had discussed the year before, without telling Bülow. Nicholas had stolen away on his yacht from his summer residence at Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland, without telling his own ministers. They had planned it like two naughty children playing truant. “At home nobody75 informed,” Nicholas wrote. “Am so delighted to be able to see You.” Both were fleeing from intractable problems: Nicholas facing the collapse of the Russian state and putting off ending a war that had brought the country to its knees, and Wilhelm in flight from all the disappointments and frustrations, along with the worst strikes since 1888, demonstrations in Berlin demanding the reform of the Prussian Landtag,* and the imminent prospect of the Social Democrats, the Socialist Party, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag.
The two men met for dinner on the Hohenzollern. They both agreed, Wilhelm wrote in his account of the meeting to Bülow, that Edward was “the greatest mischief-maker76 and the most dangerous intriguer in the world.” The tsar, he said, fumed over the Dogger Bank incident—and said that France’s failure to support Germany over it was proof that the British were using77 the Entente to draw France away from him. He complained bitterly that the king had made the Entente without telling him. Bertie, Wilhelm opined, had an “absolute passion for78 making a ‘little agreement’ with every country, everywhere.” At this, according to Wilhelm, Nicholas banged the table with his fist and said, “Well, I can only say, he shall not get one from me, and never in my life against Germany—my word of honour on it.” Wilhelm proposed that they make “a little agreement” of their own. “That’s quite splendid,” Nicholas said. “I entirely agree.” Wilhelm drew the treaty from his pocket. “Would you like to sign it?” he asked coyly. “Yes, I will!” Nicholas said. “You are Russia’s only friend in the world.” Their signatures were witnessed by Wilhelm’s latest foreign minister, Heinrich von Tschirrsky, and one of Nicholas’s men, Birulov, who was not permitted to see what he was signing. As he laid down his pen, Wilhelm told Bülow, “a ray of sunlight79 gleamed through the cabin window onto the table … it was as though his Grandfather William I and Tsar Nicholas I had clasped hands in Heaven, and were looking down with satisfaction upon their grandsons.”
The agreement stated that if one country was attacked by another European power, the other would come to its aid with all its forces within Europe. There was an extra clause that the Russian government would show the treaty to the French and that the French could join the agreement. France, Wilhelm wrote to Nicky three days later, “must remember she is wedded to you and that she is obliged to lie in bed with you, and eventually to give a hug or a kiss now and then to me, but not to sneak into the bedroom of the ever-intriguing touche-à-tout [all-groping]—on the Island”—i.e., Edward.
Björkö was a fantasy of autocratic effectiveness. The two men were drawn together by a sense of lost control, by personal frustration and failure, by a desire to feel effective. “The 24th of July 1905 is a cornerstone in European politics and turns over a new leaf in the history of the world,”80Wilhelm wrote grandly to Nicholas. He returned to Germany certain that he had won a great victory, restoring Russo-German relations, dealing a deathblow to the Franco-Russian alliance and delivering Germany “from the hideous pincers81 of Gallo-Russia.” Not that he was quite sure whether he wanted to administer another crushing blow to France or ally with her, for he was still fantasizing about forming an international union against England. In time, he mused, “even Japan may fell [sic] inclined to join it … This would cool down English self assertion and impertinence.” As for Nicholas, plagued by the endless evidence of his own ineffectuality, it’s not hard to see why the treaty appealed. It allowed him to feel he was acting independently of his ministers, countering bureaucracy with imperial decisiveness, doing something that might have some effect. Moreover, life as an autocrat was lonely. Wilhelm was one of the very few who understood. “You were like a dear brother to me,” Wilhelm told him afterwards. “I shall always respond to your feeling with the same warmth and with the same intensity as you and you can count on me as a firm friend.”82 There must, however, have been a part of Nicholas that knew it couldn’t work. In his diary, he made no mention of having signed the treaty, and back in St. Petersburg, when he showed it to Lamsdorff he seemed “very much worried83 and even embarrassed.”
Lamsdorff was horrified by Björkö; he regarded it as a crude attempt by Wilhelm to cut Russia off from France, just when France was most vulnerable. Like Sergei Witte, he was in favour of an agreement with Germany, but it was obvious that France—forced by German threats to participate in a conference on Morocco and with a German gun still at its head—would never sign. Nicholas made murmuring protestations that he’d signed the thing and therefore it must stand, but with the country in the throes of revolution he did not press the point.
When the kaiser proudly showed the treaty to Bülow, the chancellor threatened to resign. He said that Wilhelm had made emendations to the original draft of the treaty which rendered it unusable. The kaiser had limited Germany’s obligations to defending Russia just to Europe rather than Asia too. As Bülow had made better relations with Russia one of the cornerstones of his policy, his reaction was unexpected. It seems most likely he did it to punish Wilhelm for once again acting without him. He had become heartily sick of managing the kaiser, complaining to Tirpitz about his “boundless vanity,”84 his “abnormal lack of logic” and his “incessant boasting.” Moreover, Eulenburg was back in favour after several years in retirement, and Bülow was furious at the thought that his former patron might become a rival. Wilhelm was astonished by Bülow’s reaction and became hysterical. “To be treated in this way by the best and closest friend I have … has been such a terrible blow to me I have quite broken down!” He wrote to him, and begged Bülow not to leave him in the lurch. “Such a thing I could not survive … The morning after the arrival of your resignation would not find the Kaiser alive … Think of my poor wife and children.”85 Bülow relented and agreed the treaty could be ratified. But when the Russians said the treaty couldn’t be ratified, the German Foreign Office did not pursue the matter, and when Wilhelm insisted to Nicholas, almost plaintively, that the treaty must stand—“We joined hands86 and signed before God, who heard our vows!”—Nicholas replied that it could not come into force unless France signed it. Within a few months Nicholas’s answers to Wilhelm’s letters were coming later and later, and Wilhelm was freely insulting his cousin.
By October 1905 there was no question but that the Japanese War had been an unrivalled disaster for Russia. It had brought defeat, debt, humiliation and now all-out revolution. The trains stopped, the factories ceased production, riots broke out. Ugly pogroms took place in the Ukraine and White Russia. “In England, of course,”87 Nicholas wrote resentfully, “the press says that those disorders were organized by the police; they still go on repeating this worn-out fable.” The government was losing control. It was Sergei Witte, triumphantly returned from the Portsmouth peace conference having extracted extraordinarily good terms for Russia, who drew up the October manifesto. It promised civil liberties—freedom of religion, of speech, of assembly, of association—as well as an elected assembly, whose consent would be required for laws to come into force, and universal male suffrage, though all this was subject to the tsar’s right of veto. Nicky hesitated to sign it; he wanted his cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas, head of the army, to quell the rebellion by force, but he refused. “Either you sign it,88 or I shoot myself,” the grand duke allegedly said. “There were only two ways open,” the tsar wrote in justification to his mother.89
To find an energetic soldier and crush the rebellion by sheer force … that would mean rivers of blood and in the end we should be where we started … The other way out would be to give the people their civil rights, freedom of speech and press, also to have all laws confirmed by State Duma—that of course would be a constitution. Witte defends this very energetically.500
From all over Russia they cried for it, they begged for it, and around me many—very many—held the same views … There was no other way out than to cross oneself and give what everyone was asking for. My only consolation is that such is the will of God, and this grave decision will lead my dear Russia out of the intolerable chaos she has been in for nearly a year.501
For Nicholas the manifesto, which he signed on 30 October (17 October in the Julian calendar), signified absolute failure, and the abandonment of a 600-year-old sacred birthright.
* Only the Great Powers were regarded as important enough to deserve “ambassadors;” smaller countries made do with “ministers.”
† The situation was resolved only when the Americans and Germans began to complain that the Russian definition of contraband—which turned out to be just about anything that could be put on a boat—was too elastic and they wanted their ships back too.
* He probably meant serment, which is French for “oath.”
* Roosevelt, who though he’d never met him got the point about Wilhelm, told his friend the British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, “It is a wild67 nightmare to suppose that he can use me to the detriment of any other nation.”
* The Prussian representative chamber which still had a limited franchise and gave an equal number of seats to the Junker aristocracy as to the lower estates.