The reality of European politics was that Anglo-German relations were as stalemated as they’d ever been—as were Russo-German relations. Nevertheless, each country, each emperor, continued to paper over the cracks with cousinly gestures, each increasingly irrelevant. In May 1911 George invited the kaiser to the unveiling of the marble memorial to Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace. “You are perfectly right1 in alluding to my devotion and reverence for my beloved grandmother, with whom I was on such excellent terms,” Wilhelm wrote to George. “… Never in my life shall I forget the solemn hours in Osborne near her deathbed when she breathed her last in my arms! Those sacred hours have riveted my heart firmly to your house and family.” It would be Wilhelm’s final visit to England, and in his memoirs his account—pages on guards and Highland regiments, military colours, the family gathered round the monument, the welcome he received—was almost tender and saturated with longing.2 At the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where George and Wilhelm saw the play of the day, Money, the audience gave them a standing ovation, and a specially designed curtain depicted the two emperors on horseback riding towards each other and saluting. The war minister and Germanophile Sir Richard Haldane gave a lunch for the kaiser and filled it with the most eminent and famous men in England: Lord Kitchener, Lord Curzon, J. A. Spender, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, the Labour MP Ramsay MacDonald, the writer Edmund Gosse, the senior general Sir Henry Wilson, the painter John Singer Sargent and Baden Powell, the hero of Mafeking and author of the recent runaway bestseller Scouting for Boys. Wilhelm was on fizzing form. “I don’t think3 I ever met a man so full of the zest of life, and so eager to show it and share it with other people,” said Sir John Morley.

It should have meant something, but actually it meant nothing. No British politician sought to buttonhole Wilhelm or tackle him on the naval race. “His visit4 of course will be an absolutely private one and it has no political significance whatever,” George wrote to Nicholas. “… I wanted to tell you this in case the newspapers should print a lot of rubbish.” On his last day, the kaiser worked himself up into a fury on the subject of Britain’s agreements with France and Russia in a conversation with Louis of Battenberg: “You must be5 brought to understand in England that Germany is the sole arbiter of peace or war on the Continent. If we wish to fight we will do so without your leave.” He seemed particularly miffed by Britain’s closeness to Russia.

It was as if each country’s position had become so entrenched that there was no way to fill those deepening cracks of mistrust and tension. Germany clung to its unsatisfied need for recognition, its navy and its commitment to Austria; Britain was determined to maintain its world position and stay tied to France; Russia remained torn between knowing it couldn’t afford conflict, but desperate to restore its Great Power status through some form of imperial expansion. By contrast, it took only one small, aggressive gesture on the international stage to create a full-blown European crisis. No one wanted it to be like this (except possibly the German army)—not least because by 1911 each country was facing economic depression and considerable social unrest—but no one was willing to give way. The German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, had started talks with Britain when he’d taken office in 1909, but quickly found his room for manoeuvre limited: the German Right—highly critical of the government—liked the navy, and the kaiser made it clear that if he pushed too hard for cuts he might be sacked. To placate his critics the chancellor insisted that, in return for a reduction in German ships, Britain must pledge neutrality in a European war, which the British regarded as evidence that the Germans wanted them out of the way to attack France. Asquith and Grey could see no point in further talks, though they paid lip service to the idea of rapprochement as a sop to their critics on the Liberal and Labour backbenches. Even David Lloyd George, a consistent opposer of naval expansion and critic of Grey, was beginning to question German intentions.* The German Foreign Office, meanwhile, was on the look-out for some diplomatic coup which would bring the government some much missed applause at home.

Then, just two months after Wilhelm returned from England, on 1 July 1911, Germany sent a gunboat, the Panther, to the port of Agadir, in Morocco, where the French had recently and illegally sent troops claiming they were needed to quell a local rebellion. By the terms of the Algeciras conference, Germany was entitled to compensation if the French changed the nature of their presence in Morocco. With the Panther (which, somewhat ironically, was not a beautiful shiny new warship but a squat, dirty old cruiser well overdue for the scrapyard) positioned threateningly on the coast, the German Foreign Office demanded the French hand over the whole of the French Congo, adding that if they did not respond positively Germany might be forced to extreme measures.

That the German Foreign Office was using a warship as leverage seemed to the British Foreign Office and Asquith a dangerous precedent: not merely another swipe at France, but a direct challenge to British naval supremacy and therefore its Great Power status—gunboat diplomacy had always been a particular British speciality. Their response was bluntly aggressive. On 21 July, in a speech at the Mansion House in the City of London, David Lloyd George announced that Britain was determined to keep her “place and prestige” among the Great Powers of the world, even if it led to war. “If a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be preserved by the surrender of the great and beneficent position Britain has won by centuries of heroism and achievement, by allowing Britain to be treated … as if she were of no account in the Cabinet of Nations, then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.”6

The German government was astounded by the speech—that it was so direct and that Lloyd George had delivered it—but refused to back down. Within a few days both fleets were placed on alert; a colonial quarrel was transformed into an international crisis. The German press expressed outrage that Britain was dictating to Germany. In London The Times claimed that the German navy had vanished from the North Sea and might be about to attack. (In fact it was on its way to Norway to take part in friendly manoeuvres with the British Atlantic fleet.) Escalation with Britain was not what the Germans had intended at all. Behind the scenes the two sides negotiated a climb-down, and plans were made for Franco-German talks. But the French, emboldened by the English threats, refused the Germans’ demands for compensation. Talks and constant rumours of war dragged on through August and September. By October the German Foreign Office had run out of steam and finally agreed to take 100,000 square miles of all-but-useless equatorial jungle in the French Congo. An agreement was signed on 4 November.

Once again a German provocation had ended in defeat. “Out of this7 mountain of a German-made crisis came a mouse of colonial territory,” wrote Grey. The German nationalist press and the nationalist German leagues, whose hopes of colonies had been raised so high and had been so constantly dashed, howled with disappointment and anger. Wilhelm was accused of cowardice: one German paper called him “Guillaume le timide, le valeureux poltron!” The German Centre and Left parties poured scorn on the government’s ineptitude and pointless aggression. Senior German army officers sighed that the All Highest was so pusillanimous about taking extreme measures—Moltke had privately hoped for a “reckoning with the8 English.” The German colonial minister resigned.

The kaiser himself had been extremely reluctant to send the Panther and anxious about the British reaction. Predictably, when it had initially proved popular, he had rushed to identify himself as its author. Throughout the subsequent months, however, he had seesawed queasily between anxiety and martial posturing. One moment the German foreign minister, Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter, had to threaten resignation to keep him on-side, the next Wilhelm was publicly announcing he was prepared to use his sword9 if the French didn’t acquiesce to German demands.

He also claimed that during his May visit to London he had told George of his intention to send a warship to France and that George had agreed—and thus that the British government’s response was pure hypocrisy. This was familiar territory for Wilhelm—claiming an arrangement had been agreed with another monarch, then accusing them of betrayal. But it was new to George, who scrutinized his memory carefully. He said that Wilhelm had raised the subject of Morocco as he was leaving London; he might even have said something about a ship—but George had no recollection of it. “I absolutely did not express to him my own, or my Government’s consent.” For his own part he thought Wilhelm was “a man of peace,” under pressure from “his own militarists.” “No man likes to be called a coward.”10

It was a depressing sign of the deadlock between the two countries that it was two international business magnates, not politicians, who initiated a final attempt to reach agreement. Albert Ballin was the director of the biggest shipping company in the world, the Hamburg-America Line, and one of Wilhelm’s few Jewish friends; Ernest Cassel was one of Edward’s coterie of Jewish financiers; his dealings and loans had kept several countries afloat, and he was a friend of Churchill and Asquith. Both felt that the German naval programme had gone too far and created pointless hostility. In January 1912 Ballin persuaded Wilhelm to invite a member of the British cabinet to Berlin to discuss the naval race, while Cassel encouraged the British to respond. Grey and Asquith sent Sir Richard Haldane to Berlin in the second week of February, but gave him no authority to make a deal. Everyone fell over themselves to express their hopes that agreement might be reached, but unsurprisingly the talks failed amidst recrimination and arguments over who had offered what. Once again Bethmann-Hollweg insisted on British neutrality before he would even discuss ships, and he couldn’t promise any defence cuts, just a temporary slowdown.

Haldane was astonished by the apparent chaos in the upper echelons of the German government. The kaiser, the chancellor and Tirpitz disagreed on almost everything about foreign policy, naval expansion and what they wanted from the talks. He reckoned Bethmann-Hollweg wished to negotiate, but Tirpitz was opposed to any compromise. He was far from the first British visitor to remark on such confusion. As for Wilhelm, he seemed one minute utterly enthused, and the next cowed by Tirpitz. Haldane didn’t know that on the day of his arrival, Wilhelm had published the new navy bill, and had told Metternich that he would mobilize the German navy if the British carried out their plan of concentrating their fleet in the North Sea (where they’d be on Germany’s doorstep). Haldane left after three days with a bust of the kaiser, from the kaiser, tucked under his arm and a copy of the new German navy bill. The next day Wilhelm told the German industrialist Walter Rathenau that in the summer he would go to Cowes, “and then he would11 settle everything. The King trusted him. His plan was: the United States of Europe against America. The English are not unsympathetic to this.”

When Haldane got back to London the British cabinet looked at the navy bill and discovered it made Bethmann-Hollweg’s slowdown instantly irrelevant.12 Quite apart from asking for new battleships, the bill announced a 20 percent increase in the number of fighting men on every ship and a huge increase in submarines and smaller warships. Picking his moment during the failing negotiations with France the summer before, when the kaiser had been stung by accusations of cowardice, Tirpitz had persuaded him that a new naval bill might win back the support of the German Right, that keeping up the pressure on the Royal Navy would frighten the British into judicious neutrality in the event of a European war—a demonstrably false argument—and that any cutbacks would mean an international loss of face. As it turned out, in the January 1912 elections, the German Social Democrat Party—the Socialists—who opposed higher defence spending, received their biggest ever vote and became the largest party in the Reichstag, with one-third of the seats.

The talks finally died on 19 March when Grey stated categorically that Britain could not promise to remain neutral in a European war. Their failure catapulted Wilhelm into depression. Dona told Tirpitz that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “At heart,”13 she said, “he is enthusiastic about England and everything which is England, it is in his blood.” It was as if the two opposite pulls in his character had directly caused the collapse. He denounced the British cabinet as “scoundrels,” and said Grey was a “Shylock.”14 He sacked Metternich, whose unvarnished explanations of why the British were hostile he could no longer bear to hear. When Grey praised Bethmann-Hollweg, whom the British had come to see as a sober and positive force in the German government, Wilhelm growled, “I have never15 in my life heard of an agreement being concluded with reference to one definite statesman and independently of the reigning sovereign. It is clear that Grey has no idea who is master here, namely myself. He dictates to me in advance who is to be my minister if I am to conclude an agreement with England.” Tirpitz’s full naval bill was put before the Reichstag days later.

Despite left-wing opposition, it was passed in April 1912, though in a slightly slimmer form. Paradoxically, in the long term it would prove a big setback for the German navy and Tirpitz. It prompted the British to withdraw ships from the Mediterranean and concentrate their fleet in the North Sea and the Channel, making it immediately apparent that Tirpitz’s fleet was no match for the British navy, and wouldn’t be for decades. And it irritated the German army, who felt that the navy had taken too much of the military budget for too long with little to show for it. It now demanded that it must get the lion’s share of future defence spending; Moltke, observing that the Russian army was dramatically increasing, had plans to enlarge the army by 25 percent, 136,000 men. More worryingly, the British also agreed to defend the Channel coast of France in return for the French navy policing the Mediterranean—an arrangement that made British involvement in a European war that bit more likely.

The Russians were just as imprisoned by their own sense of priorities. Since 1905 it had been government orthodoxy that Russia must be on good terms with all the Great Powers, and that foreign wars inevitably led to revolution and must be avoided at all costs. By 1911 Nicholas’s chief minister, Peter Stolypin, and the new Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov—who was uncoincidentally Stolypin’s brother-in-law—and even Nicholas, wanted Britain to commit to a defensive alliance. With Britain behind them they believed Germany and Austria would be reluctant to bully or threaten them. Not that Russia could afford to be on bad terms with Germany either. When Sazonov had become foreign minister in the autumn of 1910, he had taken an initially reluctant Nicholas to Potsdam (“I cannot understand16 how he is so blind to the consequences of what he is doing,” the British ambassador had complained gloomily) and returned with an agreement.17 “I was extremely18 pleased with my visit to William, who was in excellent spirits, calm and comfortable,” Nicholas wrote to George. The deal allowed the Germans and their railway into northern Persia, in return for an undertaking not to support Austrian ambitions in the Balkans. A week or so later Wilhelm, in a gust of enthusiasm, passed through Hesse, where Alix was staying with the children, bringing “heaps of presents.” “To them he is ‘the German Uncle,’” Nicholas wrote, “and he loves playing with them. He looks well, but has grown older and is more sedate.”19 Alix could hardly bear Wilhelm to touch her children but she knew that getting on with Germany was necessary. Communications between Berlin and St. Petersburg were as cordial as they’d been in years and Russia was noticeably silent during the international condemnation of Agadir.

It was also still orthodoxy in Russia, however, that the country’s wounded Great Power status must be restored, and the only way to do that was by extending the empire and by asserting Russia’s claims to imperial influence in the Balkans. Not surprisingly, the latter imperative constantly threatened to derail the need for peace. In 1912 the Russian minister to Serbia, a militant Pan-Slavist called Nicholas Hartwig, brokered a secret pact between the Balkan states of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro. Hartwig was a rogue operator whose aim was to bring the Slav nations together so they could start a war to wrest back the Ottoman empire’s last European territories, and in so doing allow Russia to take control of the Bosphorus and open the Turkish Straits. His efforts to bring together the Balkan states—no small feat as they were all extremely quarrelsome and competitive with each other—were half-hidden from the Russian government, and what they could see, Nicholas and his ministers treated with a kind of wilful blindness because they couldn’t help feeling pleased that Russian influence had been re-established in the Balkans. Everyone knew that a war in the region would be exceptionally dangerous because Austria and Russia, both acutely aware of the vulnerability of their Great Power status, would feel compelled to intervene, and that Germany would almost certainly come in with Austria if it came to military conflict.

In June 1912 the Russian and German emperors and their chief ministers met on their yachts at Swinemünde in the Baltic on a blazing hot day. Wilhelm lavished gifts on Nicky’s children and claimed to be vastly amused when the Russian officers got through sixty bottles of his champagne. “Everything went off20 very well and quite informally,” Nicholas told his mother. “He was very gay and affable and would have his joke with Anastasia.” But perhaps the most significant conversation that day took place between Nicholas’s new chief minister, Vladimir Kokovtsov, and Bethmann-Hollweg, which Kokovtsov later recounted in his memoirs. Both men expressed a feeling of being trapped by an arms race they had no power to halt. Kokovtsov complained that Germany seemed to be “arming herself at a feverish pace.” He explained it would be impossible for him to oppose demands for equivalent increases in the Russian army. Bethmann-Hollweg answered equally frankly that “his own position was far from being as influential and independent as it might seem … He, too, had to consider the personal views of the Emperor … and especially the peculiar organization of the War Ministry, whose attitude was a very troublesome one.” The Duma would indeed vote vast sums for the Russian army in 1913, raising the number of troops from 1.3 million to 1.75 million. And this in turn would prompt the Reichstag to vote even more money to the German army in 1913.

   After Wilhelm left, Nicholas told his chief minister, “Thank heaven! Now one does not have to watch one’s every word lest it be construed in a way one had not even dreamed.” Like Edward he had learned to avoid talking politics too directly with Wilhelm, but he also told Kokovtsov several times, betraying considerable anxiety about the Balkans, “that the Emperor William had assured him positively that he would not permit the Balkan complications to become a world conflagration.”21

Three months later, in September, Sergei Sazonov came to Balmoral to try to persuade Sir Edward Grey to agree to military and naval “discussions”—as the euphemism went—just like the ones Britain had with France. Stolypin thought Britain’s backing would persuade Germany and Austria to stay out of the war that was now brewing in the Balkans. He neglected to mention that it was the Russians who had secretly helped to set up the conditions for war. “He [Sazonov] is a straightforward22 and honest man and I appreciate him highly,” Nicholas wrote to George, adding, “I always read the ‘Daily Graphic’ and therefore follow closely all your movements and all you have to do. It astonishes me often how enduring … you and May are both!” This was a courtesy to George because he took no role in the negotiations.

Sazonov evidently felt optimistic. British attitudes to Russia had shifted. By 1912 the country had become fascinated by its would-be ally. In January 1912 The Times published a “Russian number,” and a group of Liberal MPs visited Russia, a trip which Sir Charles Hardinge described as “the pilgrimage of23 love.” Russian literature was everywhere—not just Tolstoy but Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Turgenev had all been recently translated into English. Beef Stroganov had insinuated itself onto fashionable British menus. The Ballets Russes had brought a fantasy of Russian exoticism, wildness and modernity to London; George went to see them on the eve of his coronation in 1911. But cultural fascination was not matched by political sympathy. British journalists reported the same old ugly Russian repressions and, most provocatively, Russian troops had moved into Persia’s neutral sphere, where the shah, an old Russian client, was fighting a civil war against the British-sponsored democratic parliament, the Majlis. This was bad enough, but the British Foreign Office, which despite this would have liked to pull closer to Russia, suspected that an annexation attempt wouldn’t be far off. British public opinion simply wouldn’t countenance a closer relationship, and the Persian business made it worse. But no matter what the new British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, said, both Nicholas and Sazonov refused to acknowledge that their policy in Persia might have an effect in Britain.

Buchanan was Britain’s new secret weapon in Russia. An old-school diplomat who had previously been minister to Alix’s brother Ernst in Hesse-Darmstadt, he had a reputation for charm and old-world courtesy, and calmly smoothed over the conflicts and misunderstandings which regularly punctuated British dealings with Russia. In many respects St. Petersburg was the last place he wanted to be—he hated the climate and found the Russian court a strain—but he had entirely fallen under Nicholas’s quiet, smiling spell. “I personally became24 wonderfully devoted to him. His Majesty had such a wonderful charm of manner that when he received me in audience he almost made me feel that it was as a friend, and not the Emperor, with whom I was talking. There was, if I may say so without presumption, what amounted to a feeling of mutual sympathy between us.” Buchanan was particularly amused by the tsar’s keenness to talk about anything but politics.

Not surprisingly, Grey refused the military discussions Sazonov asked for. He wanted to talk about Persia. Public opinion on the subject was so strong, and there was so much concern that the Foreign Office might act unilaterally and contract a secret agreement without consulting Parliament, that the Russian foreign minister’s arrival had sparked demonstrations in London and such an angry response from Liberal backbenchers that Grey had to promise he wouldn’t even use the phrase “triple entente” to indicate the loose combination of Britain, Russia and France. Sazonov made vague promises about troops leaving, but Grey didn’t really believe them.

The war in the Balkans broke out only a few weeks later. In Russia, the press demanded that the country come to the aid of its “little brothers”—the Balkan states. But the “little brothers” didn’t need their big brother’s help because within a month they had captured all Turkey’s European territories. Serbia in particular had been extremely successful; it had virtually doubled in size and was threatening to annex part of the Adriatic coastline, all of which alarmed Austria. By mid-November Austria began to mass an army near the Russian border. Once again a local conflict suddenly took on much wider and frightening connotations. Kokovtsov and Sazonov were summoned to an audience at Tsarskoe Selo one morning to discover that the tsar was cheerfully on the point of mobilizing the army against Austria. With him was the war minister, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, whom they loathed because he pandered to the tsar by keeping his reports short and simple and full of jokes. The two men managed to dissuade Nicholas by pointing out that this would bring on the European war he so feared, and that France would be unable to help as it would be quite unprepared.

Sir Edward Grey, meanwhile, tried to get the Great Powers to force the Balkan states to the negotiating table, and prevent Austria and Russia from trying to gain advantage—which would only prolong the conflict. Nicholas—seeing the prospect of a Russian-controlled Turkish Straits recede—grumbled at the British “interference,” which was “hampering us more than anybody else.”25 He wrote to Wilhelm, “I am sure you are26 also taking a keen interest in the Balkan war. I admire the splendid fighting qualities of the Bulgarians, Servians, etc but the Turks have sunk completely in my opinion. God grant we all may not have difficulties at the end!”

Rather to Europe’s surprise Grey found an ally in Bethmann-Hollweg. The two worked together to bring everyone to the table. An armistice was signed on 3 December 1912 and a conference convened in London two weeks later to resolve the competing claims. Its eventual success—despite a second brief conflict breaking out in the Balkans in July 1913 and months of subsequent wrangling—appeared to demonstrate that together Britain and Germany could work to keep the peace of Europe after all.

It seemed as if the forces of peace had won out in the German government. But behind the scenes that was by no means evident. The day the armistice was arranged, Bethmann-Hollweg announced in the Reichstag that, if Austria was unexpectedly attacked by Russia, Germany would fight on its side. It was an odd gesture since peace terms were on the table, and the next day Sir Edward Grey and Sir Richard Haldane felt obliged to counter Bethmann-Hollweg’s words with a statement to the German ambassador that, if Germany and Austria-Hungary should end up in a war against France and Russia, Britain would fight with France. For the British the matter ended there.

Wilhelm’s brother Heinrich was in England and went to visit George at York Cottage. Heinrich had long hoped for a resolution between his homeland and Britain. He couldn’t help feeling that if only Britain would shift its position just a little, their problems might be resolved. He asked George whether, if Germany and Austria went to war with Russia and France, England would help Russia and France. “I answered,”27 George told Sir Edward Grey later, “undoubtedly, yes—under certain circumstances. He [Heinrich] professed surprise and regret, but did not ask what the certain circumstances were. He said he would tell the Emperor what I had told him. Of course, Germany must know that we would not allow either of our friends to be crippled. I think it is only right that you should know what passed between me and the Emperor’s brother on this point.”

Like many people who knew Wilhelm, Heinrich found it hard to tell his brother what he didn’t want to hear. What he told Wilhelm was almost the opposite of what George had said. He reported that the British didn’t want to go to war, and that if there was a war, Germany would have to reckon “perhaps on English neutrality, certainly not on her taking the part of Germany, and probably on her throwing her weight on the weaker side.” The kaiser decided George had given an assurance that Britain would stay neutral—which the king certainly didn’t have the authority to do. He scribbled on the letter, “that settles it … we can now go ahead with France.”28 This was probably posturing as by now everyone including the Germans had agreed to send their ambassadors to the peace conference in London.

A couple of days later Wilhelm received word of Haldane’s statement that Britain would fight. He was horribly disappointed. The British regarded their warning as a way of dampening appetite for war in Europe. He saw it differently—as aggressive grandstanding which would egg both Russia and France on to involve themselves in a private argument between Austria and Serbia. He said it was a “moral declaration29 of war.” He was so angry that he immediately summoned his senior army and naval staff. The meeting that resulted—the “war council” of 8 December 1912, to which the chancellor was not invited—has sometimes been described as the moment when the German leadership began the countdown to war. In fact, it seems to have been mainly a chance for Wilhelm to let off steam, but it also allowed the military to reiterate their desire for a preventive war, though they couldn’t agree with whom. Moltke told the meeting, “I believe war30 is unavoidable and the sooner the better.” For him, it was obvious it should be a land war against Russia, not Britain. He had become convinced that Russia’s military and economy were developing so fast that, by 1917, Russia would be too strong for Germany to beat. Tirpitz, on the other hand, wanted to delay; the navy wouldn’t be ready to challenge Britain at least until 1917. Nothing specific was planned, but the meeting agreed that the German people should be “prepared” for the possibility of war in the future. Guilty about his less than useful intervention, Heinrich wrote to George explaining that he had carried out “your instructions to the letter,” but might have omitted “the one sore point … to the effect that I thought, if Germany were drawn into war with Russia and maybe, as a result of this, with France, England might be neutral, but that I feared she might also, under circumstances, side with our foes … We always were,” he continued, “—and I am still—in hopes that England and Germany might go together, for the sake of the world’s peace!” He pleaded with George to “Please consider the situation once more, before it is too late! If England and Germany were united, even mutually, who on earth would dare stir?”31 It sounded like a request from the 1890s. Once such a plea would have at least prompted a serious conversation between Queen Victoria and Lord Salisbury. But not anymore.

Publicly the British and Germans were getting on better than they had in years. Over the next eighteen months Bethmann-Hollweg kept a guiding hand on foreign affairs, and the new German ambassador in London, Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, turned out—to everyone’s surprise—to be a gregarious Anglophile with a passion for British society. He got on well with Edward Grey and was soon robustly telling the German Foreign Office, just like his predecessor, that the British would never agree to neutrality in a European war. In early 1913 the latest German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, told the Reichstag that he was delighted by the “tender plants”32 of cooperation with England. The two countries had begun to negotiate on who might buy Portugal’s African colonies and how the long-planned Baghdad railway might come through British-controlled Persia. But in the circles around Wilhelm the subject of war with Russia never seemed far below the surface.

The disconnect between the ceremonial public life of the monarchs and the realities of politics and economics was more than ever demonstrated by the plethora of dynastic celebrations that took place in 1913. In Germany Wilhelm celebrated twenty-five years as kaiser and King of Prussia, the hundredth anniversary of the Prussian victory over Napoleon at Leipzig, and the wedding of his only daughter, Victoria Louise. In St. Petersburg Nicholas celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Crowds turned out to cheer them both. The official German press ran dutiful eulogies describing the kaiser as the cornerstone of the German nation. In Russia the imperial family embarked on a tour from St. Petersburg to Moscow. “Wherever we went,”33 Olga recalled, “we met with manifestations of loyalty bordering on wildness.” Nicky and Alix were convinced that the celebrations had established a new rapport between the imperial family and the people. “We need only34 show ourselves once, and at once their hearts are ours,” Alix told one of her ladies. “The Tsar’s35 closest friends at Court,” remembered his chief minister, Vladimir Kokovtsov, “became persuaded that the Sovereign could do anything by relying on the unbounded love and utter loyalty of the people.” There was talk in right-wing circles of re-establishing the direct communion between the Russian people and the tsar against the depraved modernity of the Left and the trade unions, of closing down the Duma for good, and even of getting rid of the Council of Ministers. There were other reasons to be cheerful. The country had had astonishing industrial growth and manufacturing had hugely increased too. It was chasing Germany and America in production of steel and coal. So successful did it look, that the British worried that Russia might feel it no longer needed the Convention. And in Germany Bethmann-Hollweg and the army chief, Moltke, were both haunted by the thought that the future belonged to Russia, and that by the late teens of the century it would be so powerful Germany would be at its mercy.

On closer scrutiny, however, both sets of dynastic festivities offered a different lesson: that nations were divided, regimes were discredited, and citizenries were disappointed and angry. Although, as the Berliner Tageblatt observed, large numbers of the German people were still “monarchically inclined,” in Germany the celebrations pointed up stark divisions, and a jadedness with the kaiser. “Never in the history36 of the German people, the most monarchical people in its conviction and character, its customs and habit,” the solidly establishment Kreuzzeitung wrote during the celebrations in June 1913, “has the monarchical thought been so attacked, has the monarchy faced such a strong front of open and hidden opponents.” On the far Right and in the army Wilhelm was viewed with intense disappointment for failing to provide the strong leadership he had promised. In 1912, under a pseudonym, the head of the Pan-German League, Heinrich Class, had published Wenn Ich Kaiser Wäre (If I Were Kaiser) in which he had longingly described a “strong, able leader,”37 unafraid to shrink the franchise, pass anti-Jewish and anti-socialist legislation, and impose press censorship. A blizzard of books from the German Right was demanding wars, expansion and German hegemony in Europe. The South Germans, meanwhile, complained about the suffocating influence “of Prussia and its38 Junker class” and their sense of exclusion from the Reich. Even the Bürgertum, the stalwart Prussian middle classes, could see the kaiser’s public inadequacies, and the Berliner Tageblatt complained on their behalf of having “been treated as39 a quantité négligeable for twenty-five years;” now, the paper said, the Bürgertum “screams for reforms.” The Left had fought the 1912 election on demands for a republic and had won 35 percent of the vote, 110 seats, making it the largest faction in the Reichstag. The Catholic Centre Party, with which Wilhelm and his government had refused to deal, came second, with ninety-one seats. The vote looked very much like a referendum on Wilhelm’s rule, its extravagant spending, its inequitable tax system, its sanctioning of high food prices and its inability to tackle rising unemployment. As a result, Bethmann-Hollweg no longer had control of the Reichstag, and had been forced to run the country without it by decree, financing government with foreign loans. The Left’s triumph caused hysteria among the German political and industrial elite, and led to talk at court and in the army of coups to get rid of universal suffrage—discussions quashed by Bethmann-Hollweg. But it visited upon the chancellor, as well as the army, a sense of gloom and pessimism about the divisions in and the future of Germany, assailed as it seemed to be from both within and without.

In Russia the crowds had cheered the Romanov celebrations because a royal process was entertainment and a rare sight. But, as Chief Minister Kokovtsov wrote, “There was nothing40 in the feeling of the crowd but shallow curiosity.” It was not hard to see why. There had been hopes of amnesties, new initiatives to restore public confidence, even a sense that the occasion wasn’t simply about the Romanovs, but about the people too—but none was forthcoming. There were only the conventional manifestations of royal ritual: processions, gala dinners, religious services. The institutions around the tsar had treated the occasion with humourless stiffness. When commemorative cups and plates and stamps went on sale with the tsar and his family illustrated on them, the Ministry of the Imperial Court complained that it was not permitted for the tsar’s head to appear on “utilitarian objects,”41 and the Holy Synod protested that it was improper for the sovereign’s face to be stamped with a postmark. Even the aristocracy of St. Petersburg society seemed half-hearted about the occasion. When it gave a ball for the imperial couple, the atmosphere, Nicholas’s sisters observed, was “hollow”42 and “forced.”43

The reality was that Russia’s administration was more gridlocked than ever; its governance more brutal, its leadership more lost. Even its industrial gains had been made at enormous social cost. In the rest of Europe, working conditions had gradually been improving. Not in Russia. Nicholas was still locked away at Tsarskoe, worrying about his sick son, watching anxiously over his invalid wife, ever more estranged and alienated from everything around him save the tiny court, fretting about the state of his nation, but paralysed by indecision. He would toy with the idea of overturning the new political order, but instead just complained from the sidelines. He loathed the impudence of the Duma, which, no matter how the government manipulated the franchise, came back irrepressibly critical and determined to support representative government. He was no keener on his ministers. Having hailed Peter Stolypin as Russia’s saviour in 1906, by 1911 he had become profoundly suspicious of him. Stolypin, a pragmatic conservative, had realized he had to work with the zemstvos—the local councils Nicholas’s father had abhorred—and talk to the Duma. Just as he had with Witte, Nicholas gradually came to distrust and dislike him. It was widely rumoured the tsar was about to dismiss Stolypin when he was assassinated at the Kiev Opera House—in front of Nicholas and his two eldest daughters—in September 1911. There were whispers that he had been murdered by the Right, as the shooter turned out to be both a left-wing radical and a police informer, and had made no attempt to get at the tsar.

“I am sure44 Stolypin died to make room for you,” Alix told Stolypin’s successor Vladimir Kokovtsov, rather chillingly, “and this is all for the good of Russia.” But Kokovtsov also found the tsar quietly encouraging ministerial factions against him. Each time Nicholas did this, it disrupted and undermined government stability and effectiveness a little bit more. After sacking Kokovtsov in early 1914, he lectured his Council of Ministers on the need for unity. His need to feel in control overrode everything—even the effective governance of the country. “The Emperor is by45 no means stupid, talks well and to the point, and is fully aware of what he is doing,” one particularly clear-eyed British diplomat reported in 1916. “… He is obstinate and vindictive, and quite obsessed with the idea that the autocracy is his and his children’s by divine right.”

The stories that came out of Russia made the regime look increasingly nasty and indefensible. In 1912 tsarist soldiers shot dead 500 striking miners, and wounded hundreds of others at the Lena goldfields in Siberia. Conditions at the mine were horrendous: the men worked fifteen-to sixteen-hour days, with an accident rate of 700 per 1,000 workers. Food, brought in from outside, was often rotten or insufficient. The strikers had been demanding an eight-hour day, a 30 percent wage rise and the improvement of food supplies. Within days St. Petersburg was engulfed in a huge general strike. The recently elected fourth Duma demanded explanations. They were not impressed by the latest minister of the interior’s answer, “Thus it has been46 so it always will be.” Relations deteriorated so badly that by the summer of 1912 ministers and Duma were barely in communication. Then there was the ugliness of the Beiliss affair in 1913, in which a completely innocent Jewish clerk was put on trial for ritual child murder. The almost comically hopeless case against him had been trumped up with the government’s, and the tsar’s, full knowledge—in the expectation that grassroots anti-Semitism would rally loyal Russians to the government. Nicholas himself sent the judge a gold watch on the eve of the trial, in anticipation of a guilty verdict. All the time the strikes continued: between 1912 and 1914 there would be 9,000 of them, many organized by the militant Bolsheviks, until between January and July 1914 there were a million and a half workers on strike.

Then there was Rasputin, whose exploits were becoming the stuff of Grand Guignol. Alix had come gradually to trust and rely on him for advice beyond Alexis’s illness. She believed he’d been sent by God. She had drawn him into the heart of the family, allowing him to watch her daughters getting ready for bed—something which deeply shocked her mother and sisters-in-law—and referred to him in letters to Nicholas as “Our Friend.” In 1911 she had begun to ask for his advice about ministers she didn’t like, and told Nicholas he should comb his hair with Rasputin’s comb before making difficult decisions. Secure in the imperial couple’s favour, Rasputin exploited his position. The head of the imperial Chancellery, Mossolov, found himself besieged by Rasputin’s clients armed with notes from the starets demanding positions. Stolypin and Kokovtsov both fell foul of him. Kokovstov was said to have been sacked by Nicholas at least partly for failing to prevent stories about Rasputin from getting into the press—stories which circumvented the censorship laws because they didn’t mention the imperial family by name. Perhaps inevitably, from 1911 stories about him had begun to circulate beyond Tsarskoe Selo. By 1912 he was the subject of denunciatory speeches in the Duma, and by 1914 newspaper articles were spreading his fame across Russia. The stories demonstrated painfully how the previously closed world of the Russian court could no longer shut out the world, and at the same time paradoxically how isolated from, and ignorant of, the outside world the imperial family had become. Press coverage of Rasputin transformed him from a court favourite muttered over by the elite into a national, and then international, symbol of the ills and poisons of the system. Scandalous rumours began to proliferate about his appetite for sex, booze and creating chaos.

The most notorious incident would come in 1915, when he turned up drunk at the Yar, a famous Moscow restaurant once frequented by Pushkin, accompanied by two women, and started a brawl. He called a newspaper editor to witness the scene, and as his pièce de résistance, he took out his penis, laid it on the table, and said he could do what he liked with the “Old Girl”47—meaning the tsarina. No one dared remove him until the Ministry of the Interior was called for permission to arrest him. In the absence of other explanations about his influence within the imperial family, it was almost too easy to attribute it to their alarming credulity, or to some sinister sexual enthralment. The gossip in St. Petersburg had it that Rasputin slept with the tsarina and her friend Anna Vyrubova, and had raped all the tsar’s daughters—their defilement a kind of metaphor for the degradation of the regime itself. Nicholas and Alexandra were repeatedly warned about Rasputin by servants, officials, the police, Church figures and finally even by their family. They refused to listen. They had become practised at ignoring those who told them things they didn’t want to hear.

Even stable Britain seemed to be succumbing to a new level of public disaffection and violent disorder. Miners’ and railway workers’ strikes threatened to bring the country to a standstill over 1912 and 1913, and the suffragettes’ campaign to get the vote for women reached new levels of violence. Windows at Windsor Castle were broken in 1912, and then in 1913 Emily Davidson martyred herself at the Derby by throwing herself under George’s horse. George, who had no sympathy with either strikers or suffragettes, was repelled and shocked. He told Asquith he should pass a law against picketing. “The King is hostile48 to the bone to all who are working to lift the workmen out of the mire,” wrote Lloyd George, who talked the strikers back to work. “So is the Queen. They talk exactly as the late King and Kaiser talked to me … about the old railway strike. ‘What do they want striking? They are very well paid.’”

Just as in Russia and Germany, in Britain there was talk on the Right of taking radical action against the Left. When the Liberal government’s bill to grant Home Rule to Ireland came up in the Commons in May 1912, Andrew Bonar Law, the new leader of the Conservative Party (whose full name, the Conservative Unionists, denoted their commitment to maintaining the union with Ireland by all means) told George that with the power of the Lords gone, the king should use his veto to stop the bill, dismiss his Liberal ministers and choose new ones—Conservative ones. By British standards this was strong stuff: the monarch was supposed to be above politics; no monarch had dismissed a minister since 1830 and no monarch had used the royal veto since 1708. It had the whiff of a palace coup, and was wholly at odds with the spirit of parliamentary democracy. George refused to do it, but the request instantly released a torrent of self-pity. “Whatever I do49 I shall offend half the population … No Sovereign has ever been in such a position,” and the idea of the veto exercised an enduring fascination over him. In August 1913 he sent a 1,500-word letter to Asquith, quoting Bagehot and claiming the right to dismiss advisers and dissolve Parliament on his own—which the prime minister ignored. The king also hated the thought of Home Rule. It was actually no more than the self-government that Australia and Canada already enjoyed, but to the king and the Conservative Party it seemed the first step in the dissolution of the British empire, and so—not least because the British government resisted so long—it would prove. As the Home Rule bill worked its way through Parliament, George took to sending Asquith “neurotic” letters, and summoning him for interviews in which he would complain about “his own position,50 and the terrible cross-fire to wh. he conceives himself to be exposed.”

In May 1913, at the wedding of Wilhelm’s youngest child and only daughter, Victoria, the three emperors came together for only the second time in their lives since 1889. The wedding was the last of the big royal gatherings that had been supposed to create such harmony in Europe. It was billed as a happy resolution to the old dispute over Prussia’s swallowing up of the kingdom of Hanover in 1866: Victoria was marrying Prince Ernest August of Cumberland, son of Alexandra and Minny’s sister Thyra, and grandson of Queen Victoria’s cousin the King of Hanover. It was the last time all three would be together, the last time any of them met.

There were the familiar receptions and reviews, a gala dinner for 1,200. Fritz Ponsonby, as ever in attendance, noted that Wilhelm was in “great spirits,”51 that the Germans were harder than usual to talk to, and everyone had to stand for even longer than they’d expected.

Even so, the occasion raised in the protagonists a whisper of the old hopes that royal meetings made a difference. The kaiser, as usual, fancied the event as a moment of personal diplomacy. Afterwards he reported to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, “It went off52 extremely pleasantly and favourably. King George V, the Emperor and I were agreed on an absolutely complete conformity regarding the affairs of the Balkan states … The King of England as well as the Tsar are in complete agreement with me and are firmly resolved to keep the unbridled Bulgarian desire for aggrandizement at the expense of Turkey and of other states strictly within bounds.” He decided that he and George had got on so well that he would arrange a return visit to Britain. He might even have a genuine shot at weakening the Entente.

In truth, during the wedding Wilhelm had been torn between delight at the turnout and jealousy of his cousins. He made it clear that George would not be welcome at the station when he went to meet Nicholas off the St. Petersburg train, because he didn’t want to be upstaged. And he was determined, George later recalled, not to allow his two cousins to be alone together, for fear that they would whisper behind his back. When the two did manage a few moments together, George was convinced that “William’s ear was53 glued to the keyhole.” A year later, as Europe lurched towards conflict, Wilhelm insisted his cousins—two men who never talked politics if they could help it—had been plotting against him at the wedding.

In fact, George had come to the wedding with a tiny flame of expectation. The previous December Heinrich had told him that he still nursed “hopes that England54 and Germany might go together, for the sake of the world’s peace!” and begged him to make a state visit to Germany. “Please think about it seriously—it might do a world of good!” The king’s ambitions, however, were quickly extinguished by the proximity of Wilhelm. George, one German courtier observed, was most at ease discussing horseflesh55 with the kaiser’s Master of the Horse. He was genuinely pleased, though, to see Nicholas, who arrived by train with a hundred policemen.56 “I had a long57 and satisfactory talk with dear Nicky, he was just the same as always,” he wrote in his diary. The same, of course, was good. George later wrote that Nicholas and he had “entirely agreed upon58 the great importance of maintaining the most friendly relations between our two countries,” in order to secure “the peace of Europe.” Given the banality of their letters, it is hard to imagine that Wilhelm had anything to feel anxious about. In any case, all three men had long since withdrawn into their own national orthodoxies. Nicholas was resentful that the British and German moves to resolve the Balkan Wars had destroyed Russia’s latest hope of taking the Straits, and at the Russian court Pan-Slavist, anti-German attitudes were very much in the ascendant. The German government was committed to supporting Austria in the Balkans, and Wilhelm liked to tell visiting Austrian envoys that they should get on and deal once and for all with the Serbs.

As if to confirm the irrelevance of the event, barely six months afterwards Russia and Germany found themselves once again trading threats as once again one small act took on frightening significance. A German lieutenant general called Otto Liman von Sanders was appointed as instructor to the Turkish army and commander of the 1st Ottoman Army Corps, the garrison that guarded Constantinople. The Russians instantly saw the appointment as a deliberate move to put the Straits under German control. Nicholas asked Kokovtsov, who was in Berlin, to demand an explanation from the German government. In a scene played out many times before, Wilhelm assured the Russian minister that the whole matter had been thoroughly discussed during Nicholas’s attendance at the wedding in May. Nicholas “had then offered59 no objections … his interference now that all details had been arranged was, to say the least, inconsistent.” Should he, the kaiser mused, consider these complaints “an ultimatum”? Kokovtsov, unused to Wilhelm’s manner, didn’t know what to say; he could hardly challenge the word of an emperor. At lunch he shuddered as Wilhelm veered between joviality and indignation—listing the good deeds he had performed for Russia and complaining about her “ingratitude”—and warnings: “In spite of all this the outbursts of your press … have become insufferable; they will lead inevitably to a catastrophe which I shall be powerless to avert.”

   Nicholas, outraged, “flatly denied that any agreement had been reached.”60 The Russian government demanded that Liman von Sanders be removed, while the Russian press made angry denunciations. The Germans refused to stand down, protesting that the appointment was simply an exchange of personnel. There was a long tradition of European military staff giving training to the Turkish army; British naval officers had recently been seconded to its navy. Neither the British nor the French, indeed, could see why the Russians were so exercised.

At an emergency meeting of the tsar’s Council of Ministers it was agreed that, if the Germans refused to back down, Russia would consider military action, including the seizing of Turkish ports, and seek military aid from France and Britain, in order to force Germany to capitulate. Behind the precipitousness of the reaction was a fear that Germany meant to be a player in the Near East. The appointment of Liman von Sanders, like the Baghdad railway, seemed evidence of German intentions.* Kokovtsov reminded the meeting that war was the greatest misfortune that could befall Russia, but his words were ignored. It was a seismic, if not altogether unexpected, turnaround in the Russian government’s thinking. The fundamental axiom of policy had been that war meant disaster. Now it seemed that humiliation and the potential loss of Russia’s Great Power status were a greater priority. Thankfully, the Germans backed down in January 1914 and the Turks promoted Liman von Sanders to field marshal, which made him too senior to command a Turkish corps. “Now I have only62 friendly smiles for Germany,” Nicholas told Count Pourtalès, the German ambassador, after the Germans backed down.

Actually the Liman von Sanders affair seemed to break the last shreds of Nicholas’s belief in German goodwill. He was convinced it had proved the reality of the German threat. At the end of January 1914 he gave an audience to the former French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, and told him that he foresaw “a perhaps inevitable63 and imminent collision between German ambitions and Russian interest,” and said Russia would not allow itself to be trampled on. In March he told the British ambassador, Buchanan, that “he had reason to64 believe that Germany was aiming at acquiring such a position at Constantinople as would enable her to shut in Russia altogether in the Black Sea. Should she attempt to carry out this policy He would have to resist with all His power, even should war be the only alternative.” He was not alone. As one of his courtiers observed, the belief “that war is inevitable65 has grown and grown in all classes.” The extent of anti-German feeling among Russians prompted a former minister, Durnovo, to write a memo to the tsar outlining in horribly prescient detail the disasters a war with Germany would bring, arguing that ties with Britain—ties which had brought Russia no real benefits—were simply accelerating the likelihood of that clash. But for Nicholas Germany had finally and indubitably taken Britain’s place as Russia’s main enemy. With the British, however, the conflicts had been fought out at a distance in Asia. Germany was on the doorstep.

Russian attempts to lure Britain into alliance, however, continued to fail. In May 1914 Nicholas summoned Buchanan and said he wanted to see France, Britain and Russia working much more closely together. But Russia was behaving so badly in Persia that the Convention was on the point of collapse. The British Foreign Office, moreover, suspected Russia now had its eye on Turkish Armenia. When Buchanan put the British position to Nicholas—as carefully as he could—the tsar refused to accept it: “I can only tell66 you, as I have so often told you before, that my one desire is to remain firm friends with England and, if I can prevent it, nothing shall stand in the way of the closest possible understanding between our two countries.” Finally, in June, George was conscripted by Grey to bring the subject to the tsar’s attention—or rather the Foreign Office drafted a letter and George copied it. He said he was now “so anxious upon67 this subject, that I write this private letter to explain what is causing me this anxiety. It is the present unsatisfactory state of affairs in Persia. It is my great desire to see a friendly feeling towards Russia preserved in British public opinion and in both political parties … that makes me most anxious that our two Governments should have a frank and friendly exchange of views on the whole situation in Persia.” He knew, he added, that he could count on Nicky’s friendship to remove any misunderstandings.

In Germany, meanwhile, talk of “inevitable struggles” and “preventive wars” just wouldn’t go away. The idea of imminent war had acquired a momentum of its own. In November 1913 Bethmann-Hollweg had delivered a Reichstag speech warning against a preventive war. The Pan-German League announced in April 1914 that “France and Russia68 are preparing for the decisive struggle with Germany and Austria-Hungary and they intend to strike at the first opportunity.” Moltke, the chief of staff, held talks that spring with the foreign minister, Jagow, and told him that, while now Germany was still a match for its enemies, in a couple of years they would be too strong. “The Chief of Staff therefore proposed that I should conduct a policy with the aim of provoking a war in the near future.” The kaiser himself told the Hamburg banker Max Warburg that the Russians were preparing for a war in 1916, and mused that it might be better to attack first. On 27 June the American special envoy Colonel Edward House, who had come to Europe to try to broker a compact between the United States, Germany and Britain to prevent a major war, came from Germany to meet Sir Edward Grey in London. He described to Grey “the militant war spirit in Germany and the high tension of the people. I thought that Germany would strike quickly when she moved … I thought the Kaiser himself and most of his immediate advisors did not want war … but the army was military and aggressive and ready for war at any time.”69

The next day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the empire of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated at Sarajevo.

* Lloyd George’s views had begun to shift after a private visit to Germany in the summer of 1908. He’d gone ostensibly to examine Germany’s social insurance system, but actually to see if he might bypass the Foreign Office and find what the German government’s real attitude to Britain and arms reduction was. He had been taken aback by the pervasiveness of army culture and admiration for the army, and discouraged by the German government’s refusal to engage with him. The only minister who would meet him, a then unpromoted Bethmann-Hollweg, wouldn’t discuss arms at all, and after a couple of beers started accusing Britain of hating Germany.

* In fact Wilhelm did harbour fantasies of taking over the Turkish army. Seeing off Liman von Sanders’s mission, he had told them their task was the “Germanisation of the61 Turkish army through leadership and direct control of the organisational activity of the Turkish ministry of war,” and said he hoped “the German flag will soon fly over the fortifications of the Bosphorus”—but this, as so often, expressed an aspiration rather than a plan.

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