The problem with aggressive programmes of imperial expansion in distant places is that, when they go wrong, the consequences are felt much closer to home. Russia had already experienced the bitter results of an imperial misadventure; now it was Germany’s turn. In early 1906 the Great Powers met at the Spanish town of Algeciras for a conference to resolve the status of Morocco and France’s attempts to surreptitiously turn it into a French protectorate. The conference happened because Wilhelm’s visit to Tangier and Germany’s subsequent threats had blackmailed France into agreeing to it—not an auspicious genesis for such an event. And so it would play out: for Germany what had felt like a master stroke, exposing French imperial ambitions, defeating them and flexing its own military muscle all at the same time, would end in the biggest diplomatic reversal since unification. By the time the conference was in its second week, Germany had alienated almost all the other delegates by giving the impression that it was happy to hold Europe hostage with war threats, by seeming openly opportunistic, by being abrupt and inconsistent and by refusing everyone else’s proposals. “Germany’s conduct,”1 the chief American delegate wrote to President Roosevelt, was “paltry and unworthy of a great power.” The British, whom the Germans had hoped to split from France, had thrown themselves in with France from the start, convinced from the first that the whole thing was a ploy to destroy the Entente Cordiale.
The German delegation’s line—or lack of it—at Algeciras was an example of the muddle that seemed to reign at the top of the German government. Is wasn’t clear what they wanted: a war? To humiliate France? Free trade? Or a role in running the Moroccan government? The Foreign Office was in confusion. The foreign minister, Oswald von Richthofen, had died of overwork the previous year. His replacement, Tschirrsky, a favourite of Wilhelm’s, was out of his depth and Bülow hated him. Holstein was tired, frustrated and sick of Wilhelm and Bülow’s vanity—the chancellor appeared to base his day-to-day instructions on how the European press covered him personally. No one was pleased to see Eulenburg back and apparently advising Wilhelm again. The only consensus was that mediatory behaviour would be a sign of weakness.2 Germany’s position pushed the new British Liberal government, which had won a landslide at elections in January, straight into the arms of France. In fact, the new foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, immediately summoned Metternich, the German ambassador, and told him that should—perish the thought—Germany go to war with France, Britain would find it very hard to stand by and do nothing. German aggression delivered the Italians, Germany’s Triple Alliance allies, to the other side. It eventually forced the Russians into the French camp too. The Russians had been desperate not to have to take sides at Algeciras, as Russia was still fighting its revolution and needed to be on good terms with everyone. But it also needed a loan, which the French cleverly refused to finalize until the conference was over. When, in February 1906, the Russians asked the Germans to consider giving way a little so the proceedings might come to an end, Bülow reacted furiously, and told the Russian ambassador that, having forced France to the table, there could be no compromise. It was “a question of honour3 for us and especially for the Kaiser;” the Russians ought to put pressure on the French instead. Yet he might have bought the support Germany so needed with a little more tact and an offer of a German loan. When the conference dribbled into April, Sergei Witte and Vladimir Lamsdorff decided they had to back France simply to bring it to an end. Isolated save for Austria and Morocco, Germany finally had to agree to a face-saving solution which gave the French a protectorate in all but name, but guaranteed free trade and German investments.
Algeciras was an absolute disaster for the Germans: it was a public humiliation and it immeasurably tightened the Entente. Tschirrsky moaned that the whole of Europe had turned against them. The country was furious and disappointed. The press blamed Bülow and Wilhelm. Significant parts of the German General Staff felt that an opportunity to have a war with France and “settle” it once and for all, or at least to not lose face—had been squandered, because Wilhelm and Bülow had shrunk 4from the logical consequences of their actions. Eulenburg told Wilhelm he should sack Bülow for mishandling the affair, and suggested Bülow had done so to force Wilhelm into line. Rather conveniently, Bülow collapsed dramatically at the Reichstag in the middle of a speech claiming that Germany was as satisfied with the outcome as France—his words were greeted by jeers. He remained out of politics until October, though not before he’d made Holstein—who by the end of the conference had been demanding they send troops into France—the official scapegoat and forced him to resign. Holstein, unaware of the author of his demise, blamed Eulenburg.
Exhibiting his usual perspective, Wilhelm said the whole of Europe had betrayed him—especially the monarchs, despite “all his attempts to curry favour with them,” and it was “unpardonable” that Russia had ranged itself “recklessly on the side of the powers hostile to Germany.” But most of all he was convinced that the outcome demonstrated his uncle’s “machinations” against him.
During the conference Edward had written to Wilhelm to congratulate him on his forty-second birthday. “We are—my5 dear William—such old friends and near relations that I feel sure that the affectionate feelings which have always existed may invariably continue, be assured that this country has never had any aggressive feelings toward yours, and that the idle gossip and silly tittle tattle on the subject emanates from mischief-makers and ought never to be listened to.” Wilhelm replied, “The whole letter6 breathed such an atmosphere of kindness and warm, sympathetic friendship that it constitutes the most cherished gift among my presents … it is my most earnest endeavour and wish to remain in peace with all Countries, especially my neighbours!” Both letters, paradigms of insincerity, demonstrated only how much the two men disliked each other and how little they had to say to each other.
When Alfonso XIII, King of Spain, announced he was marrying a British princess in March, Wilhelm decided that Edward had manipulated the Spanish into backing the French at the conference (he himself had been trying to persuade Alfonso to marry a German princess for similar reasons). “All the wretched7 degenerate Latin peoples have become instruments in England’s hands in order to combat German trade in the Mediterranean.” When Edward went to Rome on his annual Mediterranean cruise, Wilhelm, in a spiralling state of near hysteria, told his suite that his uncle was “carrying on against8 him … The whole press of the world, including that of America, had already been mobilized against him by English money, and it was extraordinary how much personal animosity his uncle’s attitude revealed.” He told them, “He is a Satan; you can hardly believe what a Satan he is.” There was one genuine reason, however, to feel anxious about British plans: in February they had launched the Dreadnought, a new generation of warship—vast, armoured and carrying big guns—which immediately threatened to make obsolete everything that had come before.
Even Wilhelm’s own staff considered Algeciras a victory for Edward—even though he’d played no role in it at all. The king had “a clear, practical9 knowledge of men and facts,” the comptroller of Wilhelm’s household, Robert zu Zedlitz-Trützschler, wrote in his diary. “The Emperor on the other hand, has remained a complete stranger to the realities of life, and the value of the purity and virtue of his private life is really discounted by his hypocrisy and pharisaical unctuousness.”
After Algeciras, the German government seemed to be pulled in two directions: on the one hand, there were those who accepted that sabre-rattling hadn’t worked, and that something needed to be done to defuse the tensions the conference had produced; on the other, there was a feeling that Germany hadn’t played hard enough, that the government had pusillanimously shied away from the logical consequence of its policy—war with France. Tschirrsky, Eulenburg and Metternich, the eminently sensible, plain-speaking ambassador in London, were in the first camp; many of the German officer class were in the second. After fifteen years under the command of General Alfred von Schlieffen, the senior army staff constituted a small Junker elite obsessed with its own privileges and superiority, fearing and fending off dilution by the middle classes, utterly opposed to socialism, which it regarded as degenerate, saturated in the ideas of the nationalist historian Treitschke—who saw Europe as a Hobbesian battlefield where might was everything and the Slav the enemy—and actively welcoming war as a force that would cleanse Germany inside and out. Wilhelm had just replaced the retiring Schlieffen—the appointment was entirely in his gift—with Helmuth von Moltke, who was the nephew of the elder Moltke who had delivered the Prussian victories of the 1860s. Within the army Moltke was regarded as a controversial choice: not quite tough enough, and a little too arty—he played the cello, liked to paint and read Goethe. In other respects he was absolutely a product of the solipsistic world of the German General Staff; different only in that he didn’t welcome the European war that he thought was inevitable. He had told Wilhelm it would be apocalyptically awful, and even the victor would emerge exhausted. But he considered that the sooner it came the better, and that Germany would probably have to attack first. The kaiser had told him that he absolutely agreed. It’s hard not to feel that he found Moltke’s gloomy fatalism rather bracing; it made him feel serious and fatalistic too.
But though Wilhelm indulged in violent rhetoric, like most of the country including the government and press, he was in reality caught in a muddle between the would-be negotiators and the warmongers: furiously disappointed, teetering between a desire for better relations with the rest of Europe and a lurking sense that if they’d risked a little more they’d have got what they wanted. “In his heart of10 hearts it is true the Emperor does not want to go to war,” Zedlitz-Trützschler wrote, almost regretfully, “because he knows perfectly well how stupendous the crisis would be, but he always wants to achieve great objects with the smallest trouble, and win laurels without danger … he never learns; he deceives himself and is deceived by others.”
Through the summer of 1906 the language of moderation gradually returned to foreign relations. The new British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, assured Metternich that he didn’t want conflict with Germany, and an attempt was made to repair Edward and Wilhelm’s relationship, which was publicly acknowledged to have become so bad that a cartoon appeared in a German magazine, Lustige Blätter, in August 1906, showing Edward poring over a map of Europe, trying to find a route that would get him to Marienbad without seeing Wilhelm, and hitting on Berlin. “I’m sure not to find him there.” It was arranged that they would meet briefly in mid-August, at the German spa town of Homburg, when Edward was en route to Marienbad.
Neither looked forward to the event. “Meetings with Edward have no lasting value, because he is envious,”11 Wilhelm scribbled. Edward grumbled that Wilhelm would inevitably spring some awful surprise on him. The kaiser spent most of the occasion teasing Lascelles and laughing about the latest Hague peace conference. He said he had “not the slightest intention of diminishing the armaments of Germany in any way or sort, and that he was quite convinced that if he did it would mean war with some European power.” After lunch he drove Edward off to show him his latest passion, a Roman fort he’d “excavated” and rebuilt at Saalberg. Possibly because Edward could now not bring himself to raise “difficult subjects” like politics with Wilhelm, the visit was said to have gone well. But Fritz Ponsonby felt “There was thunder in the air.”12 (The following summer of 1907 the kaiser laid on 50,000 soldiers and a three-hour march-past, which left Edward grumpily longing for his lunch. Once again, the two men studiously avoided all references to political questions.) A brief visit could not dislodge a growing conviction in Germany that Edward was the sharp end of British foreign policy, committed to encircling Germany—a revival of the old fear of being vulnerably in the middle of the Central European plain. Now Edward’s every visit to the continent sparked reports in the German press that he was negotiating a new secret deal. When he met the Italian king in Rome in the spring of 1907, the Neue Freie Presse wrote:
Who can fail13 to receive the impression that a diplomatic duel is being fought out between England and Germany under the eyes of the world? The King of England, however, is in serious earnest over the duel, and is no longer afraid of appearing to throw the whole influence of his personality into the scales whenever it is a question of thwarting the aims of German policy … already people are anxiously asking themselves everywhere: What is the meaning of this continual political labour, carried on with open recklessness, whose object is to put a close ring round Germany?
Another German paper called Edward a “twentieth-century Napoleon,” using diplomacy rather than arms to subjugate Germany. When he went on to see Franz Joseph after the German visit of 1907, the Berlin court was full of rumours that he was now trying to detach Austria from Germany.
Most of the time Edward wasn’t politicking at all, but there were occasions when he encouraged the confusion. Immediately after meeting Wilhelm in 1907, he was seen in Marienbad with the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, and then the Russian foreign minister. The king, moreover, had publicly associated himself with outspokenly anti-German British public figures such as Admiral Jackie Fisher, who had a bad habit of calling for pre-emptive strikes on the German navy; Sir Charles Hardinge; and Lord Esher, who served on the Committee of Imperial Defence, the institution charged with defining military strategy. After Algeciras, Esher had written in his diary, “L’Allemagne, c’est l’Ennemie14, and there is no doubt on that subject. They mean to have a powerful fleet and commercially to beat us out of the field before ten years are over our heads.” These men didn’t view war with the enthusiasm of some of the German General Staff, but they did see Germany as a threat to be energetically countered.
Sir Edward Grey did nothing to counter the impression of Edward’s influence or that Britain was increasingly suspicious of Germany. A shy, ascetic, hard-working forty-four-year-old aristocrat from Northumberland whose main passions were bird-watching and fishing, he hated foreign travel even more than Lansdowne had and spoke no foreign languages. He was happy for the king to do the visiting while he laboured over the mountainous piles of Foreign Office paperwork, because ultimately he didn’t think the visits mattered. “Germany,” he wrote after Algeciras, “is our worst enemy and our greatest danger … The majority [of Germans] dislike us so intensely that the friendship of their Emperor or the Court cannot really be useful to us.” In some respects he was right—Edward didn’t make policy and German antipathy towards Britain had spread well beyond the court—but the king’s trips did help to focus and concentrate German anxiety about Britain. Grey, meanwhile, had regarded Algeciras as a deliberate attempt by the Germans to sabotage the Entente, and distrusted Germany. As a young minister in the early 1890s, he had experienced at first hand the German Foreign Office’s attempts to extract advantage by threat. His staff agreed with him. In 1907 the Foreign Office expert on Germany, Eyre Crowe, wrote a report on Germany concluding that it was “consciously aiming at the establishment of a German hegemony at first in Europe, and eventually in the World.”15 During Algeciras Grey had taken the momentous decision of agreeing to secret talks between the French and British military about how the British army might help if France was attacked by Germany. Only the Liberal prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, one other minister and the king were informed. Grey made it a condition that Britain would not automatically intervene if Germany attacked France, because he thought this might encourage the French to instigate conflict themselves. Edward disliked the secrecy; Campbell-Bannerman worried that simply having the conversations would create a sense of obligation to France—as indeed it would prove. It was a question Grey would wrestle with for the rest of his life. “With more experience,”16 he admitted years later, “I might have shared that apprehension.”
Well into 1906 the Russian government was still fighting to quell the revolution. It did so, the British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice told King Edward, by employing “the most violent17 and unscrupulous methods,” including encouraging extreme-right groups to attack leftist revolutionaries, and exploiting anti-Semitism as a way of rallying “patriotic Russians”—there were 690 pogroms18 in the two weeks after the October manifesto was announced. The worst, in Odessa, was encouraged by pamphlets paid for by the government and printed by the local police. Nicholas, rationalizing the pogroms with a mixture of wilful blindness and naïveté, told his mother they were the result of “a whole mass19 of loyal people suddenly making their presence felt … nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews, the people’s whole anger turned against them. That’s how the pogroms happened. It’s amazing how they took place simultaneously in all the towns of Russia and Siberia.”
As the government regained control, Nicholas expected Russia to return to how it had been before. He utterly misunderstood what had happened. The revolution had let loose a hunger for democracy and representation that couldn’t be denied. But there was no way for the tsar to see the political yearning and excitement of his newly enfranchised subjects. He had so thoroughly cocooned himself at Tsarskoe Selo that he now had even less idea of what was going on than he had had before the revolution. The household and entourage—the most conservative enclave in the land—were entirely unable to represent to him the extraordinarily widespread hostility to the regime which had built up across every class and region. And his isolation only intensified his tendency to reject anyone who delivered news he didn’t want to hear, or tried to pressure him to do things he didn’t want to do. He told his mother that he and Alix were “virtual prisoners”20 there, but as Cecil Spring-Rice, chargé d’affaires at the British embassy, and one of the most perceptive of British observers, wrote in April 1906, “The Emperor is21 perfectly happy at Tsarskoe, where he leads the life which suits him best, playing with his children and only seeing the people he wishes to see.” As the new British ambassador noted in early 1907, “Personal contact with22 the Court is exceedingly rare, far more infrequent probably than in any other country.” After a year and a half in the job, he had met the tsar only three times. While the newly liberated Russian press was full of stories of naval mutinies, running battles between police and mobs, mass executions and huge demonstrations, the tsar’s diary dwelt on the weather, his walks, troop inspections and dinner with the family.
In the weeks after the October manifesto, when the risings failed to stop, the lesson Nicholas drew was that it had made no difference; he suspected the autocracy had never really been under threat and he should never have signed it away. He began to resent Sergei Witte for having forced the constitution upon him. The old jealousy of his own powers and prerogatives reasserted itself. It wasn’t hard to criticize Witte: he was difficult, abrupt, made enemies easily and was by no means always successful. “I have never seen such23 a chameleon of a man,” Nicholas wrote in January 1906. “That naturally, is the reason why no one believes in him any more. He is absolutely discredited with everybody, except perhaps the Jews abroad.” When Witte returned to Russia in triumph after Algeciras in April 1906, having negotiated a vast French loan—the largest in Russian history—to keep the government afloat, Nicholas sacked him. Lamsdorff resigned days later, exhausted and dreading the new constitution. He would die the following year.
Alix missed little about the world outside too. She constructed the walls of the family’s cocoon, spending her days in her mauve parlour, its walls crammed with icons and family photographs, surrounded by her children and those few people whom she regarded as allies. Alexis’s birth had aged her, and her health seemed ever more fragile. She was permanently exhausted, complained of shortness of breath, and her lips went blue with alarming speed, but no one could diagnose what was wrong. The imperial family’s doctor, Botkin, seems to have regarded the symptoms as psychosomatic—he called them “progressive hysteria.”24 The empress’s participation in public life declined to almost nothing, and when she did appear, it was always obvious that she was in extreme discomfort, both physical and mental. By 1906 the formal connections with St. Petersburg and society had dwindled and dwindled. The winter season with its imperial balls and levees had been cancelled in 1904 because of the war, and the royal couple saw no reason to reinstate it. Nicholas’s sister Olga worried about the ill feeling their withdrawal was producing in the capital. But Nicky and Alix seemed equally determined to push the family away too. Minny complained that Alix made less and less effort to see her, and Nicholas barely listened to her anymore. Nicholas’s sister Xenia, who considered herself a loyal supporter of Alix, was extraordinarily upset when the empress implied that she and Sandro had fled the country during the revolution—they’d been in France. “Only those who were there, really know what it was,” the empress said pointedly. “I was silent and my head started to ache,”25 Xenia wrote. When Misha, Nicholas’s brother, fell in love with a commoner, the tsar had the girl arrested as she attempted to leave the country, so as to prevent them getting married. And he exiled two of his first cousins for making what he regarded as unsuitable marriages.
The family was alienated by Alix’s predilection for taking up with faith healers and self-proclaimed miracle workers. St. Petersburg society, like many of Europe’s fashionable centres, was in the grip of a fad for charismatics, mysticism and the occult. Increasingly and passionately immersed in the mysticism of the Russian Church, Alix was all too susceptible. In 1900, desperate for a son, she had been introduced to a self-proclaimed faith healer called M. Philippe, who promised her an heir. For a while, much to Minny’s disapproval, he had been constantly in attendance, until Alix failed to produce a son in 1902, and then he had fallen from grace. “It is more26 Alicky who is under this horrid man’s influence than Nicky,” May had reported to George. “Aunt Minny is in despair.” More worryingly he was replaced in 1905 with Grigori Rasputin.
Rasputin was a self-styled “starets” (a holy man and faith healer), a peasant from Siberia, who had made a splash in St. Petersburg. Famous for his allegedly hypnotic pale blue eyes, he claimed to be a reformed sinner—the name “Rasputin” means “debauched”—who had been touched by God and could effect miracles. The key to Rasputin’s intimate relationship with the imperial family was that he seemed to alleviate Alexis’s haemophilia. It is likely that through some kind of light hypnosis he calmed and reassured the tsarevitch. Whatever he did, on several occasions his proximity to Alexis seemed to bring about miraculous recoveries—the agonizing swellings subsided, the internal bleeding stopped. He further won the imperial couple’s trust by presenting himself as their idea of a simple, effusive, pious, salt-of-the-earth peasant. Nicholas said that Rasputin made him feel at peace. Alix called him “Our Friend” and decided he had been sent by God to help them. Both, however, refused to explain to anyone outside a very small circle why Rasputin was important to them—doing so would have revealed the truth about Alexis’s haemophilia.
Away from the imperial family Rasputin was a different person: manipulative, coarse, bullying, surrounded by a motley assortment of clients and hangers-on. Descriptions of encounters with him conjure up an aggressively insinuating man, snowing his victims under with a barrage of over-intimate questions. His standing with the imperial couple meant that everyone felt obliged to listen. But for the moment his reputation was limited to the royal family and its retainers.
When Nicholas and his court first encountered the members of Russia’s first elected assembly, the Duma, on 27 April by the Russian calendar, in the St. George Room at the Winter Palace, they saw it as a terrible defeat, an opposition that must be countered. To Nicholas its members represented his own abject failure to defend 300 years of the sacred tradition. The head of the imperial household, Count Fredericks, said, “They gave one27 the impression of a gang of criminals who are only waiting for the signal to throw themselves upon the Ministers and cut their throats. What wicked faces! I will never again set foot among those people.” Xenia wrote of their “repulsive faces28 and insolent expressions.” In truth, though there were some angry radicals, plenty of the new elected members were part of the traditional establishment with no desire to bring down the monarchy. Vladimir Nabokov’s father, for example, was a landowner whose family had been in service to the tsars for centuries.* He had come to believe the government had cynically abdicated its responsibilities. What shocked the royal contingent most was the Duma’s lack of forelock-tugging deference. “They looked at us,”30 Nicholas’s mother said, “as upon their enemies, and I could not make myself stop looking at certain faces, so much did they seem to reflect an incomprehensible hatred for all of us.” Several months later Xenia’s husband, Sandro, had the same uncomprehending reaction when he was briefly taken hostage by “his own” sailors during a mutiny. He’d thought they loved him. “I felt so31 proud of being considered their friend and confidant. A hostage! I feared I was going to collapse!”
This puncturing of expectations of deference, loyalty and love from the lower classes was by no means limited to Russia. Democracy had taken a big step all over Europe, and aristocratic elites were reluctantly realizing both the loss of their authority and that they had not been regarded with unqualified admiration by the lower orders. There was the same mystified surprise (not to say irritating naïveté) in the reaction of George Wyndham, chief secretary for Ireland in the British Conservative government of 1902–6 and member of the intellectual aristocratic and political coterie called “the Souls,” when he lost his seat in the Conservative wipe-out in the election of January 1906. He’d thought he’d won before “because the working32 men love me, simply because we liked each other and love the traditions of the past and the glory of the future.”
In Britain the 1906 general election delivered a death blow to such assumptions. Wyndham’s fellow Soul Arthur Balfour described the election, somewhat melodramatically though not without truth, as part of the same convulsion that had brought about “the massacres in33 St. Petersburg, riots in Vienna and socialist processions in Berlin.” After twelve years in government the Conservatives were an exhausted force. It was surprising perhaps that a party so predicated on privilege had lasted so long, though as governments have learned since, you can get voters to vote against their own economic interests if you can find something sufficiently powerful to counter them with—religion, a powerful hate, a collective (even if unrealistic) aspiration. The Tories had remained in power with a little judicious aristocratic paternalism, because the country had become richer and because they had kept it excited about the empire. Now, however, they had alienated the electorate with a bad war, a series of colonial scandals and anti-labour laws, and had little to offer but the unthinking support of privilege for its own sake. The Liberals won a landslide victory and the aristocratic oligarchy lost control of the British government.
The new Liberal government still had its aristocrats—Sir Edward Grey, Winston Churchill and the new prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who took his holidays in Marienbad with the king—but after twelve years in the wilderness it was a different animal from the aristocratic party of the early 1890s. Its new MPs came predominantly from the professional middle class, and its acknowledged rising stars were the solidly middle-class Herbert Asquith and the dazzlingly charismatic, witty, brilliant and occasionally unscrupulous David Lloyd George, who had grown up in poverty in Wales. Moreover, it had radical plans to transform the lives of working people with health insurance and pensions. With it came twenty-nine new MPs from the Independent Labour Party. “The old idea34 that the House of Commons was an assemblage of gentlemen has quite passed away,” Lord Esher wrote mournfully. When Asquith became prime minister in 1908, he took it as given that all ministers of senior government departments should sit in the Commons, not the Lords, because the cabinet was responsible to the electorate, not the aristocracy.* Under the previous administration, many of the cabinet had never stood for election at all.
The Conservative political aristocracy, like its German and Russian counterparts, was not ready to admit its day was past. “The great Unionist35 party,”† Arthur Balfour announced after the defeat, “should still control whether in power or opposition the destinies of this Great Empire.” In the House of Lords, where they had a majority, the Conservatives deliberately began blocking Liberal legislation. It wasn’t long before Lloyd George, who with Herbert Asquith was shaping the new plans for health insurance and pensions which would lay the foundations of the Welfare State, was asking “whether the country was36 to be governed by the King and His Peers or by the King and his people.” An unabashed class warrior, Lloyd George didn’t mince his words: “All down history37 nine tenths of mankind have been grinding corn for the remaining tenth and have been paid with husks and bidden to thank god they had the husks.” Edward, who in his younger days liked to claim that the French statesman Léon Gambetta had almost converted him to republicanism, hated Lloyd George’s rhetoric, which he considered dangerously divisive. Knollys, the king’s private secretary, was soon complaining about Lloyd George’s breaches of “good taste and propriety,”38 and demanding that he keep the monarch’s name out of his “violent tirades.”
Outwardly, Edward’s relationship with the new government was in some respects better than the one he had had with the Conservatives. There were areas of agreement—reforms of the army and the navy, the aims of foreign policy—and Knollys, a long-time Liberal supporter, had good contacts in the party. But Edward deplored their frequent crimes against fashion, their newfangled ideas about woman suffrage, the new culture of outspokenness and their plebeian habits. Winston Churchill, Edward confided quietly to his son, was “almost more39 of a cad in office than he was in opposition.” Herbert Asquith was “deplorably common40 not to say vulgar!” George, who had a growing reputation for tactlessness, told Churchill that Asquith was “not quite41 a gentleman”—a comment Churchill thoughtfully passed on. Asquith regarded the king’s demands to be consulted over cabinet decisions with barely suppressed condescension. “These people42 have no right to interfere in any way with our deliberations,” he said—though he claimed to consider the king shrewd.
From Burma, where he was shooting tigers, George, a traditional Tory, wrote after the 1906 election, “I see a great number of Labour members have been returned, which is rather a dangerous sign, but I hope they are not all Socialists.” He soon conceived a genuine loathing for Lloyd George, which he freely expressed. After witnessing one of the prince’s tirades against the Welshman, the writer Edmund Gosse described him as “an overgrown43 schoolboy, loud and stupid, losing no opportunity of abusing the government.” On becoming king, George told Lloyd George’s own permanent secretary that he couldn’t imagine “how you can44 go on serving that damned fellow Lloyd George.”
The difference between Britain and Russia was that political institutions obliged George to meet Lloyd George and be courteous. In Russia, Nicholas, now equipped with a large French loan, could refuse to work with the Duma, and veto its decisions. He dismissed its requests for amnesties and for land reallocation, ignored its reform programme and dissolved it, in July 1906. He imprisoned those members who protested and changed the suffrage qualifications, so subsequent Dumas would be more conservative and deferential. But, however conservative they became, the Dumas would not stop insisting they had a stake in governing the country. Nicholas went on resenting them and dissolving them. “One must let45 them do something manifestly stupid or mean,” he told his mother, “and then—slap! and they are gone!”
For Russia, the disastrous consequences of its attempt to prove its manifest destiny in the East were not just a barely contained revolution, but also the humiliating necessity of going cap-in-hand to Britain, and agreeing to an Anglo-Russian Convention, a move which reversed fifty years of foreign policy and imperial dreams. The British government had been proposing an Entente since the end of the Japanese War in 1905. The Russians had mimed agreement, but the pill was almost too bitter to swallow. There was still tremendous anger over Britain’s role in the war. The Russian army in particular hated the idea of any reconciliation with Britain or any curtailment of territorial expansion in Asia. The Russian court still tended instinctively to Germany. The agreement finally came about because the Russians needed it, the French—who held their purse-strings—wanted it, and the new Russian foreign minister, Count Alexander Izvolsky, the diplomat who had caught Edward’s eye in Copenhagen, and who replaced Lamsdorff in 1906, pushed for it. He argued that Russia was so vulnerable that all reasons for external conflict must be eliminated. There would be no more Asian adventures for the foreseeable future, so it was vital that Russia’s influence and position in Asia be secured against future incursions, including British ones.
Even so, the secret negotiations were tortuous, and several times the sheer weight of ideological difference seemed on the point of derailing the talks. In July 1906 a delegation of Duma members travelled to London for the interparliamentary conference, and were welcomed with a special message from King Edward. On the eve of the conference, however, the news came that Nicholas had dissolved the Duma. The prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, was due to make the opening speech at the conference. He said, not unreasonably, that he couldn’t address a conference on parliamentary democracy and ignore the tsar’s action. At the end of his speech he said, “La Douma est morte! Vive la Douma!”46 The Duma is dead! Long live the Duma! The words drew a chorus of conference cheers and a formal complaint from the Russian ambassador, Count Benckendorff. Grey refused to apologize and the negotiations stalled. Then in September 1906 some backbench Liberals decided to visit Russia in support of the dissolved Duma. Nicholas was deeply offended. “A grotesque deputation47 is coming from England … Uncle Bertie informed us that they were very sorry, but were unable to take action to stop their coming. Their famous ‘liberty’ of course! How angry they would be if a deputation went from us to the Irish to wish them success in their struggle against their government!” Grey managed to dissuade the group from going. Izvolsky sent his thanks and said it had saved much embarrassment as the visitors would certainly have been prevented from48 travelling. Then, only two months before the Convention was signed, the British ambassador was summoned to London amid rumours that the Russians were calling the whole thing to a halt.
The Anglo-Russian Convention was finally signed in August 1907 and published in September, to less than ecstatic acclaim. From retirement, Sergei Witte sourly called it “a triumph of49 British diplomacy.” Grey, meanwhile, found himself forced into the role of apologist for the Russian government, having to play down unpalatable news. “Russian despotism50 was repugnant to British ideals,” he wrote, “and something was constantly happening in Russia that alienated British sympathy or stirred indignation.” The Convention established frontiers and spheres of influence in Afghanistan, Tibet and China, and Persia was split into three: the Russians taking the northern third, the British the southern third, and the shah and the Majlis, the democratic assembly, squeezed in the middle. The British informally conceded that they no longer felt obliged to block Russian influence in the Balkans and agreed to consider seriously the possibility of supporting the opening of the Bosphorus to Russian ships. There were still plenty of people in Russia who enormously resented the thought that any restraints should be placed on Russian expansion in Asia. In England, there was great anger from the Liberal backbenches and the Labour Party that Britain should have made a treaty with a regime such as Russia’s. Between the negotiators there was a carefully disguised mismatch of intentions: the Russians believed the Convention was mainly about securing its Asian frontiers, whereas Grey and the British Foreign Office saw it in terms of European politics. “It will complete51 and strengthen the Entente with France,” Grey wrote, “and add very much to the comfort and strength of our position.” This was not at all how the Russians wanted to see it. They had no desire to alienate anyone, especially the Germans. But when Izvolsky started negotiating a deal with the Germans in the autumn of 1907 over control of the Baltic and Sir Edward Grey found out, he was furious; Izvolsky was given a stark lesson in just how difficult it would be to steer a balanced course in an increasingly polarized Europe.
Predictably, the Germans attributed the Convention to Edward’s politicking. A German acquaintance of the English-born aristocrat Daisy, Princess of Pless, told her that he’d asked his Russian acquaintances if they were now praying to little Edward icons.52 One of Wilhelm’s longest-serving ministers wrote on the day of its publication that the Convention was clearly the product of both countries’ fear of “the German army, the German navy, our business sense and the potential of the German people as a whole.”53 Next to this the kaiser scribbled that Izvolsky had “always been an Anglomaniac and is now more so than ever,” and that both countries were clearly “against our nation as a whole.” In Britain, some people, such as the journalist W. T. Stead and David Lloyd George, were beginning to wonder whether the king and the “Hardinge gang,”54 far from securing peace in Europe, were actually damaging relations with Germany.
In fact, Edward’s role in the Convention was very limited. He and George continued to write occasional letters to Nicholas. (“What a long time55 it is since we met,” George wrote to his cousin at the end of 1907. “You are often in my thoughts, dear Nicky—I am sure you know that I never change and always remain the same in my old friends. I trust that your Duma will work better than the last two and that the country will gradually quieten down and give you less trouble and anxiety than it has during these last few years!”) The king charmed Nicholas’s sisters and Sandro, whom he met in Biarritz in the spring of 1907, which may have helped warm Nicholas up to the idea—though the tsar was no longer as close to them as he’d previously been. Bertie’s personality, Sandro—hitherto a confirmed Anglophobe—now claimed, “made everything look different.” “None could surpass him in clearness of thought or in quality of statesmanship. I am not surprised that Kaiser Wilhelm hated him. It could not have been otherwise because with all his insane conceit the jumping Billy must have felt a miserable dwarf next to that natural-born ruler of overwhelming greatness.”56 Arguably Minny worked as hard as Edward to make the family links bear fruit. She came to England for the first time in thirty-four years in February 1907, and the two sisters, as they had in 1873, went out in public and the papers ran excited stories about the queen’s closeness to the Russian dowager empress. “Everything is so57 tastefully and artistically arranged,” Minny wrote breathlessly from London, “… it makes one’s mouth water to see all the magnificence! … Everyone is so very kind and friendly to me … I do wish you too could come over here a little to breathe the air and live for a while in different surroundings. How good for you that would be!”
How to calm the inevitable accusations from Germany that the Convention was aimed at them? For lack of any other ideas, the British government went for the tried, trusted and utterly unsatisfactory method of a state visit. Hardinge pressed Edward to invite Wilhelm for November just after the Convention was published. Enthusiasm was muted on all sides. The Foreign Office had suggested the visit as much to counter criticisms from the left wing of the Liberal and Labour parties, as anything else.
Nor, for once, was Wilhelm keen to come. He had been engulfed in a desperately embarrassing sex scandal, the ramifications of which showed no signs of abating. In April Die Zukunft, a newspaper highly critical of the kaiser’s “personal rule” and his anti-democratic habit of listening to favourites and unofficial advisers such as Eulenburg, had launched a campaign against Eulenburg and his circle—several of whom had been aides in Wilhelm’s entourage—and accused Eulenburg of being the real power behind Wilhelm’s rule, exercising his influence through patronage, “little threads that are strangling the Reich.” More shockingly it directly accused Eulenburg and his circle of homosexuality, “moral degeneracy,” and even of passing secrets to the French. The kaiser was not mentioned, but his name inevitably hovered over the scandal, though the revelations seem to have come as a genuine shock to him. “Little Willy,” the crown prince, described in his memoirs having to tell his father about the accusations against Eulenburg—he never forgot the “despairing, horrified”58 look on his face. Wilhelm had wilfully ignored Eulenburg’s homosexuality for twenty years; it was never referred to in his presence though it had been a more or less open secret in diplomatic circles. Denial allowed him to exhibit his own feelings for Eulenburg without embarrassment. In his memoirs (written seven years afterwards), Sergei Witte rather wickedly recalled meeting Wilhelm and Eulenburg on his way back to Russia from negotiating a French loan in 1906. “He [Wilhelm] sat59 on the arm of the Prince’s chair, his right hand on Eulenburg’s shoulder, almost as if he was putting his arm round him.” Very quickly, homosexuality became the story rather than Eulenburg’s influence, which had peaked in the late 1890s. More than anywhere else in Europe, homosexuality was taboo in Germany, where—perhaps because of the obsessive admiration for military virtues—there was an intense emphasis on masculinity and masculine behaviour within the establishment. One historian has written: “The repression of60 the feminine was pushed to an extreme unknown anywhere else in Europe.”* Exposure was unthinkable: when Wilhelm’s friend Fritz Krupp, heir to the armaments fortune, was accused of homosexuality in 1902, he committed suicide; Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother Ludwig Victor (known, improbably, as “Luzi-Wuzi”) was sent into exile after having an affair with a male masseur. Eulenburg’s own brother had been accused of homosexuality in 1898. Wilhelm had forbidden his friend ever to see him again—an order which began the process of Eulenburg’s disillusionment with the kaiser. After Wilhelm learned about Eulenburg, he cast him out instantly, depriving himself of one of the few people who genuinely cared about him and who had managed occasionally to restrain him.
Wilhelm made it all the worse by forcing the accused men to sue for libel—for the “honour” of the government. Then, subsequently—heavily pressed by his military entourage who had long hated Eulenburg because his influence over the kaiser rivalled their own—he allowed his friend to be pursued through the courts for perjury. The cases went on and on. Perhaps the ugliest aspect of the whole affair—and a natural corollary of the way that Wilhelm had allowed his government to become a place dominated by intrigue and competition for favour—was the fact that the information about Eulenburg had come from the government itself: from Wilhelm’s entourage, from Holstein, who blamed Eulenburg for his dismissal, and from Bülow, who had begun to fear the re-emergence of Eulenburg as a rival.
Naturally such juicy pickings ended up in every paper in Europe. The pervasiveness of the story can be seen in the way that the German word Homosexualität became the popular noun for same-sex sex in Europe, taking over from Proust’s preferred “inversion,” the old British favourite “sodomy,” and even the delightful German synonym warm—as in, “he’s quite warm.” Only a week before the kaiser was due in England, The Times ran an article about Eulenburg and the “disgusting orgies”61 he was supposed to have taken part in, together with another attacking Bülow for associating with extreme Anglophobic German nationalists.
Embarrassed and concerned that his reception in Britain might for the first time actually be hostile, Wilhelm tried to cancel. “Am suffering62 since a week from Bronchitis and acute cough, effect of a very virulent attack of influenza, which have quite upset my constitution,” he informed Edward. As Lascelles had just seen the kaiser galloping through the Tiergarten “in very good63 spirits,” Edward was not inclined to let him off. “Your telegram64 has greatly upset me—as your not coming to England would be a terrible disappointment to us all—my family—and the British nation. Beg of you to reconsider your decision.”
There was no booing. The English crowds loved a show, and they still harboured a soft spot for the showy kaiser, who smiled with such pleasure when in public. George, who met Willy and Dona* in his Prussian field marshal’s uniform at Victoria Station, wrote, “There were great66 crowds in the street and they got a splendid reception.” At Windsor, the town corporation put on a medieval pageant for Wilhelm, who told the gathered crowd that they had made him feel as if he were “coming home67 again.” Edward played the solicitous host, avoided politics, but observed in what “good health” Their Majesties were suddenly looking. Members of the new Liberal government who hadn’t met the kaiser before were impressed. “Even those68 who were the most sceptical about any good coming of it now admit that the visit has been in every way advantageous,” wrote John Morley, one of the party’s most respected figures. Sir Richard Haldane, who was both war minister and a genuine Germanophile, was charmed when Kaiser Wilhelm invited him to join a late-night discussion on Britain’s long-standing opposition to the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway continuing through Persia. “Be a member69 of my Cabinet for tonight,” the kaiser said. Haldane believed that by the end of the evening they had come up with the germ of a solution. Not everyone was impressed. Lord Esher wrote, “Our King makes a70 better show than William II. He has more graciousness and dignity. William is ungraceful, nervous and plain. There is no ‘atmosphere’ about him. He has not impressed Grey.”
Only three days after Wilhelm arrived back in Germany, the proposals for the German Navy Bill of 1908 were published. They called for the commission of four more battleships per year for the next three years and guaranteed that ships would be replaced every twenty rather than twenty-five years. It was a very dramatic increase—a direct response to the new British Dreadnought ships. In Britain, anger at the increases led to the founding of a naval lobby group, the Imperial Maritime League. No more was heard of Haldane’s late-night solution to the Baghdad railway impasse. It transpired that the kaiser71 had deliberately delayed publication of the new bill until his return from England. Holstein wrote that no one “except perhaps the Kaiser himself” could deny that this had made “all his kindnesses useless and meaningless, and even given them the air of fraud.”72 John Morley was genuinely puzzled: he’d been convinced that the kaiser intended “peace.” “You may laugh73 at this in view of the fine brand-new naval programme which the Germans have launched,” he wrote in his diary.
In February 1908 Viscount Esher allowed a letter he’d written to the new Imperial Maritime League to be published in The Times. It was very clear from it that Esher believed the German navy had malign intentions towards Britain, and he added, “there is not a man in Germany from the Emperor downward who would not welcome the fall of Sir John Fisher.” Wilhelm—not for the first time paying more attention to the British press than to the one at home—decided the letter must be protested against. But he didn’t write, as etiquette demanded, to the king, but instead to the naval minister, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Tweedmouth. In his most excitable, high-blown prose he denounced Esher’s letter as “unmitigated balderdash” and said it was “preposterous to infer” that the German government would connive against Fisher. “It is as ridiculous as it is untrue and I hereby repudiate such a calumny.” In his “humble” opinion, the British obsession with the “German danger” was “nearly ludicrous … Once more the German Naval Bill is not aimed at England and is not a challenge to British supremacy of the sea.”74
Like so many of Wilhelm’s foreign initiatives, the letter spectacularly backfired—and not just because he failed to send his complaints through the sovereign, though Edward completely lost his temper over that. Lord Tweedmouth was suffering from an undiagnosed brain tumour from which he would die the following year; his behaviour had become erratic. He sent the kaiser all the latest estimates for British naval spending which had not yet been presented to Parliament, and showed the letter to almost everyone he met. The story ended up in The Times; the paper’s military correspondent described it as an outrageous attempt to influence British policy. The kaiser’s letter put the German navy on the front of every British newspaper for months—Esher couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. By mid-March 1908 Arthur Balfour had extracted from the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, who had recently replaced the seriously ill Campbell-Bannerman, a promise that Britain would build enough new battleships to maintain its naval superiority over Germany—the one thing Tirpitz had wanted to avoid.
Wilhelm decided the whole furore had been engineered by Edward, though Metternich assured him that the king had reprimanded Esher for starting the affair. “Only now!75 After five weeks!” Wilhelm scribbled on Metternich’s report. “He never did the slightest thing four or five weeks ago, when the attack of his friend and official on me took place, to make known his displeasure and regret!” On the bottom of the memo he wrote, “it is not our fleet that is responsible, but the absolutely crazy ‘Dreadnought’ policy of Sir John Fisher and His Majesty.”
The British press—the Left especially—was also angry with the king at the news that Edward was to make a state visit to Russia in June 1908, or rather, meet Nicholas off the coast of Russia. The British government kept the Russian trip a secret until the last minute, precisely in order to head off domestic criticism. It was right to be apprehensive. The Labour MP Ramsay MacDonald published an article called “An Insult to Our Country,”76 in which he scolded the king for “hobnobbing with a bloodstained creature”—the tsar—and a group of Labour and Liberal MPs signed a Commons motion deploring the visit. The reaction in Parliament was so negative that Grey had to deny publicly that the government had any plans to make any further formal arrangements with Russia, and agree to a Commons debate on the visit. Several MPs were highly critical of Edward, and Kier Hardie, the leader of the Labour Party, made a speech describing the tsarist government’s treatment and execution of political prisoners, implying that the king was condoning atrocities. The government won the debate, but Edward was affronted at being criticized. He took the position that it was not for him to judge other monarchs (at least not in public); the loyalty of one monarch to another, he said, “couldn’t be destroyed77 by the faults of a regime.”* He responded by disinviting the offending MPs—among them Hardie and Fritz Ponsonby’s brother, Arthur, a radical Liberal MP highly critical of Grey’s anti-German foreign policy—from a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Hardie said the Crown had been outside politics since Charles I and ought to stay there. The whole of the parliamentary Labour Party signed a resolution condemning Edward’s behaviour and sent their invitations back. Dynastic relationships and domestic politics directly collided, and Parliament, unsurprisingly, won. The king was forced to reinvite those whose invitations he’d withdrawn, attempting, unsuccessfully, to hold out against Ponsonby, who he said “should have known79 better.”
Edward, Alexandra and their suite arrived on the Victoria and Albert on 9 June 1908 at Reval (now Tallinn), in the Gulf of Finland, to meet Nicholas, Alix, his sister Olga and the children on Standart and Polar Star. The weather was calm, and the sun didn’t set until 11:30. In his Kiev Dragoons uniform, Edward told Nicholas how splendid he looked in his Scots Grey uniform. On the spur of the moment he made the tsar an admiral of the British navy (for which, having failed to consult his government in advance, he was told off by Asquith). Though he might consider Nicky “deplorably unsophisticated, immature, and reactionary,” Edward had learned the value of tact. He knew not to offer unsolicited advice, and said he had “no desire to play the part of the German Emperor, who always meddles in other people’s business.”80 Nicky was visibly grateful—and his palpable ease was perhaps the most important outcome of the whole event. Nicholas’s latest chief minister, Peter Stolypin, observed to Hardinge the “marked difference” between the tsar’s “spirits and attitude during the King’s visit to Reval compared with what they were at the Emperor’s recent visit to the German Emperor at Swinemünde, where he felt anxiety all the time as to what might be unexpectedly swung at him.”81 (Less tactfully, at his friends the Rothschilds’ request, the king raised the subject of Jewish persecution to Stolypin, who was politely noncommittal. He also rather tackily asked the tsar to meet his friend Ernest Cassel, who wanted to get into the Russian money markets, and he told Alix that the children spoke English with a déclassé accent.82 She was so mortified she hired an English tutor almost at once.)
The Russians were struck by what seemed to them the incredible informality of the British. On the Victoria and Albert, Mossolov observed how the king sat in an armchair, with an empty chair next to him, on which one might be beckoned to sit. “Except when on duty,83 no account was taken of rank. What a contrast there was between the visits of Wilhelm II and the reception of the King and Queen of England at Reval! How entirely at ease everybody was in their company!” Edward flattered Stolypin (whose luxuriant beard the British particularly admired), casually dropped into the conversation the Russian facts he had extracted from ambassador Nicolson on the trip over, and greeted the Standart’s sailors in Russian. Olga laughed so raucously at Admiral Fisher’s jokes that she felt obliged to apologize to her uncle.
Late on the first night, after dinner on board the Standart, Sir Charles Hardinge came upon Alix, sobbing alone84 on deck. She declined his offers of help.
What struck the British were the mountains of caviar sandwiches and the Russian obsession with security. In preparation for the imperial family’s arrival at Reval every house and boat had been searched, and during the course of the visit no one, including the British, was allowed ashore. When a local choral society, invited to “sing weird Russian85 songs,” couldn’t be heard from the boat on which they were performing, the Russian chief of security cheerfully told the head of Edward’s police detail that there was no danger in bringing aboard the choir—mostly local ladies—as he had arranged for them all to be strip-searched. Envisaging the headlines in Britain, Ponsonby managed to have him talked out of it.
In Russia the meeting was an enormous hit. It was called the “feast of peace.”86 Aside from a small court rump, Russian public opinion, such as it was, had become very keen indeed on the Convention in the nine months since it had been published. Even the most conservative constitutionalists regarded the agreement with Britain as a sign that the tsarist regime was gradually moving in the right direction, and that Britain had renounced its historic opposition to Russia’s influence in the Balkans—in contrast to Germany. The truth was that the starkest reason for the new popularity of the Entente was a rising hostility towards Germany. Since 1906, the newly independent Russian press had become noticeably anti-German. It expressed resentment of Germany’s success, its wealth, its economic dominance and its aggressively high tariffs, and a fear of being overwhelmed by Germany, being sucked dry and being turned into a dependent vassal. The coverage bespoke a sense of terrible vulnerability, hair-trigger xenophobia, which seemed now to be common to every country in Europe, and a revived sense of territoriality about the Balkans. Now that Russia’s plans to expand into Asia had been so summarily curtailed, nationalists, imperialists and patriots were turning their attention back to Russia’s traditional preoccupations with Slavdom. And there Germany and Austria were, more powerful than ever, with their own Pan-Germanism and their own anti-Slavic doctrines. When the German ambassador complained about the coverage, Izvolsky had been forced to “confess his impotence87 under the present system of liberty.”
With Edward’s now annual summer visit to Wilhelm coming up in August, Sir Edward Grey thought that if the king spoke to the kaiser direct, he might perhaps convince him that a slow-down in naval construction would be good for everyone. How much he really knew about the state of Edward’s relationship with the kaiser isn’t entirely clear. What the British also underestimated was how riled Wilhelm had been by Edward’s Russian trip. He had decided it was final proof that the Russian deal was about a military alliance against Germany. That Admiral Jackie Fisher, who had become rather fond of suggesting that the British burn the German fleet, had been taken along too simply confirmed it. Metternich was sent to tell Sir Edward Grey that Germany had regarded the visit “very searchingly,88 since several international agreements have already been linked with his [Edward’s] travels.” In June Wilhelm told a cavalry review that France, Russia and England were conniving to encircle89 Germany. After the visit, by way of a riposte, he ordered that no British officer be allowed to join the German army in the future. Nevertheless Grey was sufficiently hopeful to prepare two different memos for Edward on the subject of naval construction, so he could choose which one to use, a move which just irritated the king.
The two monarchs spent the morning together at Kronberg, Vicky’s former home. They agreed on a replacement for Sir Francis Lascelles, who was retiring—Sir Edward Goschen, the ambassador in Vienna. His selection was largely due to Edward’s influence, who knew him much better than Grey did. Goschen regarded the post as “the blackest and most nauseous90 of pills;” in his diary he called the kaiser “German Bill,”91 and he agreed to take the job only because he was a fervent monarchist and Edward had personally asked him to. “I cannot resist the King,” he told a British journalist. “But … I am certain my mission to Berlin will end in failure, for there will be no means of avoiding catastrophe.”92 He would prove a dismal manifestation of new British attitudes to Germany.
Edward raised the navy once, saying he had a memo on the matter. Wilhelm immediately changed the subject, and Edward couldn’t bring himself to raise it again. After lunch, as he went to have his post-prandial cigar in the summerhouse, he told Sir Charles Hardinge that it was up to him to discuss the navy with the kaiser.
Wilhelm invited Hardinge to speak to him. Hardinge started in on British worries about the German fleet. It was hard, he said, to reconcile the kaiser’s reassurances with the constant increases in the German naval programme, and if Germany continued to build at her current rate, Britain would feel obliged to keep up with it, which would lead to bad feeling. Britain, he emphasized, had no argument with the size of Germany’s land armies, but as an island it believed it needed a larger navy to defend itself. He wanted Wilhelm to agree to a ratio of British naval superiority to German: say five British ships to every three German. Almost immediately Wilhelm lost his temper. He refused to accept Hardinge’s figures on German shipbuilding. “That’s complete nonsense. Who has been telling you such ridiculous tales? … Your documents are wrong. I am an Admiral of the British Navy, which I know all about and understand better than you, who are a civilian with no idea of these matters.” He said there was no reason for the British to fear a German attack, nor to increase its fleet, and that invasion talk was “sheer nonsense and no serious person in Germany had ever contemplated such an idea.”93 Anyway, England had started it all by building the Dreadnoughts, and Fisher had initiated the war talk with his threats to burn the German navy. He ended grandly, by stating he would rather go to war than consider slowing down.
At dinner, the kaiser, all smiles, invited Hardinge to sit next to him. Wilhelm talked, Hardinge wrote, “a lot of nonsense94 as to his own friendly feelings towards England … ‘The future of the world,’ he said, ‘was in the hands of the Anglo-Teuton race, and that England without a powerful army could not stand alone in Europe but must lean on a Continental Power and that Power should be Germany!’” Later Wilhelm told Bülow that the “frank conversation95 with me, in which I had shown him my teeth, had not failed to have its effect. That is always the way to treat Englishmen.”
But it was not only the English who wanted the kaiser to cut back on his naval programme. “The only result96 of our naval armaments at the present moment is that we have succeeded in arousing the envy and suspicion of the whole world,” Robert zu Zedlitz-Trützschler had written in his diary in 1907. “England, not without reason, sees in our navy a threat … What is the use of all this enormous expenditure, and of arousing mistrust and jealousy?” There were plenty of ministers and men of influence who felt that, just as Tangier had demonstrated that German aggression tended to backfire, so the naval race had gone too far. Tschirrsky, the former foreign minister, had recommended an agreement on naval quotas after Algeciras. In London, Metternich was convinced that the sole reason for the deterioration of Anglo-German relations was naval rivalry—and was brave enough to say so, which earned him Wilhelm’s respect but also impatience. Albert Ballin,97 the Jewish millionaire director of the Hamburg-America shipping line, whom Wilhelm liked to describe as a friend, had recently recommended that the crisis in Anglo-German relations should be solved by an agreement on building warships. He’d also said that while Edward might be rude about Wilhelm, there was no doubting that he wanted peace.
For a man who changed his mind almost as often as he changed his clothes, Wilhelm was extraordinarily stubborn about his navy. He refused to acknowledge what it cost—when Tirpitz asked for four more ships than had been budgeted for in 1907, he’d told him it was “a mere bagatelle.”98 And he refused to countenance any slowdown.
Why is hard to answer. The navy was very popular in certain sections of German society, but it was also known to be very expensive and by 1908 its cost had brought about a financial crisis and the prospect of huge tax increases. Somehow the ships had become tightly attached to Wilhelm’s sense of himself: to his deep-seated longing to be connected with Britain, to strike at it, to force it to take notice and to his desire to show that he wasn’t hopelessly irresolute. Tirpitz’s uncompromising refusal to acknowledge any diplomatic or financial limits to the naval programme stiffened Wilhelm’s resolve and seemed to re-arouse his ever-present desire to show that he was the perfect, implacable German soldier. And he seemed genuinely to adore his ships. Tirpitz spoke, witheringly, about the kaiser’s love for his “mechanical toy.”99 Perhaps most of all the humiliation of Algeciras made him feel he couldn’t be seen to react to British pressure—a feeling shared by many Germans.
Edward was genuinely taken aback by Wilhelm’s absolute refusal to discuss the naval programme. When he saw the eighty-year-old Franz Joseph a few days later, he asked him straight out to raise the subject of the ships with the kaiser, a request Franz Joseph, who had learned long ago to keep clear of the grimy details of politics, politely declined. In Marienbad, the king met the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, and told him how disappointed he was that Wilhelm had refused to discuss a naval agreement, and that, while European peace might hold for the next five or six years, a certain “impulsive sovereign”100 would almost certainly eventually do something that would lead to war. Britain, he assured Clemenceau, would keep building ships so as to outstrip Germany. Back in London, he told Lord Esher that Wilhelm had been “‘impossible … Two keels to one, is the only right and safe thing,’ said the King!”101 In Berlin, Wilhelm scrawled that “Stop the King!”102 should be the goal of German policy.
* Nabokov’s great-uncle29 avoided being blown up with his friend Grand Duke Sergei only because he declined the offer of a carriage ride home. (He also refused a ticket for the Titanic.)
* By the time the Conservatives were back in power in 1918, their social make-up was also different and their leader a brusque Scottish businessman.
† The Conservatives and the Liberal Unionists—that is, Liberals who opposed Irish Home Rule, like Chamberlain—began to work together in 1895.
* It is no small irony that at the same time, in the other Germany, of innovation, creative thought and intellectual investigation, Magnus Hirschfeld and Krafft-Ebing were undertaking the most advanced, explicit, serious and sympathetic research into sexual orientation in the world.
* One can only speculate what Dona felt about the Eulenburg scandal. She conducted herself publicly with the irreproachable dignity which had made her very popular in Germany—rather in the same way that Alexandra’s forbearance had brought her admiration in Britain—but it must have pierced her. The couple were locked in a painfully imbalanced relationship. Wilhelm, Zedlitz-Trützschler observed, found her company oppressive, while she clung to him and longed for him to pay her attention. “He is always anxious65 to get away, but his wife’s one desire is to keep him in sight as much as possible.”
* When earlier that year the Portuguese king had installed in government a hugely unpopular extreme right-wing dictator, however, Edward told his doctor, “A constitutional monarch78 must not do such things.” The Portuguese king and queen were later assassinated in a horrific bomb attack.