7

PERFIDIOUS MUSCOVY

1895–97

Everyone was excited by the accession of Nicholas II. Educated Russians longed for liberalization. The government’s attempts to prevent social change and its supine failure to manage the terrible famine of the early 1890s had hugely discredited it, and Alexander’s Russification policies had spawned the beginnings of angry separatist movements in the further reaches of the empire. Beyond Russia, however, expectations were even higher. Both Queen Victoria and the kaiser hoped that the young tsar would lean towards them, and were convinced that the key would be royal relationships. The British—inspired by Edward’s triumphant Russian visit—even thought they could see the seeds of a genuine liberalization. “The first acts1 of the new reign point to liberal measures,” the Prince of Wales’s equerry Arthur Ellis had reported to the queen, “—press censure of telegrams removed … to the dismay and astonishment of the ultra-Conservatives.” The tsar had told a deputation from much-persecuted Poland that “all his subjects were equal and alike in his own eyes.” “How not to2 admire him,” his second cousin Konstantin Romanov wrote in his diary, “such simplicity, such calm, the modesty in which there is so much majesty, and particularly that clear, deep expressive look, cannot fail but charm and enchant.” The truth was, Nicholas was such a blank canvas, so unknown, except for his much-admired personal charm and gentleness, that it was easy to project all kinds of wishful thinking onto him.

Within Russia, the illusion didn’t last long. In February 1895 a polite zemstvo delegation from the province of Tver petitioned the tsar that “the expression of the needs and thought not only of the administration but of the Russian people may reach to the height of the throne.” The British ambassador in St. Petersburg noted that their words had been “couched in the most3 loyal language and merely expressed the hope that the zemstvo might prove the means of direct communication between His Majesty and the People.” But the minister of the interior had told the tsar that it was an infringement of his prerogatives and an implied criticism of his father’s policies. Nicholas decided it represented a dangerous precedent, an attempt to take part in government. Replying to the zemstvo’s petition he dismissed it as “senseless dreams.” “I shall maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my unforgettable dead father,” he added. In government circles it was understood that the speech had been written by Alexander III’s most reactionary adviser, Pobedonostsev. “The speech had created a most unfavourable impression,”4 the British ambassador wrote; “the most distressing5 impression,” echoed a senior Russian diplomat. The fact was, all the way through the century, the arrival of a new tsar had always set off fantasies of liberalization and reform; they had always been disappointed.

Still, the tsar continued to express his fondness for his “English relations” and told the British ambassador how much he wanted “cordial relations with England,”6 and that since there was no longer any difference of opinion between the two countries, they should act “in perfect harmony” to solve the world’s problems. He wrote enthusiastically to Edward in the New Year of 1895 about the delegation from the Scots Greys Guards regiment who brought him his new uniform: “I find them such nice7 fellows … I cannot say how proud and pleased I was.” Not long afterwards Russia and Britain began negotiations to resolve the arguments over the boundaries of the Pamirs in the Himalayas. To demonstrate the new closeness, a portrait of the queen hung over the mantelpiece in the tsarina’s private sitting room. Alix and the queen corresponded regularly,* and the queen took to writing regularly to “Dearest Nicky,” signing herself “Grandmama,” enquiring after “poor dear Alicky’s” health and offering up tidbits of family gossip. When their first child, Olga, was born in November 1895, the imperial couple asked the queen to be godmother. The Daily Telegraph wrote that the birth “would be received8 with much friendly interest in this country, where all that concerns the present and future of Russia is the subject of intelligent and sympathetic appreciation.” It seemed natural that the warmth would lead to a new attitude in Anglo-Russian relations.

In the spirit of hopeful cooperation, the British government began to invite the Russians to work with it. It asked them to apply pressure to the Ottoman government, which had colluded in a series of massacres of Armenians, a Christian ethnic group within the Turkish empire campaigning for self-determination, in 1894 and ’95. The Russians declined. In early 1895 it asked the Russians to back a call for an armistice in the Far East, where the Chinese, having provoked a war with Japan, had been thoroughly beaten and were begging the Great Powers for help. The Russians were evasive; in fact, it was impossible to get an answer at all. The requests were not outlandish: Russia had long claimed to be the defender of Christians within the Ottoman empire. As for the Far East, it was in no Western power’s interest to let Japan establish a foothold in China, the last great unplucked colonial plum, which also happened to be on Russia’s doorstep. The British were disappointed. Then the two countries argued in April 1895, when the Russians—suddenly realizing the Japanese were planning to annex the northern Chinese province of Manchuria on which they had their own designs—demanded that the British back their campaign to evict them. This time the British refused. They saw no reason to alienate the new de facto rising power in the Far East, and they felt British interests weren’t directly threatened. Lord Rosebery took care, however, to say no with “great delicacy,” not wanting to “shut the door with a bang.” The Russians were unimpressed. The ambassador in London, Baron Georges de Staal, a comfortable fixture on the capital’s society scene who played cards with the Prince of Wales, complained crossly that Rosebery was just fuelling the Russian anti-British party which would “now exclaim, ‘Just what we always told you, that England would leave us in the lurch whenever a pinch came.’”9 The Russian press denounced Britain and its refusal to help evict the Japanese—characteristic double-dealing, they said.

Queen Victoria wrote to Nicholas assuring him “how deeply I & my10 Government deplored not to be able to join in the Representations of Russia and the 2 other Powers to Japan but the feeling was so strong in this Country that it was impossible.” She couldn’t resist, however, complaining about papers and I need not say have caused an angry feeling. But the worst of all is, that they say he is your friend and possesses your confidence, and what I am so anxious for, is that it should be known that you know nothing of these articles and disapprove of them and I am sure you will not mind my writing to you so openly.

Some most violent and offensive articles against England in the Russian Newspapers signed by … the Gentleman (whose name I can’t recall at this moment [the Russian expansionist Prince Alexander Utkhomsky]) but who helped you in writing the account of your journey to India. These [articles] have been translated in to the English

“I must say11 that I cannot prevent people from putting their opinions openly in the newspapers,” Nicholas wrote back. Actually the Russian press was the most state-controlled and strictly censored in the world. “How often have I not been worried to read in English gazettes rather unjust statements in connexion with my country! Even books are being constantly sent to me from London, misinterpreting our actions in Asia, our interior politics, etc. I am sure,” he finished rather sharply, “there is as little hostility intended in these writings, as there is in the above mentioned ones.” It was true that sections of the British press regularly attacked the Russian regime. In October 1895 The Times ran Leo Tolstoy’s account of the brutal persecution of the pacifist Dukhobor sect, members of which had been beaten and starved for refusing to do military service. Like many people in autocratic states Nicholas was convinced that despite British insistence to the contrary, the British government controlled the press and that the queen’s complaints were disingenuous. Russian press hostility towards Britain continued unabated. In November, the same month the queen became godmother to the tsar’s daughter, the outgoing British ambassador, Sir Francis Lascelles, told the tsar in his final audience how “discouraging” the British found this, adding delicately that such articles “would not be written were it not that they were agreeable to the majority of the people”—by which he meant those who controlled the press, i.e., the government. All the emperor would say was “the press had very little importance in Russia.”12

In the autumn, only months after the two countries signed an agreement on the Pamirs, the British Foreign Office received reports that Russian troops had been sighted on the borders of Tibet. Then came rumours—constantly denied by the Russian foreign minister, Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky, a very grand, clever, rather haughty aristocrat from a rich old St. Petersburg family, but confirmed by Chinese sources—that they had made a secret “loan” of £8 million to the cash-strapped Chinese, who, having lost the war with Japan, had been left with a huge war indemnity. In return the Russians demanded trading concessions and the right to extend the Trans-Siberian railway through Manchuria, the large northern Chinese province that pushed deep into Siberia. The British hated the thought of Russia sniffing around in China, where they had made a great deal of money by propping up the imperial government with their own loans, selling the Chinese British goods (opium in particular), and in return for their loans taking control of Chinese customs taxes. They feared a partition or African-like scramble would disrupt their position there. The suave and irritatingly evasive Prince Lobanov, they decided, was “at heart unfriendly.”13 After a year of negotiations, the British ambassador described him as having “almost a diseased mistrust14 of England and of British machinations.” In 1896 the British discovered that Russia was, as the queen put it, “encouraging France15 against us with regard to Egypt.” It seemed that however warm the Russian avowals of friendship, nothing had really changed at all. When the queen met Nicholas’s mother, Minny, on her annual trip to the South of France in April, she told her how “very unhappy”16 she was that things seemed worse now than in Alexander’s time, and “begged her to mention this to Nicky.”

To be honest it was hard to know what was going on in the Russian government. One reason was that the whole functioning of the administration was chaotic. Not unlike Germany, no one organ coordinated policy; ministers reported singly to the tsar, acted unilaterally, and frequently in contradiction with each other. Intrigue was rife. Another reason was that, like most autocracies, the regime felt little need to explain itself to its subjects—or anyone else. The press, tightly controlled by the government, was either official propaganda or unreliable. It had none of the authority of the British press, which covered and discussed government business, debate and policy. Communicating with foreign powers, the Russian government never disclosed internal disagreements or the reasons for delay, and seemed to feel no obligation to be straightforward. The American president, Theodore Roosevelt, would wearily describe it as “a government17 with whom mendacity is a science.” When the German ambassador in St. Petersburg complained a Russian minister had never been honest with him, Wilhelm scribbled on the report, “No impossible18 demands! No Russian has ever done that!”

Another reason for Russian opacity was that Nicholas himself was extraordinarily hard to get access to—unlike Wilhelm, whose endless opinions were printed in the press, and who dropped into the British embassy to let off steam whenever he felt like it. From the start the new tsar shied away from public scrutiny. How active he was in government—whether he was making the decisions or was leaving ruling to a cabal of ministers—and what his position was on a whole range of political issues, were extremely hard to gauge. What he was actually like was just as moot.A rumour that “the Tsar drinks,”19 the German ambassador informed Holstein in November 1895, was “a false scent. It transpired he had been confused with his brother, who drank a great deal …” In fact Nicholas was inscrutable even to his own ministers. He rarely lost his temper, he spoke calmly, he deflected confrontation and difficult subjects, he almost never directly disagreed with or contradicted the person he was talking to—though he might in reality completely disagree with them. He was, his finance minister Sergei Witte later wrote, “exasperatingly polite.”20 He “possessed in a21 supreme degree,” a Russian diplomat observed, “the art of agreeing with his interlocutor in such a way as to make him believe that he had been much impressed and quite convinced by what he had been told—a most delicate kind of flattery.” Often the opposite was true. Nicholas’s sister Olga felt this inscrutable courtesy had become a shield to hide the constant “nervous strain” and anxiety he felt about his inadequacy for the job. “The Grand-Duchess held that the Emperor’s impassivity was a mask he wore to hide his feelings; [she said] ‘ … none of them [his people] knew that their Tsar felt everything so deeply that he was afraid he might break down in public … perhaps only Alicky and I knew how deeply he suffered and worried.’”22 It also, of course, cut him off even more from the people he dealt with, as if he had personally ingested the physical barriers to the world set up during his childhood, and erected more of his own. It was hardly surprising that diplomats resorted to collecting gossip, tapping foreign correspondents, and weighing the murmurings of ministers with their own agendas. “Nothing remains secret23 here long,” a senior British diplomat wrote, “the difficulty here is to sift the truth from the lies.”

The truth was Lobanov did harbour a very traditional Russian hostility to the British, and the Russians were trying to insinuate themselves into China. Lobanov had refused to cooperate with the British over the Armenian massacres because he was convinced that the British wanted to stir up tension in eastern Europe and hoped to grab a sizeable piece of Turkey if the Ottoman empire came tumbling down by itself. The British had a bad habit of moving in their troops on high moral grounds and then accidentally taking over—as they had done in Egypt in 1882. It was also the case that the Russians had an Armenian community of their own and had no desire to stir up demands for self-determination at home by encouraging the Turkish Armenians. Moreover, despite Nicholas’s words about the two countries having no real areas of conflict, the Russian government was raring to pursue an expansionist policy in Asia and the Far East—where Britain was Russia’s chief imperial rival. Only lack of funds had held it back. The Russian finance minister, Sergei Witte, perhaps the smartest official in Nicholas’s government, however, had studied the way the British had acquired their colonies and markets without armies and on the cheap—through “peaceful penetration”—and was following their model, with loans and railways. He regarded himself as a new economic imperialist—unlike most of the Russian ruling elite, who saw the empire primarily in terms of armies, status and land. There was a certain irony in the fact that in order to make loans to the Chinese, he in turn was having to take out huge loans with the French.

Just like the British, Wilhelm nursed hopes of breaking the chill between Russia and Germany. In mid-1894 Germany had signed a trade treaty with Russia which had reduced German tariffs on Russian grain. (One of its consequences had been to enrage the Junker parties but that, for the moment, was another story.) Wilhelm planned to continue the thaw with a new friendship with “charming, agreeable24 and dear” Nicholas. “I can only25 repeat the expression of absolute trust in you and the assurance that I shall always cultivate the old relations of mutual friendship with your House, in which I was reared by my Grandfather,” he’d written to the young tsar a week after the death of the (to him) unlamented Alexander. Wilhelm was convinced that if he could appeal to Nicky’s monarchical instincts, dazzle him with his personality and his winning way with an argument, the tsar’s natural German sympathies would rise to the surface. He would throw over the French alliance, stop flirting with the British and jump into the German fold. Wilhelm decided that the vehicle for his new diplomacy would be a secret correspondence—emperor to emperor—not unlike the early letters he had sent to Alexander III. Not even Eulenburg was to know. (The kaiser’s friend, however, soon realized that something was up. “Our relations with26 the new Tsar do not please me a bit, and I am watching HM’s family politics with real anxiety,” he wrote.) Though he’d written to Alexander in French, the traditional language of Russian diplomacy (Russian ambassadors still made their reports in French) and a legacy of the tsarist admiration for pre-revolutionary France, Wilhelm wrote to Nicholas in English. Why isn’t immediately clear. Nicholas was certainly proficient in German. Perhaps Wilhelm spurned French because he was keen to demonstrate his scorn for all things Gallic, and chose English because it was neutral territory for both.

Just as he’d tried to turn Alexander against the British, Wilhelm’s first letter in February 1895 denounced the latest French administration for “opening the doors to all the worst malefactors the former people with difficulty had managed to imprison.” He congratulated Nicholas on his hard line to the Tver zemstvo: “I am so glad at the capital speech you made the other day to the deputation in response to some addresses for Reform!” He complained that his own Reichstag was behaving “as badly as it can, swinging backwards and forwards between the socialists egged on by the Jews, and the ultramontane Catholics [sic]; both parties being soon fit to be hung all of them as far as I can see.” He described the British Liberal government collapsing “amidst universal derision! In short everywhere the ‘principe de la Monarchie’ is called upon to show itself strong.”27

The kaiser was far from the only German who believed that Germany could and should detach Russia from France. “I have great hopes, incidentally, that the German sympathies of the Tsar will come to the surface …,” the German ambassador in Paris wrote to Holstein. “The quite unnatural love affair between the Republic [France] and the absolute Tsar is like the bastard of a lioness and a tiger, not the product of love but of evil.”28

While the British refused to join Russia’s campaign to get the Japanese out of Manchuria, Germany pointedly supported it. More than that, Wilhelm urged Nicholas to make a bigger effort in the Far East—to take on “the great task”—“to cultivate the Asian Continent and to defend Europe from the inroads of the Great Yellow race.”29 The second goal of his diplomatic correspondence was, he told his Foreign Office, “to tie Russia down30 in East Asia so that she pays less attention to Europe and the near East.” He told Nicholas he would “do all in my power to keep Europe quiet, and also guard the rear of Russia so that nobody shall hamper your action.” He proposed they meet that summer on their yachts to “have a quiet little chat between ourselves … It would be so nice.”31 He repeated his offer to guard Russia’s western front if there was a war in the East to various visiting Russian grandees, while failing to inform any of his own ministers that he’d done so. This promise was an extraordinarily serious one, since it presumably included countering Austria if necessary. When Eulenburg eventually found out about it, he was horrified. “His Majesty has thus32 committed himself—without Hohenlohe. This gives me yet more problems to solve, which fill me with dread! … If Hohenlohe hears of the letter from someone other than me, he will go [i.e., resign] at once. And yet he must know about it!”

Wilhelm’s promises and professions of intimacy, however, brought nothing concrete from the Russians, just Nicholas’s relentless politeness. He charmed every German,33 including the chancellor, whom Wilhelm sent to pay their respects, and complained, gratifyingly, about the perfidiousness of the English. But there was no distancing from France. In fact, Lobanov made a much publicized visit to Paris in September 1895 which Wilhelm complained about at length to—among others—the foreign minister himself, and repeatedly to the tsar. Lobanov’s visit had encouraged those “damned rascals” the French to start moving troops around on the border, one letter complained. “One day my dearest Nicky, you will find yourself nolens volens suddenly embroiled in the most horrible of wars Europe ever saw! Which will by the masses and by history be fixed on you as the cause of it,” he wrote a few days later. “… Think of the awful responsibility for the shocking bloodshed!” The letter was accompanied by an allegorical drawing,34 “Against the Yellow Peril,” Wilhelm had drawn (it had, in fact, been “sketched” by him and “finished” by the artist Hermann Knackfuss), in which Germany, shield and sword in hand, stood ready to defend Russia—a beautiful woman leaning on Germany’s arm—while England and France hung back, dazed by smoke and flames from a vast plain below in which faceless masses held aloft a Buddha and a Chinese dragon. Only weeks later he sent an aide-de-camp to St. Petersburg to repeat his warning, along with yet another letter lecturing Nicholas on “the danger which35 is brought to our Principle of Monarchism through lifting up the Republic on a pedestal by the form under which the friendship is shown … Nicky take my word on it the curse of God has stricken that People for ever!”*

Nicholas continued to smile. By November Wilhelm was losing patience. “HM is beginning37 to be quite angry with the Tsar,” Holstein wrote to the new German ambassador in St. Petersburg, Prince Radolin, “because of the repeated cool rebuffs …”

The truth was the Russian government didn’t want to alienate the Germans, but it had no wish to abandon the French alliance. The French had proved useful. They might be ghastly republicans (which was how the Russian regime regarded them) but this was outweighed by their keenness to provide the huge loans on which the Russian state depended—stepping in when Bismarck had refused to. They shared Russia’s suspicion of Britain, and most of all their antipathy to Germany meant that Russia had a reliable ally to counterbalance Germany in Europe. Slavophilia was gaining ground in government and at court, where influential conservative figures, such as Nicholas’s uncle and brother-in-law Grand Duke Sergei, who once would have seen Germany as an ideological ally, now regarded it as a political, territorial and ideological rival.

As for Wilhelm’s personal charms, Nicholas was thoroughly familiar with his parents’ distrust of the kaiser. Minny’s dislike had certainly played its role, but Nicky was himself irked by the kaiser’s pushy, often brutally obvious, attempts at manipulation. He found him patronizing. “I received Moltke,38 the aide de camp who brought me a letter and drawing from the irritating Monsieur Wilhelm,” he wrote in his diary after yet another of Wilhelm’s urgent missives in September 1895. He would tell Lord Salisbury that he found Wilhelm nervous and excitable, and as “a quiet man39 … he could not stand nervous men. He could not endure a long conversation with the Emperor William, as he never knew what he would do or say. I understood him to say that the Emperor William’s manners were bad; that he would poke him in the ribs, and slap him on the back like a schoolboy.” Alix had nothing good to say about Wilhelm either. Though Wilhelm liked to take the credit for bringing her and Nicholas together, she remembered his childhood visits to Hesse-Darmstadt: he’d been boorish and bossy.40 He’d been rude to her father, who had been one of the few public figures who had stood by Vicky after his father’s death, and to her brother Ernie; and she couldn’t forgive him and Dona for publicly branding her sister Ella (on whom Wilhelm had once had a childhood crush) as a “traitor to her faith41 and her Fatherland” for converting to Russian Orthodoxy.

There was a part of Nicky, however, that was susceptible to Wilhelm. Wilhelm was one of the few people who understood what it felt like to be emperor, and he had an odd ability to home in on people’s preoccupations and vulnerabilities. The “monarchical principle” was one of the few supranational ideas that appealed to Nicky. Like many upper-class Russians, he found the alliance with republican France made him uneasy, and he instinctively distrusted the British. There were moments when Wilhelm’s probings hit a nerve and when Nicholas was persuaded to confide in the German emperor. “I quite agree42 with what You say in the end of Your letter about the Britishers,” Wilhelm replied to a complaint from Nicky. “Their fanfaronades against us make them supremely ridiculous.” Nor was a move towards Germany unthinkable. Amid the many factions in the Russian government was a pro-German one which included men such as Nicky’s Germanophile uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir, as well as the tsar’s minister of court, Count Fredericks, who considered Germany “the last stronghold43 of the monarchical idea; we need her just as she needed us.”

The finance minister, Sergei Witte, believed that Russia needed to be on good terms with her neighbour, if only to decrease the vast sums spent on arming the frontier with Germany since the lapse of the Reinsurance Treaty in 1890.

By 1896 both the Germans and the British were frustrated by their failure to make any headway with the Russians. Instead of blaming the tsar, both pinned the responsibility on his ministers—specifically Lobanov, the foreign minister. Wilhelm and Holstein concluded the tsar was “uninterested”44 in politics and Lobanov was running foreign policy; they saw him as a protégé of the dowager empress, whom they regarded as notoriously anti-German. But the truth was that Nicholas’s views were indivisible from his foreign minister’s, and he liked Lobanov, who was famously witty and amusing. They shared the casual xenophobia which seemed to characterize the Russian court and the Foreign Ministry. The tsar called the Japanese yellow monkeys, and managed comfortably to separate his feelings for his English cousins from his instinctive suspicion of England—and Germany. When the Russian loan to the Chinese government went through in 1895, Nicholas was delighted, pausing only to grumble in his diary that it had been delayed by “the intriguing of45 the British and Germans at Peking.”

The British and Germans, however, chose to see the tsar as they wanted him to be: a good man, at base well disposed to them. Even Britain’s foremost Russian expert, Donald Mackenzie-Wallace, described Nicholas as a man of “strong humanitarian46 sympathies,” and warm feelings for Britain, who disliked Lobanov but had yielded reluctantly to his “great diplomatic experience and his worldwide reputation.” Wilhelm, meanwhile, regarded Nicholas as an innocent who needed to be freed from the manipulations of his ministers and family.

The problem with coming late to the colonial feast, the Germans kept finding, was that everyone else had already staked their claims, especially in Africa. To draw back would be to resign themselves to a few minor colonies, to press on meant conflict with other empire-builders; colonial conflict had become the subject of virtually all arguments with Britain. In November 1895, at a farewell shooting party, the outgoing British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Edward Malet, told the German foreign minister, Marschall von Bieberstein, that he was happy with the general drift of Anglo-German relations (leaving aside, of course, the unmentionable subject of Wilhelm’s disastrous Cowes visit of that summer). But there was, he ventured, just one “dark spot”: their two countries’ rivalry in Southern Africa, specifically in the Transvaal, the enclave in the middle of Southern Africa run by the Boers, the descendants of white Dutch settlers. The British empire, through Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company, controlled the rest of South Africa. The Boer republic looked like an irritating anomaly to empire-builders like Rhodes. The fact that gold had been discovered there also made it eminently covetable. The Germans, however, had interests too. They were some of the tiny state’s biggest investors, and were known to sympathize with the Boers; they had given them diplomatic and economic support; Krupp was also selling guns to them. Their most substantial colony, South-West Africa, was not far away. Encouraged by the Boers themselves, who reckoned that German muscle could help them against the increasingly bullying British colonial government, there had been talk of making the Transvaal a German protectorate. The thought of a rich foothold in Southern Africa excited Wilhelm and the German colonial lobby. The British, needless to say, hated the idea. Malet told Marschall he felt bound to point out that there might be “serious consequences”47 if Germany’s aid continued. Marschall replied that the Germans couldn’t help it if the Boers hated the British.

The conversation appears to have gone no further, but when Wilhelm received a report of it he was furious. He told Nicholas that the ambassador had issued Germany with an ultimatum and been “even so undiplomatic48 as to utter the word ‘war.’” It was a moment when nothing seemed to be going right and Wilhelm was especially touchy. The Reichstag had rejected legislation to which he’d publicly attached himself; his ministers—sick of his erratic interventions—had for once resolved to act collectively and were threatening to resign in order to get their way; it seemed possible they might force some kind of constitutional limits on him. His frequent spitting rages had left Eulenburg fearing for his sanity and at least one minister wondering if he was “entirely normal.”49 Summoning Colonel Swaine, the British military attaché,* Wilhelm complained bitterly that, having rejected his friendship, Britain was now threatening him. Malet’s “astonishing accusations,” he said, were the last straw. “For the sake of a few square miles full of negroes and palm trees England threatened to declare war on its one real friend, the German Emperor,” he later reported himself as saying. Swaine, completely taken aback, assured him that there must be a misunderstanding. No, said Wilhelm, it was all of a piece with the way Britain’s “government press” had “behaved in a most unwarranted way towards me. Germany and the Triple Alliance had been perpetually calumnied and teased.” But it was England who was making the mistake. England had brought total isolation on herself by her “selfishness and bullying.” Sooner or later Britain would have to make a choice—Germany and the Triple Alliance, or the other side. “The Colonel seemed profoundly shaken and affected,”50 Wilhelm ended his account of the conversation.

Salisbury, alerted to Wilhelm’s sulk, sent a message that Malet’s words, whatever they had been, had no official force. The kaiser, calmed, decided that his diplomatic skills and eloquence had extracted an apology. This was a conclusion belied by Salisbury’s briefing of the new British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Francis Lascelles, who had just come from St. Petersburg. “The conduct of51 the German Emperor is very mysterious and difficult to explain,” it ran. “There is a danger of him going completely off his head … In commercial and colonial matters Germany was most disagreeable, her demand for the left bank of the Volta was outrageous, so much so that Lord Salisbury thought it must have been an idea of the Emperor himself as no responsible statesman could have put it forward.”

As if to confirm Salisbury’s prognostications, Wilhelm was in the process of making a series of dangerously inconsistent interventions in foreign affairs, which—had they known of them—would have confirmed to his ministers that his intrusions in politics could be laughably inept, if not actively dangerous. Since early in 1895 it had been widely predicted that the Ottoman empire was about to fall apart. Its government in Constantinople seemed to exist in a state of constant and advancing chaos, and its collapse threatened a dangerous free-for-all in eastern Europe and the Levant.* The question of what would happen to Constantinople and the Straits to the Black Sea—or the Eastern Question, as it was called—preoccupied the British, the Russians and the Austrians, who particularly dreaded the possibility of Russian warships in the Mediterranean. “I declare quite52 plainly that I shall stand at Austria-Hungary’s side with all the forces at my disposal,” Wilhelm told the Austrian ambassador, about three days after having made exactly the same offer to Nicholas. The Austrian foreign minister said it was the warmest manifestation of German friendship in all the years of the Austro-German alliance. Towards Christmas Wilhelm said the same thing to the hapless53 Colonel Swaine, whom he had summoned to hear another speech in which he accused the British of deliberately stirring up a crisis over the future of the Ottoman empire—then suggested they take the Turkish capital. The revelation of the kaiser’s offers threw the usually calmly cynical Fritz Holstein into a panic. “What happens now54 if Salisbury, whom HM has deeply offended, communicated the contents of that conversation to St. Petersburg?” he demanded of Eulenburg. As it was, none of the Powers chose to move on Constantinople, and Wilhelm’s offers stayed secret.

Paradoxically, while this dangerously rogue intervention remained undisclosed, Wilhelm found himself at the start of 1896 in the midst of an international furore over something relatively banal and not entirely his fault. On the last day of 1895, 600 armed men—some of them said to be officers of the British army, all of them British—led by Dr. Leander Jameson, a close associate of Cecil Rhodes, the most powerful man in South Africa, creator of De Beers and self-confessed British empire-builder, crossed the border into the Transvaal in an attempt to overthrow the Boer government.

When Wilhelm heard the news he was reported to be “rabid”55 with anger. “The Transvaal republic56 has been attacked in a most foul way,” he wrote to Nicholas on 2 January 1896, “as it seems not without England’s knowledge. I have used very severe language in London, and have opened communication with Paris for common defence of our endangered interests … I never shall allow the British to stamp out the Transvaal!” He wasn’t alone; the whole of Europe loudly condemned the Jameson raid, which was widely suspected of having been backed, or even launched, by the British, though the colonial minister, Joseph Chamberlain, swiftly condemned it and denied the government had been in any way involved. (In fact, the British government was up to its eyes in the Jameson raid. It had been planned with the explicit encouragement of Chamberlain,57whose involvement was now being vigorously covered up.) Condemnation was especially loud in Germany. Later that day the news came that the Boers had completely routed the raiders. Nevertheless, on 3 January Wilhelm strode into a meeting with his ministers demanding invasion forces and warships. Europe should teach England a lesson. His ministers talked him out of using force, but they were quite as angry as he. (Marschall had already sent Salisbury a threatening formal note58—an acknowledged first step along the route to war—protesting at the “invasion.” In a moment of almost theatrical farce, Hatzfeldt, hearing of Jameson’s failure, only just managed to snatch it off Salisbury’s desk before he saw it.) It was finally agreed that Wilhelm should send a personal telegram of support to the Boer leader, Paul Kruger.

Today the text seems distinctly banal: “I express my59 sincere congratulations that you and your people have succeeded, by your own energetic actions and without appealing for help to friendly powers, in restoring order against the armed hordes that invaded your country as disturbers of the peace, and in safeguarding the independence of your country from external attack.”

In Britain the “Kruger telegram” brought forth a violent and sudden outpouring of hysterical anger, a confused combination of defensiveness, entitlement and aggression. “The Nation will60 never forget this telegram, and it will always bear it in mind in the future orientation of its policy,” the Morning Post snarled. The kaiser was denounced not only in the press, but in gentlemen’s clubs; society ladies sent him poison-pen letters. German shopkeepers had their windows smashed. In hindsight the level of the public response seems quite out of proportion with the act itself. The telegram didn’t even mention Britain, the rest of Europe was equally condemnatory, and the British government had denounced the raid and denied involvement. The reaction stemmed from a confusion of half-realized assumptions: that the personal should trump the political, and the kaiser, as half English, ought not to question British actions. One expected such things from the French, but Germany was supposed to be Britain’s friend. There was also, however, a new sense of direct hostility towards Germany, that it might be a serious colonial rival that needed to be kept at bay. Overarching all this was a furious sense of entitlement and defensiveness, a manifestation of an aggressive new imperialist spirit that asserted that, because Britain was special, because it was the greatest promoter of civilization that the world had ever seen, it not only had the right to impose its own rules on others, but the normal rules didn’t really apply. No one had the right to criticize its actions.

Wilhelm’s English relatives were quite as angry as everyone else. The queen described the telegram as “outrageous, and61 very unfriendly towards us.” Edward called it “a most gratuitous62 act of unfriendliness,” and giving full rein to his dislike of his nephew continued, “he has shown in addition the worst possible taste and good feeling in congratulating the Boers on their victory over a body … composed exclusively of the Queen’s subjects. But independently of this, the Prince of Wales would like to know what business the Emperor has to send any message at all.” For years afterwards he referred to the Kruger telegram as the event which revealed Wilhelm’s “true feelings”63 about England. Even George “spoke loud64 and abused the German Emperor, not caring what he said,” one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting observed.

The queen administered a lofty grandmotherly reprimand to her German grandson:

As your grandmother65 … I feel I cannot refrain from expressing deep regret at the telegram you sent President Kruger … It is considered very unfriendly towards this country which I feel sure it is not intended to be, and has, I have to say, made a very painful impression … The action of Dr. Jameson was, of course, very wrong and totally unwarranted; but considering the very peculiar position in which the Transvaal stands towards Great Britain, I think it would have been far better to have said nothing … Our great wish has always been to keep on the best of terms with Germany, trying to act together, but I fear Your Agents in the Colonies do the very reverse [which was rich], which deeply grieves us.

Wilhelm, who was completely amazed by the unanimous chorus of excoriation he received, crumpled immediately. He wrote a grovelling reply: “I was so incensed66 at the idea of your orders having been disobeyed, and thereby Peace … endangered, that I thought it necessary to show that publicly … I was standing up for law, order and obedience to a Sovereign whom I rever [sic] and adore.” Subsequently he would blame the telegram entirely on his ministers. Victoria called the letter lame and illogical, but Salisbury advised her “fully to accept67 all his explanations without inquiring too narrowly into the truth of them.”

In Pretoria President Kruger told the German consul, “the old woman68 just sneezed and you ran away.”

Wilhelm, backed by Fritz Holstein in the German Foreign Office, who was so concerned by the British response he thought England might fall into the arms of France, immediately embarked on a charm offensive to re-endear himself to the British. Before the end of January Hatzfeldt had offered Salisbury a formal alliance, which the prime minister as usual politely turned down. In February, when the queen’s son-in-law Henry of Battenberg died of malaria in the Ashanti wars, the kaiser sent a huge deputation to the funeral. When Colonel Swaine, the British military attaché, retired that month, Wilhelm loaded him with lavish decorations and pronounced him a personal friend. In March, unable to restrain the familiar impulse to make anxious those whose intimacy he wanted, he told Sir Francis Lascelles, the new British ambassador, that despite his appalling treatment by the British press, he had to let England know that the Russians wanted “to destroy England,”69 and annex the Balkans, while France was planning to sabotage the Suez Canal route to India. (As it happened, the Russians had been70 encouraging the French to cause trouble for the British in Africa, and had invited the Germans to support them.) These plans, he insisted, had been sanctioned by71 Nicholas himself. The intervention backfired. Hatzfeldt reported dejectedly that Lord Salisbury had been “literally horrified”72 by the kaiser’s warning, having only just begun to relax again in their meetings.

Nor were the English relatives placated. In April, at a family wedding in Coburg,* George informed Wilhelm that he would not be welcome at Cowes that year. Wilhelm, he reported to Nicholas, “seemed more excitable73 than ever, he hardly spoke to me at all which was a good thing.” As for the British public, Hatzfeldt advised the kaiser that if he came to England that year he’d certainly be booed.74 The rebuffs only caused Wilhelm to redouble his efforts. In August he invited the entire British embassy staff to dinner, receiving them in his Royal Dragoons outfit. In the autumn he made the extraordinary suggestion to Lascelles that he might hand over Germany’s African colonies to Britain in return for compensation75—an idea that, had it known about it, would have had the German Right baying for his blood.

The bizarre thing was that in Germany—and indeed across Europe—the Kruger telegram had brought Wilhelm the thing he wanted most: wild approval. The raid had prompted a wave of intense anti-British feeling in Germany, much of it focused on Queen Victoria, the symbol of the British empire. One British journalist reported an elderly German lady telling him what a shame it was that the queen “should be so unworthy a sovereign.” She was well known to be “perpetually tipsy and to drink whisky out of a teapot.”76 Among themselves senior Prussian diplomats referred to her as the kaiser’s “tippling grandmother”77 and “the hucksteress.” Wilhelm was seen as having stood up to bullying, hypocritical Britain and supported the plucky Boers. Yet he barely seemed to notice. A couple of years before, Waldersee had observed crossly that the British had worked out exactly how to manipulate the kaiser—they had only to treat him badly.78

•  •  •

Despite no tangible signs of a change of Russian policy towards Britain, Queen Victoria persisted in believing that she could win over the tsar. Like Wilhelm, who had learned the lesson from Vicky, she was committed to the idea that personal relationships could supersede or guide foreign affairs. Her favourite granddaughter was tsarina, and she’d decided that gentle, charming Nicholas was part of the family—even though in April 1896 she discovered that Russia had been doing its own intriguing against Britain in Africa, egging on the French to cause trouble over Egypt.

As if to punch home the message that nothing had changed in Russia, Nicholas’s coronation in May 1896 was overshadowed by the kind of awful human disaster that seemed to dog Russian affairs. George had expected to attend the ceremony, but the queen sent his uncle Arthur instead. “I must say79 I was furious,” he told Nicky, “but there was nothing to be done.” It was just as well. On the day after the coronation the tsar traditionally gave the people of Moscow an open-air feast at Khodynka field north of the city. In the midst of the festivities there was a rumour that the food was running out, the crowd of half a million people stampeded and thousands were crushed to death. The tsar’s uncle and brother-in-law, Grand Duke Sergei, was largely responsible for the disaster. He’d neglected the preparations, more interested in pursuing a feud with another court official whose authority over the event clashed with his. Basic work to fill in deep wells in the ground was not completed, there was a derisory police presence and chaos ensued. The severity of the disaster seemed initially to have been hidden from Nicholas—at Windsor it was said80 that bodies had been shovelled under the grandstand on which he stood, so he could not see them. But even afterwards he never quite seemed to grasp its significance. On the night of the disaster he went to a ball at the French embassy, rather than staying home as a mark of respect to the dead. The picture of the tsar drinking champagne while his subjects mourned was a lasting stain on his personal image. By contrast, Queen Victoria received seventeen on-the-spot reports from Khodynka field, describing in detail81 the circumstances of the stampede, the thousands of mangled bodies laid out across the other side of the vast field, and the anger and demands for retribution it had inspired. Worse, Nicholas failed to punish anyone. It was widely agreed within the imperial court that Grand Duke Sergei, who towered over his small, quiet nephew, had bullied him into closing down an inquiry into the disaster by threatening to boycott the court. He was rewarded by being promoted to commander-in-chief of Moscow. Even within the Romanov family there were mutterings. “How outrageous can82 you get!” Konstantin Romanov, Nicholas’s second cousin, wrote of Sergei in his diary. “… If only the Emperor was sterner and stronger!” The government looked supine and corrupt, and Nicholas appeared weak. Khodynka field cast a long, inauspicious shadow over the new reign.

In Windsor, the queen’s sympathies were clannishly with her new in-laws and fellow royals. Her first thought had been that “poor Serge,” who was married to Alix’s older sister Ella, “may be blamed.”83 Her next was concern for the imperial couple, who the British ambassador assured her had done “violence to their84 feelings” in attending the French ball while their subjects lay dead and injured. The queen would never have expressed such sympathy for Nicholas’s father—she would have complained about Russian barbarity. While Wilhelm tried in vain to get himself invited to Cowes, Nicholas and Alexandra were asked to Balmoral for the end of September.

Balmoral was the large, remote estate in the Scottish Highlands where the queen passed the months from August to November. She loved it and felt free there. She loved it so much in fact, that she had decided that she was Scottish. As she crossed the border her voice would take on a peculiar approximation of a Scottish accent,85 and she’d talk about handing over “woon poond” to some deserving crofter. Everyone else found Balmoral dispiritingly remote, incredibly dull, freezing cold—the queen never45 felt the cold and forbade fires—and full of tartan. Lord Rosebery said86 he thought the drawing room at Osborne was the ugliest room in the world—until he saw the drawing room at Balmoral. Salisbury referred to it as “Siberia,”87 and came as rarely as possible.

On 22 September 1896 the imperial couple and their baby, Olga—along with an entourage of several hundred, including their plainclothes secret servicemen, plus twenty-four constables and four sergeants from the Metropolitan Police—arrived sodden, having driven through Edinburgh in an open carriage in the pouring rain, and nauseous from having been violently rocked about in the royal train. They were greeted with bonfires and torches. The queen was enthusiastic. Edward wore a Russian uniform—astrakhan hat, knickerbockers, Norfolk jacket, red greatcoat. He never looked his best in uniform, as it was invariably too tight. George wore a kilt. “She is marvellously88 kind and amiable to us, and so delighted to see our little daughter!” Nicky told his mother. “Dear Nicky and Alicky89 are quite unspoilt and unchanged and as dear and simple and as kind as ever. He is looking rather thin and pale and careworn, but sweet Alicky is in great beauty and very blooming,” the queen wrote to Vicky.

The queen’s household called the visit “the Russian occupation,” because the tsar’s retinue was so enormous; the Balmoral maids had to sleep four to a bed. George and May were boarded out up the road. Nicholas, the household observed, looked absurdly young, but Alicky was “unmistakably lovely … one is always in rapture with her.” Both seemed initially a little aloof. Edward had made zealous preparations to entertain his nephew, and was relentlessly “jolly.”90 Nicholas, as he had before, found Edward rather exhausting. “From the very first day my Uncles took charge of me. They seem to think it necessary to take me out shooting all day long with the gentlemen. The weather is awful, rain and wind every day and on top of it no luck at all—I haven’t killed a stag yet. I see even less of Alix here than at home.” The tsarina was swept off by the queen’s ladies-in-waiting and given the kind of unadulteratedly enthusiastic welcome she rarely got in Russia. Nicholas was relieved when Bertie went to Newmarket to see a horse race. “I could at least do what I wanted to, and was not obliged to go out shooting every day in the cold and rain.”91“I’m glad92 Georgie comes out to shoot too—we can at least talk over the good times we’ve just had in Denmark.”*

“Had a talk93 with dear Nicky,” was as expansive as George got. “He is just the same dear boy as he always was.” In his way George was right, Nicky wanted to be the same dear boy and with George he could be. George had no interest in talking politics and required nothing of him except that he was familiar.

The queen saw things differently. Family bonds should be put to practical use. She went to work on the tsar the day after he arrived. Something must be done about the disintegration of Turkey and the Armenian massacres, she announced. “I remarked that,94 if England and Russia went together, there must be peace, and something ought to be done to bring this about.” Nicky nodded, as he did when cornered, but said it would be difficult. “The Emperor is95 extremely well-disposed and is anxious to put a stop to the Sultan’s iniquities,” she told Lord Salisbury, who arrived the next day.

After years of backing Turkey, which he now considered to have been “the wrong horse,” Salisbury had come to the conclusion, just like Rosebery before him, that an accommodation with Russia had much to recommend it—though almost all his fellow ministers thought the likelihood of Russia agreeing vanishingly remote, and the country still hated Russia. But with the Suez Canal under its control, Britain no longer had a pressing need to keep Russia out of Turkey. In fact, the Royal Navy had recently concluded it no longer had the capacity to defend Constantinople from Russia, a prospect Salisbury seems to have accepted but didn’t relish. He also believed the Russians might be persuaded to work with Britain to force a settlement or resolution on the Ottoman empire, perhaps even a change of regime, before its much prophesied collapse caused further international instability. The prime minister was sufficiently keen on the idea to make one of his rare visits to Balmoral in order to see the tsar personally—though he also instructed his private secretary to inform the queen’s private secretary that it would be actively dangerous for him to come, unless his room was heated to a minimum of 60 degrees Fahrenheit. An added bonus was the fact that Nicholas’s tricky foreign minister, Lobanov, had suddenly died of apoplexy in August as the imperial cortège had set out on a visit to Austria—so the tsar would be all on his own.

“I had two96 very serious talks with [Lord Salisbury],” Nicholas reported to his mother. “It’s good at least for him to learn from the source what the opinions and views of Russia are.” The source, however, didn’t always seem entirely clear on those opinions. The first meeting went well enough. The tsar assured the PM that Russia had no designs on India—his own visit in 1891 had convinced him of “the absurdity of Russia ever trying to obtain it … no sane Russian Emperor could ever dream of it.” Salisbury suggested that Russia and Britain should act together to stabilize the Ottoman empire. There had been another massacre in Armenia several weeks before, and Salisbury told the tsar that petitions and letters demanding some form of action had been pouring into the British Foreign Office. There was a certain irony in the prime minister referring to public opinion since he despised it, though the demands coincided with his own pragmatic belief that Turkey needed to be brought under control. There was another irony in his appealing to Russia on moral and humanitarian grounds—a country which had authorized its own pogroms and ruthlessly suppressed basic democratic rights. Nicholas didn’t seem at all averse to putting pressure on the sultan, and he became positively animated when Salisbury suggested that Britain would no longer object to Russia taking control of Constantinople and the Bosphorus, though he didn’t like the idea of opening it to all ships, as this created the possibility of foreign warships getting into the Black Sea, not just the Russian fleet getting out. The Straits to the Black Sea, he told the prime minister, were “the door to the room in which he lived,” and he needed the key—a phrase that had become a cliché in Russia when discussing Constantinople. When Salisbury pointed out that Austria and the Balkan states might feel rather differently about this, and would have to be compensated, Nicholas seemed surprised. The prime minister must have been taken aback by his naïveté.

   The tsar, Salisbury observed, also “expressed himself in terms by no means friendly to the Emperor of Germany.”97 Two weeks before, Nicholas had made an overnight stop with Wilhelm at Breslau. “I am extremely98 satisfied with my interview with Emperor Nicholas,” Wilhelm had purred after the meeting. “He was natural, open, communicative and heartfelt as he has always been with me. We completely agreed on all issues.” Nicholas told Salisbury that he couldn’t bear Wilhelm’s company for long and added that the kaiser had told him that England was trying to set up a “rival Sultanate” in Arabia—i.e., trying to stir up trouble in the Ottoman empire for its own advantage. The prime minister told the tsar, “this was a rather99 perfidious proceeding, as he was at the same time telling us that Russia was preparing an attack upon us about Egypt.” Salisbury was pleased with the meeting, and told the queen that he’d been “much struck by100 [the tsar’s] great candour and desire to be on the best terms with us.” He was also overheard observing to the Prince of Wales that the tsar was “very different from101 the other Emperor!”

When they met again two days later, however, Nicholas had changed his tune. It was obvious that someone, almost certainly the Russian ambassador, de Staal, had got to him. He was now “distinctly averse, at this stage, to any effort to dethrone the Sultan,” and worried about the dangers of “interfering in other people’s concerns.” When the subject moved on to Egypt, he seemed to be about to say he had no objection to the British occupation, “But he stopped suddenly and turned the conversation, as though he felt he was committing an imprudence.”102

The queen refused to be put off by Nicholas’s opacity. On his last night she summoned him to her room before dinner and asked him bluntly what he thought about deposing the sultan. Nicky said “he thought it would be a great risk, and might lead to dangerous complications.” She went further and asked him about the “friendship” between Russia and France, and his visit to Paris, where he would be travelling the next day. Nicky explained that “It was a purely military agreement,” which had come about because both countries had been excluded by the Triple Alliance. “Nicky did not seem at all to relish the French, and regretted the visit to Paris, which was unavoidable,” she reported optimistically. “I said it was so important that Russia and England should go well together, as they were the most powerful Empires, for then the world must be at peace.”103

The Russian party departed the next day for France. The emperor left a breathtaking tip104 of £1,000 for the staff, the empress a trail of diamond and pearl brooches among the ladies-in-waiting. The queen pursued Nicholas to Paris with a letter, asking him—with a persistence that Salisbury could not have employed, and an expectation of the power of the family relationship which Salisbury did not share—to “kindly use105 your influence and let the French understand that you do not intend to support them in their constant inimicality towards England, which is the cause of much annoyance and difficulty to us, in Egypt amongst other subjects.” She added, in an attempt to mollify, “I would not have written this had you not told me that the agreement, or alliance, or whatever it is called, was only of a military nature.”

From Paris—where to their great surprise and eventual pleasure, the imperial couple were mobbed and cheered everywhere—Nicholas was more forthright. He told Victoria he had not discussed hostility to England with the French, and “As to Egypt, I must own, dearest Grandmama, the question is of a very serious character.” The Russians felt the same as the French on the subject; they wanted Britain out of Egypt because her control of the Suez Canal was a “threat to our maritime route to the Far East … Politics alas! are not the same as private or domestic affairs and they are not guided by personal or relationship feelings. History is one’s real positive teacher in these matters and for me personally, except that, I have always got the sacred example of my beloved father and also the result and proof of all His deeds!”106 Among competing nation-states, Nicholas let Grandmama know as gently as he could, family was worth little or nothing—a more realistic acknowledgement of the state of international affairs than the queen’s.

The answer must have been a blow to the queen. It can be no accident that the flow of chatty family letters from her to Nicholas now shrank to a dribble. Salisbury, however, persisted. He made more overtures to the Russians in the autumn of 1896, but their response was unenthusiastic. Just to illustrate the Russian detachedness, in late December Nicholas—contrary to everything he had said to Salisbury at Balmoral—was persuaded to green-light an extraordinarily rash secret plan to solve the Eastern Question with a Russian-backed coup d’état in Constantinople to depose the sultan. The Nelidov Plan, named after the Russian ambassador who proposed it, would have alienated all the Great Powers and quite possibly have started a war in the region. As a senior Russian diplomat later wrote in his memoirs, it “would unquestionably have107 spelt disaster for Russia.” It was quashed by Sergei Witte and the horrified French. But it showed that Nicholas was worryingly susceptible to risky imperialist adventures.

Wilhelm’s pursuit of Nicholas also came to nothing. Watching the tsar’s progress around Europe, he felt less and less confident that his meeting with him at Breslau had made the lasting impression he’d hoped. The German Foreign Office reported that between Breslau and Balmoral Nicholas had met his mother108 in Copenhagen and that she had talked him out of his good impression with Wilhelm; then there had been all the cheers in Paris. In a panic, the kaiser invited himself to Hesse-Darmstadt, where the tsar was staying with his brother-in-law Ernie before returning home. It was a great blunder. Nicholas regarded his stays at Hesse-Darmstadt as his private holiday when he could unwind from the demands of formal travel. He and Alix relaxed there as they did nowhere else. Wilhelm’s arrival was unwelcome. Moreover, the French visit had coloured Nicholas’s view of Germany. Crossing the border into Germany, he observed that everything suddenly seemed “black, dark and109 boring!” Confronted by a blankly unfriendly Nicholas, Wilhelm decided to blame his failure on Grand Duke Sergei, the tsar’s bullying anti-German uncle. “In his presence110 the Emperor is remarkably awkward and reserved … Sergei is the Emperor’s evil demon and our most energetic enemy.” It was hard to blame it all on Sergei, though. When Nicholas got back to St. Petersburg, he asked Wilhelm to stop writing personally to him, giving as the reason his concern that Chancellor Hohenlohe was not aware of the letters. Wilhelm ignored this. The new Russian foreign minister—appointed an indecisive five months after Lobanov’s death in Vienna—was another disappointment. Count Mikhail Muraviev was smooth and courtly, an enthusiastic Russian imperialist with a taste for champagne, and regarded as inveterately hostile to Germany—not least because a couple of years before Wilhelm had personally blocked his appointment to a post in Berlin. Fritz Holstein’s informant in Moscow called him a “swine”111 and bootlicker. On the plus side, Holstein’s contact observed, he wasn’t “a friend of France … he thinks the English are disgusting and he has a fanatical hatred of the Poles.” Holstein concluded that Wilhelm’s personal interventions had backfired. “Without Breslau and without Darmstadt things might perhaps be better. There is no question that the Tsar had no desire whatever to meet our Kaiser again, and it is really deplorable that the latter absolutely runs after him.”112

Messages from Russia, however, were contradictory. Just at the moment when Nicholas appointed Muraviev, whom the British considered “conceited and vain113 as a woman,” Nicholas’s finance minister, Sergei Witte, now widely regarded as his most impressive and influential adviser, hinted to the latest British ambassador, Sir Nicholas O’Conor, that the Russian government might after all be interested in a resolution with Britain. In the New Year of 1897 Witte told the ambassador, “Russia doesn’t114 want a foot more of territory, she has more than she can develop in the next 200 years. She wants peace; to foster trade, commerce and industry and to improve the condition of the people. The old school who wanted to extend Russia to the Bosphorus is dead.” As the Nelidov plan showed, this might have been how Witte felt, but there were plenty of “old school” politicians and army chiefs who felt quite the opposite. Nevertheless, somewhat desultory talks were begun between England and Russia to discuss their mutual policies in China, and behind the scenes and despite public sympathy in Britain for Russian dissidents, Special Branch115 began to cooperate with Okhrana, the Russian secret police, on the surveillance of Russian anarchist and terrorist groups based in London.

In early January 1897, almost a year to the day that he’d sent the Kruger telegram, Wilhelm wrote hopefully to his grandmother, “Have you any116 plans or wishes about our coming or not coming for Your Jubilee, and whether some of our children are to come with or not?” The queen’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her sixty years on the throne, was planned for June. Her answer was to the point: he couldn’t come; as the Jubilee was to be a celebration of empire, no foreign crowned heads were to be invited. Instead, the queen told him, his brother Heinrich would come “as one of her grandchildren.” “And I am117 her eldest grandchild,” Wilhelm scribbled forlornly on the letter. Determined to change her mind, he wrote her a splendid letter in April, likening himself to a horse:

I feel like118 a charger chained in the stables who hears the bugle sounding, and stamps and champs his bit, because he cannot follow his regiment. I had hoped to lead the Royals as their Colonel past their Sovereign, if not as her Escort, and to join their cheers when they salute their Queen in the exuberance of their loyal pride … in the great final charge I would have borne my sword proudly before the saluting point at the head of that magnificent regiment … But it was all idle dreams! But such dreams are hard to give up for a passionate soldier!

The queen would not relent, and whatever the justification given, it was hard not to see it as a punishment for Wilhelm’s position over the Boers. She became angry with him again when a small war broke out between Greece and Turkey a month later. Wilhelm favoured the Turks, while she felt obliged to back the Greek royal family. She blamed his position on his “personal hatred119 of Greece and enmity to the King and the whole royal family.” She wasn’t entirely wrong, there had been bad feeling between Wilhelm and the Greek royal family since his sister had married the Greek heir; but he also had political reasons for siding with the Turks, whom he’d been pursuing as potential allies since the British had withdrawn from being their supporters in Europe. It was the queen’s position that was informed by personal feelings—the Greeks had brought the war on themselves by landing an army on Turkish-run Crete. That made no odds at the British court. “The German Emperor120 is in bad odour everywhere,” wrote the queen’s lady-in-waiting Marie Mallet, “and the final coup is his acceptance of six Greek guns presented by the Sultan. He ought to be kicked; my only joy is that he is simply frantic at not coming for the Jubilee and would like to kill his poor brother for daring to accept the Queen’s invitation.”

The Jubilee was a statement of Britain’s moral right to dominate and expand across the globe, an assertion of its status as top dog in the dog-eat-dog world of international politics, and a declaration of Britain and the empire’s sufficiency unto themselves, their need for no one else. It demonstrated that the British empire was, as the Kreuzzeitung, the leading German newspaper of the Prussian establishment, noted both admiringly and enviously, “completely unassailable.”121 It now occupied122 25 percent of the world’s landmass, not including the informal influence it exercised over the economies of several South American countries such as Argentina and Brazil, and encompassed 444 million people.

In spectacle the Jubilee was quite as splendid as its predecessor. More so. On the day itself, 21 June, the long, glittering parade of soldiers from all parts of the empire followed the queen’s carriage through London to St. Paul’s, where she attended a service of thanksgiving. George described it as “the most wonderful123 crowd I ever saw, perfect order and no accidents, 8 miles of streets we passed through, never heard anything like the cheering, decorations beautiful, fine and hot.” The presentations, garden parties, march-pasts and street parties went on well into July. At Spithead the Prince of Wales reviewed the largest assembly of shining warships ever gathered in one place: 173 battleships in a line seven miles long. The navy claimed that no ship had been withdrawn from foreign stations to make it. It was, as everyone knew, the navy that had turned “a loose aggregate124 of States,” as The Times put it, into an empire.

And yet a note of diminuendo and superstitious uncertainty seemed to hang around the celebration’s penumbra. The Times published Rudyard Kipling’s new poem “Recessional,” an oddly downbeat commentary on the empire’s triumph, a kind of memento mori warning of complacency and hubris, “frantic boast and foolish word,” reminding his readers that empires fell as well as rose:

all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

A commentary next to the poem ran, “The most dangerous125 and demoralizing temper into which a state can fall is one of boastful pride.” The flip-side of the Jubilee’s proud and confident assertion of power, wealth and self-sufficiency was the fear that the empire might have peaked, that there was nowhere to go but down, and the worry that Britain might have to be sufficient unto itself because it was surrounded by countries who hated it. The Kruger telegram had forced on the British the realization that the rest of Europe resented their influence and power. At the end of 1896 Salisbury, whose attempts to coordinate the Great Powers over Turkey, China and the Greek War had been consistently rejected, had observed that the only Great Power “which does not126 hate us” was Austria (which was also the only power with no interest in a colonial empire). The queen, meanwhile, was “very much depressed127 by the knowledge that we are so actively hated by other countries. She frequently refers to the subject and says she cannot see why it should be so.”

Even as the Jubilee celebrations broke out, the uglier side of empire128 was making itself internationally visible. India was in the grip of a horrifying famine exacerbated, if not caused, by an obsessively free-market colonial government which continued to export grain surpluses to England while India starved. Photographs of the hideously starved victims—courtesy of the new light, handheld Kodak cameras—were seen around the world, though they were markedly absent from the British papers, which operated conscious self-censorship on the matter. Away from public gaze, the colonial government in South Africa was quietly importing Chinese indentured labour—effectively slaves—to work in the mines, in order to undercut local wages.

When Wilhelm made a state visit to St. Petersburg after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, in August, his new foreign minister, Bernhard von Bülow, took great delight in reporting that “Emperor Nicholas,129 Count Murawiew [sic]* and Mr. Witte expressed mistrust and tension with England at every opportunity.” Nicholas said130 he believed that the English were trying to provoke a European war. Actually the tsar was about as personally enthusiastic about the kaiser as he was politically about the British. “Thank God the German visit is over,” he wrote to his mother afterwards. “… On the whole Wilhelm was very cheerful, calm and courteous, while she [Dona] tried to be charming, and looked very ugly in rich clothes without taste; the hats she wore in the evenings … were particularly impossible.” (It was an open secret that Wilhelm designed Dona’s clothes and forced her to diet to stay slim.) Nicholas added that he had had to make Wilhelm an honorary Russian admiral because he’d accepted a similar rank in the German navy the year before, and the thought—“C’est à vomir!”131—made him sick.

Only a few months later, in mid-November 1897, another German colonial intervention provoked paroxysms of rage in Russia quite as strong as and distinctly similar to the British reaction to the Kruger telegram. Wilhelm sent a naval squadron to occupy the northeastern Chinese port of Kiaochow. The reason—the pretext—was the murder of two German missionaries. “We have … to132 show them with the most brutal ruthlessness that the German Kaiser is not one to fool about with,” he told the German Foreign Ministry. The truth was, with Africa looking distinctly crowded with would-be colonial empires, Germany had begun to cast its eye—just like Russia—over China. It fancied acquiring a province and a port in which to refuel its ships in the Pacific, from which it might claim some Pacific islands. Kiaochow was as yet not dominated by other foreign influences, it was easily accessible, with a good protected harbour. Having seized it, in the New Year of 1898 the German government took a lease on it and the surrounding region from the Chinese government.

The Russians were furious. They believed the Germans had grabbed the port from under their noses. They’d long fancied Kiaochow, which was in Manchuria, the Chinese province that bordered Siberia, as a warm-water port for their own navy. They issued a formal demand that Germany vacate it, going so far as to threaten war. In response, Wilhelm claimed that the tsar knew all about it. He had mentioned his interest in Kiaochow during their meeting that summer, he said, and Nicholas had raised no objections. This was true. During his summer visit the kaiser had asked Nicholas whether he had any intentions towards Kiaochow. Nicholas had replied vaguely that he wasn’t opposed133 to the German fleet making use of it as long as they asked permission first. Wilhelm decided this amounted to a formal “agreement with the Emperor134 in person,” and another victory for his personal diplomacy. Nicholas, who had clearly never expected the Germans to mount a land grab in China, felt misled and cheated.

Military action against Germany, the Russian government admitted to itself, was not really an option. The new foreign minister, Muraviev, proposed that instead Russia send warships to take over the nearby Chinese port of Port Arthur. Witte opposed the idea; sending ships and troops ran absolutely counter to his plans to create a sphere of influence in Manchuria by promising friendly diplomatic support and loans. It made his previous inroads look dishonest, it would be expensive, and it would instantly alert the British to Russia’s intentions. Initially Nicholas listened to Witte. But Muraviev went behind Witte’s back, asked for a private audience and convinced the emperor to send the ships because the “yellow races” understood only force. The Russians sailed into Port Arthur weeks later. “Thank God we135 managed to occupy Port Arthur … without blood, quietly and almost amicably!” Nicholas wrote to his brother George. “Of course, it was quite risky, but had we missed those docks now, it would be impossible later to kick out the English or the Japanese without a war. Yes, one has to look sharp, there on the Pacific ocean lies the whole future of the development of Russia and at last we have a fully open warm water port … What did you think of the articles in the English papers? Greedy scoundrels!—they are never satisfied! The devil take them!”

Now it was the turn of the British to be furious. The last thing they wanted was a scramble for China.136 Moreover, the Russians consistently lied about their intentions. They had initially turfed British ships out of Port Arthur, insisting their warships needed to winter there; then they assured the British that the occupation was temporary, while taking out a lease on Port Arthur in return for paying off China’s indemnity to Japan. Finally, they promised that Port Arthur would be open to foreign ships, but, when asked to put his assurances in writing, Muraviev admitted the Russians had no intention of making it an open port. All the while, he had sweetened his denials with occasional mentions of an Anglo-Russian agreement. He’d even got the tsar to charm the British ambassador, O’Conor, at the Winter Palace ball, and murmur encouragingly about Anglo-Russian relations.

In Africa it had become accepted that if one Great Power acquired a large amount of territory, other powers with rival interests could expect some form of compensation. So the British, half-reluctantly since they’d preferred the old less formal arrangement, demanded their own port in China, and got nearby Weihaiwei, in compensation.

Now Germany was disgruntled. The country had been almost hysterically delighted at the acquisition of Kiaochow, but almost immediately it was eclipsed by the Russians and the British. And when Wilhelm wrote to Nicky in the New Year of 1898 boasting of the German success—“We follow in137 the fulfilment of the task, which has been set us by the Lord of all Lords … in promoting civilization, ie Christianity in the Far East!”—the tsar’s reply was “cold and138 reserved.” He would pointedly avoid Berlin and the kaiser for the next three years. In 1899 a German diplomat would report that Nicholas’s hostility towards Wilhelm was so strong that it was now an obstacle to good relations, and the kaiser’s own indiscretion was making it worse. On the report Wilhelm scribbled, “I never say139 anything about him in front of strangers.” He was actually only too quick to describe Nicky as a “ninny” and a “whimperer,” and barely a year later would tell the British foreign secretary that the tsar was “only fit to live in a country house and grow turnips.”140 Though the Russians had made it clear that warm personal relationships wouldn’t be allowed to affect politics, it was obvious that bad relationships could.

* Alix destroyed the correspondence after the queen’s death.

* Queen Victoria felt36 quite as anti-republican. When the French president, Félix Faure, came to pay his respects to her in 1898 in the South of France, she told Edward he was a commoner and could not be treated as an equal. Edward must remain on the stairs when he arrived, forcing the president to climb up to meet him. Faure, perfectly aware of the intended snub, was very insulted.

* Swaine was the man from whom Wilhelm had extracted military information which he had then passed to Tsar Alexander III. The military attaché had remained a consistent and sympathetic advocate for what he believed was Wilhelm’s underlying sympathy for his mother’s country.

* In fact rumours of the Ottoman empire’s collapse would turn out to be premature; it would lumber along into the First World War.

* Between Wilhelm and George’s cousin Alexandra (youngest daughter of Affie, now Duke of Coburg, and Marie of Russia) and the German diplomat Prince Ernst zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg.

* Nicholas and George had just spent a few days with their grandparents in Denmark.

* The new Russian foreign minister, usually rendered as Muraviev.

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