Eight and a half million soldiers were dead (an estimated 750,000 British, 2 million German, 1.8 million Russian—though the figures vary1), and at least another million or so civilians—up to 700,000 in Germany alone. A further 21 million soldiers had been wounded. The postwar world was a very different place from the pre-war world, one not amenable to the old hierarchies and the whims of kings; in many respects, an ugly world. Europe was not “cleansed” and the worst was by no means over. The violent tearing out of the monarchy in Russia and Germany had left gaping holes which would be filled by extremism and more violence. Russia was already in the grip of a new five-year civil war on a scale even more hideous than the one that had preceded it. It would leave an estimated 8 to 10 million victims of massacres, pogroms, disease and starvation, in circumstances and numbers which seemed only to demonstrate the absolute nadir of human cruelty and destructiveness. Germany was in the midst of a bitter short-lived Communist revolution. Its brutal quelling was the awkward cradle in which German democracy, under the Weimar Republic, was born in January 1919, in circumstances which only worsened the horrible fractures in German society. The radical Left felt betrayed by the new governing Social Democrats. The extreme Right, nationalists and the army continued to dream of an authoritarian past, coining a powerful but false myth that it was not they who were responsible for Germany’s downfall, but the revolutionaries and mutineers who had stabbed Germany in the back just at the point when it was winning. It was a myth that would help to lead Germany into another world war.
Soon after the Armistice there were calls for the ex-kaiser to be punished for his part in the war. Someone, it was felt, should be called to account for the carnage. On 7 December David Lloyd George, fighting a general election in London, said that the ex-kaiser should hang and that he planned to try him in Westminster Hall. Immediately the British press was full of headlines: “Hang the Kaiser!” “Make Germany Pay!” In February 1919 the Allies tried to pressure the Dutch into handing him over. The Treaty of Versailles demanded the extradition of over 1,000 German war criminals for trial, including Wilhelm.
Wilhelm was convinced he’d be executed if he stood trial abroad. He worried about being kidnapped and taken to The Hague, and wondered about getting himself a police guard. He knew that his presence was not popular in Holland. There had been a number of half-hearted attempts to get at him—none of them very serious. With typical operetta-style ineffectuality, his entourage discussed disguising him and sending him into hiding. Wilhelm refused to shave off his moustache, though he said he could turn the ends down, and pointed out people would recognize his withered arm—one of the few occasions when he directly mentioned it. Instead he grew his beard and took to his bed for six weeks, wearing a bandage around his head, hoping it would make the Dutch feel sorry for him. It was Dona, however, who was genuinely ill. She had heart disease, a condition she had consistently minimized so as not to burden her husband; after her arrival at Amerongen, she spent most of her time in bed.
The ex-kaiser’s entourage considered asking George to protest about Wilhelm’s extradition. The king utterly disapproved of his cousin being treated as a war criminal—he subjected Lloyd George to a “violent tirade” on the subject. He would not, however, intervene on Wilhelm’s behalf. In the war’s four years he’d lost all sympathy for his cousin. When his son Bertie encountered Wilhelm’s daughter Victoria a few weeks after the Armistice, she said she hoped that “we should be friends again.” Bertie told her that he didn’t think it would be possible. George agreed: “The sooner she knows the real feeling of bitterness which exists here against her country the better.”2 To the end of his life, he refused to have any contact with Wilhelm.
The Dutch government rejected every attempt to extradite the former kaiser; there were laws in Holland protecting aliens who had sought sanctuary there on political grounds. After Versailles, moreover, the demands for Wilhelm’s punishment were never pursued, at least on Lloyd George’s part, with much real energy. He regarded them as crowd-pleasing rhetoric for an angry domestic market, and hoped they would divert criticism from the new German government.
When the U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, came to London in December 1918, George took an instant dislike to him. Wilson, who was even more awkward and shy than George, had become, with his talk of free states, the flag-bearer of republicanism and independence. The king also felt the president was high-handed, gave America too much credit for winning the war and failed to acknowledge the sacrifices that British troops had made. Perhaps he could feel the initiative in world affairs shifting quietly and permanently from Britain to America as they spoke. When he suggested that Wilson march his troops to Russia to “protect the country from Bolshevism,” Wilson told him the American army had come to Europe for one purpose only. “After that I never thought much of the man … I could not bear him, an entirely cold academical professor—an odious man.”3
By Russian and German standards, Britain was calm and stable. The monarchy was intact. The war actually increased the size of the British empire. Because its armies were in control of the Middle East, it found itself the dominant power there. At the Versailles Conference it scooped up the old German colonies in Africa. And since the war had been fought with imperial troops—Canadian, antipodean, South African and Indian soldiers had all contributed—it looked like an imperial victory, a triumph binding the empire more closely than ever.
The feeling of elation at the war’s end quickly gave way to a sense of disappointment and frustration: a generation of young men was dead, and there was no sign of the promised Elysium. There was anger at low war pensions, a housing shortage, high inflation. Shortly after the war, George went to Hyde Park with his son and heir, David, Prince of Wales, to inspect a parade of 15,000 ex-servicemen disabled by the war. There was, David gradually realized as he watched his father ride down the lines, something wrong, “a sullen unresponsiveness” in the men. Suddenly, banners appeared. Someone shouted, “Where is this land fit for heroes?” A group of soldiers broke rank and ran towards George. He was cut off from his entourage and seemed about to be pulled to the ground. As it turned out the men just wanted to touch his hand. But it was a frightening moment. The king had no vocabulary for what he’d witnessed. “‘Those men were in a funny temper,’ he said. And shaking his head, as if to rid himself of any unpleasant memory, he strode indoors.”4
The war marked the high point of British territorial acquisition, and also the beginning of the empire’s unravelling. In Ireland, the British government fought a war from January 1919 to 1921, acquiescing with bad grace to Irish independence in 1922. The Versailles Conference confirmed the right of the Dominions (the white colonies) to be autonomous nations within the Commonwealth—a right they believed they’d earned by fighting. Never again would a British king be able to declare war on their behalf. The 800,000 Indian troops (of whom 60,000 died) who had fought in the war encouraged the Indian independence movement to argue that India too had earned its right to self-government, and to begin a campaign of disobedience. The reaction of the British colonial government—the imposition of a dictatorial regime in 1918 worthy of tsarist Russia, complete with press censorship, arrest without warrant, detention without trial, martial law and an ugly and wholly avoidable massacre of 379 civilians at Amritsar in April 1919—only strengthened that conviction, and caused so much shame in Britain that it set India, slowly, on the road to independence.
When Nicholas’s sister Xenia and his mother, Marie, escaped from the Crimea with a boatload of Romanov relations in 1919, George offered the women asylum—the men were told “their presence would be5 blamed on the King’s influence.”* Marie retired to Denmark, where she infuriated her nephew the Danish king with her extravagance. George settled a pension on her (which several of his in-laws complained about having to contribute towards) but wouldn’t let her have a cheque book in case she spent it all at once. To Xenia, who was also disastrous with money (she mainly kept giving it away to down-at-heel Romanov relations), George gave a pension and a grace-and-favour house at Windsor and later at Hampton Court. After Marie died in 1928 her famous jewellery collection, which had been valued at one time, according to Fritz Ponsonby, at between 350,000 and half a million pounds, was sold off to provide money for her two daughters. It brought in just over £100,000 and Mary bought a lot of it. The difference in value could be accounted for by the slump and the fact that the market was awash with Russian heirlooms, but the sisters found it hard to shake the feeling that there was something a little discomfiting about their cousin-in-law, on whom the family now so depended, acquiring the family jewels at a cut-rate price.
Separated by a small channel of water and a war on a scale that no one had seen before, George, fifty-three, and Wilhelm, sixty, in early 1919, contemplated the future. Nicholas lay in an anonymous grave in Eastern Siberia.
Wilhelm spent the rest of his life in Holland. He moved in 1920 to Haus Doorn, a modest seventeenth-century manor house, bought with the proceeds of the sale of a couple of yachts. There he lived with a small court of forty-six, including twenty-six servants, for the next twenty-three years. The house was stuffed with the contents of the twenty-three railway wagons, twenty-five furniture wagons and twenty-seven wagons of packages (including a car and a boat) which the Weimar government had sent him from Germany. The German government also agreed to acknowledge U.S. $2 million of land Wilhelm owned in Berlin, and in 1926 arranged for the transfer of millions of marks in cash and some 10 to 12 million marks of stocks and bonds. Wilhelm, nevertheless, always complained he’d been shoddily treated by the German government; to requests for financial assistance he always replied that he barely had enough to live on himself. He died worth an estimated 14 million marks. An equivalent figure in today’s money6 would be around $62.5 million. Perhaps if one had been Emperor of Germany it wouldn’t have seemed that much.
As a symbol of what he’d lost, he abandoned the military uniforms he’d worn since he was eighteen and adopted civilian dress—blue serge suits, loden capes, a little hunting hat and a tie pin with a miniature of Queen Victoria on it. He gave up hunting and riding—and made his entourage do so too—and took to walking round his estate and feeding the ducks in the moat, taking very occasional car rides round the nearby countryside in his Mercedes cabriolet. It must have been deeply oppressive for a man who had become accustomed to escaping from himself—and awkward feelings—with incessant and compulsive travel. Instead he let off steam by cutting down trees (with the help of a couple of servants), a habit that became an addiction. He chopped down his twenty thousandth tree on his seventieth birthday in 1929. The logs were distributed to the poor or turned into matchsticks and handed out like decorations to the curious and the faithful who came to visit.
In September 1920 Dona and Wilhelm’s youngest son, and her favourite, Joachim, shot himself in the depths of depression. He was addicted to gambling and his wife had left him. A devastated Dona died seven months later, in April 1921. Wilhelm received 10,000 messages of condolence—a mark perhaps more of the respect with which Dona had been regarded in Germany than real enthusiasm for himself. There was no message from George, which particularly stung Wilhelm. The only member of the British family who did write was his aunt Beatrice, two years his senior, whom he’d always disliked. The kaiser, his young aide Sigurd von Ilsemann noted, was miserable for two weeks. After that, he complained about being lonely. He remarried eighteen months later, in 1923. The bride, Princess Hermine von Schönaich-Carolath, was thirty years his junior, a determined widow with five children who had set out to bag the ex-kaiser and liked to be addressed as “Empress.” The entourage and Wilhelm’s children regarded her as an egregious gold-digger with a nasty face. Some felt they deserved each other, but she did at least make life with the ex-kaiser a little easier.
Never learning, never changing, cooped up in Haus Doorn unable to escape himself, Wilhelm was very difficult to live with. He raged at the injustice of fate and the “lies of Versailles” and engaged in permanent self-justification, rewriting the past, blaming everyone else for the fall of Germany, the end of the Hohenzollerns and the failures of his reign, and hoping that the German people—for whom he expressed only contempt—would come to their senses and “beg me to come and save them.”7 In 1922 his valet of twenty years, unable to bear it anymore, ran off in tears. None of his children chose to share exile with him; all but one returned to Germany, where Willy, Eitel Frederick and August-Wilhelm (“Auwi”) became mixed up in monarchist and far-right circles, hoping to see the monarchy returned, and later flirted with Nazism. Adalbert, the third son, disassociated himself from his relations and was considered to be strongly anti-Nazi. He moved quietly to Switzerland. It was hard to avoid the feeling that the family was broken. A rump of the entourage, habituated to a lifetime of deference and obedience, unable to imagine a German republic, stayed, continuing to stand for hours after dinner, exasperated but uncomplaining, while Wilhelm monologued over and over about how Edward VII had conspired against him; how Tirpitz and Ludendorff and Hindenburg and Max von Baden had betrayed him; how George had gone to war to further Edward’s encirclement plans; and how the Freemasons, the Catholics, the French, the British, the Bolsheviks and, increasingly and more darkly as the years passed, the Jews especially had plotted to destroy him. Reading Bernhard von Bülow’s memoirs in the late 1920s, Sigurd von Ilsemann, the endlessly patient young aide who had followed Wilhelm into exile after only a few weeks of service in 1918, was “struck over and over8 again by how little the Kaiser has changed since those times. Almost everything that occurred then still happens now, the only difference being that his actions, which then had grave significance and practical consequences, now do no damage.”
Safe from the threat of a trial, the ex-kaiser set about writing—or having ghostwritten—his version of the events that had led to the war. Ereignisse und Gestalten (Events and Figures) came out in 1922; Aus meinem Leben, published in Britain as My Early Life, in 1927. The books were, predictably, litanies of injustices perpetrated against him—from his mother’s pushing and his tutor’s bullying, through his chancellors’, ministers’ and relations’ betrayals, to the criminal fickleness of British ministers and the German people—drenched in self-pity and, occasionally and unintentionally, very comic. Never did Wilhelm accept that he was in any sense responsible for the end of the Hohenzollern dynasty. He’d convinced himself he was a martyr to his people—winning the war until Hindenburg forced him to abandon his troops and flee to Holland. In all the years of exile, no one ever recorded Wilhelm expressing any remorse or sadness or empathy for the way his people had suffered, starved and died during the war.
The war permanently changed George. He never lost his worn, baggy-eyed look. “That horrible and9 unnecessary war” haunted him and he found the post-war world a foreign, chilly place, one where the codes by which he had been brought up had less purchase. He hated the thought of losing Ireland, but hated the brutal methods the British were using to quell the resistance. More than ever he took refuge in the past and the familiar. He continued to wear the fashions of 1900; at court he insisted on the correct coats, jackets and hats that had been de rigueur in his father’s time. As Lord Esher wrote towards the end of the war, with a trace of exasperation: “Either the world10 has stopped or Buckingham palace remains unchanged. The same routine. A life made up of nothings—yet a busy scene. Constant telephone messages about trivialities.” Resistance to change seemed tied up with the rejection of “gaiety” or liveliness, style or curiosity. “The element of11 fun was notably absent,” Mary’s biographer wrote. To the country, however, the fact that George was stuck in the past made him popular—that and his ordinariness. He seemed an anchor of stability, reliability and old-fashioned values. He was firmly identified with the “spirit of hard work12 and personal sacrifice which had won us the war,” as the young socialist thinker Harold Laski wrote in 1919, adding, “The Monarchy, to put it bluntly, has been sold to the democracy as the symbol of itself.”
Even so, George never lost his sense of the fragility of his position, and after the war he and his advisers made a conscious decision to re-pitch the Crown to the country. Stamfordham wrote that the monarchy must justify itself
as a living13 power for good, with receptive faculties welcoming information affecting the interests and social well-being of all classes, and ready, not only to sympathize with those questions, but anxious to further their solution … if opportunities are seized, during His Majesty’s visits to industrial centres, in conversation with the workmen, to show his interest in such problems as employers and employed will have to solve, these men will recognize in the Crown those characteristics—may I say “virtues”?—which I have ventured to enumerate above. In other words, as disinterested but engaged with the people, especially the working classes.
It was George who established the British monarchy as the domestic, decorative, ceremonial, slightly stolid creation it is today. He threw himself into the project, steeled himself to become more visible to his people, visited the poor industrial regions of South Wales, the Potteries and the North East, and cooperated with the press that he so disliked. Charities were set up, philanthropic projects adopted. As the children came of age, they too were co-opted into the family project—the smoothly handsome David was sent to meet the unemployed and tour the Commonwealth; the second son, Albert, went to visit factories and shipyards and lent his name to a camp where public-school and working-class boys could mix. Eventually, George put up a map at Buckingham Palace with flags marking family members’ visits, and at the end of each year he would draw up a chart showing who had done the most. When the children got married, Labour MPs were invited to their weddings. In 1932 George made his first radio broadcast from a script written by Rudyard Kipling. He loathed doing it and the paper still shook as he read it out, but to his immense surprise his slow, deliberate delivery was a huge success.
His now habitual caution dictated that he no longer pushed or challenged the limits of his constitutional role, and he trained himself to steer away from partisan politics. Combined with the gradual political changes of the previous twenty years, it made him a far more marginal figure than his father or grandmother had been, and he found himself presiding over social and political changes of which he utterly disapproved. Women over thirty got the vote in 1918. In December 1923, after the Conservative Party lost its majority in the House of Commons, leaving the Labour Party as the next largest party, George didn’t hesitate before asking its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, to form a government. His promptness arguably helped to make this political shift less seismic than it might have been, and anchored the Labour Party into Britain’s political traditions. He decided to be graceful about the situation. “I must say they14 all seem to be very intelligent and they take things very seriously,” he wrote in his diary. “… They ought to be given a chance.” Between themselves, however, he and Mary continued to refer to Keir Hardie as “that beast,” and he wondered in his diary what Victoria would have thought. As many of the surviving kings in Europe—in Italy, Serbia, Spain and Romania—fought social and constitutional reform, and even personally ushered in fascist dictatorships, George showed no interest whatsoever in the small English neo-fascist organizations of the 1920s which claimed they wanted to restore the monarchy.
There were some things he wouldn’t do. The Labour Party wanted to re-establish links with the Soviet Union. George said he wouldn’t shake hands with “the murderers of his relatives.” “The King was rather excited over Russia, and talked a lot of man-in-the-bus nonsense about Bolsheviks, etc,”15 Ramsay MacDonald wrote. When a Russian delegation arrived to discuss trade and compensation for confiscated British property in 1924, George did not receive it. He pleaded illness when the new Russian ambassador came to present his credentials to Buckingham Palace in 1929, and was furious when he was forced to shake hands with the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, Litvinov, in 1933.
As the 1930s darkened, George dreaded the thought of another war. He had no doubt that Hitler was a bad thing. Less than a year before his death, in 1935, the king met Lloyd George. The subject of Mussolini, who had just sent an Italian army into Ethiopia, was raised. “HM fired up16 and broke out vehemently, And I will not have another war, I will not. The last war was none of my doing, and if there is another one and we are threatened with being brought into it, I will go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself sooner than allow this country to be brought in.’”
Wilhelm, meanwhile, flirted with the Nazis. Some of the party’s senior figures hoped they might glean a useful blessing from the ex-kaiser, and Hermann Göring came to visit Wilhelm at Doorn twice in 1931, talking vaguely and flatteringly of restoration. Wilhelm fancied the Nazis might sponsor his return, and four of his sons became mixed up with the party in the early 1930s. Willy, the former crown prince, wrote articles supporting Hitler in the British press, and Friedrich Eitel and Oskar both appear to have briefly joined the Brownshirts in the 1930s. They drifted away as it became obvious that the Nazis didn’t plan on restoring the Hohenzollerns. Auwi, however, moved up the Nazi hierarchy until he fell out of favour with Hitler in 1942. Neither side had any respect for the other. Privately, Göring considered Wilhelm an “incorrigible fool;” Hitler, who had no intention of restoring the monarchy, said he was “pro-Jew.”17 Wilhelm seemed alternately jealous of and horrified by Hitler’s success—and, of course, considered him common. He was chilled by the “night of the long knives”—he’d talked about suspending the rule of law but had never actually done it.
In 1935 George’s Silver Jubilee confirmed the success of the royal postwar project. He and Mary were obliged to appear on the balcony at Buckingham Palace every night for a week; they were cheered in streets in the East End of London which Lord Salisbury had once told Victoria were full only of socialists and the lowest Irish,18 and the Jubilee Trust set up by the Crown to raise money for charity made a million pounds in a few weeks. George was seventy. He smoked too much and his heart was weak, and by the end of 1935 his health was seriously failing. Late on 20 January 1936, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, the court doctor administered a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine, the timing dictated, he later admitted, by “the importance of the death19 receiving its first announcement in the morning papers rather than the less appropriate field of the evening journals.” It was a mark of just how attuned the British monarchy had become to the requirements of “the people.”
Wilhelm took the opportunity to make contact with the English family once more. He wrote to Mary and sent his grandson Fritzi to the funeral.* Despite everything, he had been unable to rid himself of his attraction to all things English. He continued to read the English papers, drank English tea, guffawed over P. G. Wodehouse, and sprinkled his conversation with “ripping,” “topping” and “damned good fellow.” In his memoirs he wrote wistfully about his former popularity in England. Mary still had what one of her courtiers called “a soft spot”20 for Wilhelm and felt sorry for him. She gave Fritzi a gold box from George’s writing desk as a memento for Wilhelm. “Deeply moved by21 the kind thought that prompted you to send me this gift as a souvenir,” he wrote to her, and signed himself her “devoted cousin.”
After Munich, in 1938, he wrote again. “I have not the22 slightest doubt that Mr. N Chamberlain was inspired by Heaven and guided by God.” Then when Germany marched into Czechoslovakia twelve days later, he wrote, demonstrating the peculiar mix of understanding and complete misunderstanding that had dogged him his whole life: “I am absolutely23 horrified at the late events at home! Pure bolshevism!” In November he denounced the Kristallnacht pogrom, even though he had become increasingly anti-Semitic himself. He told visitors that it would all go wrong for Hitler, just as it had for him. When war broke out in September 1939, he wrote to Mary of the “political lunacy24 … May heaven preserve us from the worst!” But as the Germans ploughed across Europe, it began to seem to Wilhelm as if old scores were finally, gratifyingly, being settled. When they marched into Paris, he cabled congratulations to Hitler—an act that would result in the confiscation of Haus Doorn after the war. He died of a heart attack on 4 June 1941 at eighty-one, the same age as his grandmother, proud that “his” generals had conquered half of Europe. At the same time, determined to deny Hitler a propaganda opportunity, he had left instructions that his body was not to be returned to Berlin. He was buried at Doorn, with no swastikas. Of his children, only two, Victoria and Oskar, both quietly living on their estates, would outlive him by more than ten years; the crown prince, Eitel Friedrich and Auwi, all of whom had become mixed up with German politics, would die broken, to some extent, by their experiences of the war.
In the early 1990s, Nicholas’s remains and those of his family were disinterred in a copse outside Ekaterinburg and their identities confirmed by DNA testing. In 1998 their bodies were reinterred in the Peter and Paul Church in St. Petersburg. Where they died in Ekaterinburg there is now a large white and gold onion-domed church “on the blood” (on the site of their actual deaths). In 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church, buoyed by a great surge in Russian patriotism and a desire to wipe away seventy-two years of Soviet rule, declared the last tsar and his family saints.
* They mostly went to France and America.
* Fritzi, Crown Prince Willy’s third son, married into the Guinness family, and became a British citizen in 1947.