Even people who disapproved of Nicholas talked about his “kind eyes.”1 The British journalist W. T. Stead, given several very rare audiences with him in 1898, reported breathlessly to his readers that the tsar was “charming, sympathetic,2 alert, lucid, modest.” As a man Nicholas took an appealingly modern view of marriage: he was a far more devoted, faithful and supportive husband than most men—or monarchs—of his generation. Entry after entry in his diary complained about the amount of time he had to spend away from his wife and children. “After tea,”3 he wrote a few days before the birth of his first child, Olga, in late October 1895, “I read, and set myself to composing a reply to Wilhelm. A thoroughly irritating thing to be doing when one has so many things to do, and so much more important!” His daily routine was arranged so he could take his daughters—there were three by 1899—and his dogs—English collies—out for a daily walk, or in winter a sledge at 11 a.m., and have his meals with his family. In the evenings, unless he had to go to the opera or ballet, he liked to retire to his wife’s boudoir. Alix created a cosy, gemütlich nest within the echoing imperial grandeur of the Romanov palaces. The world, including the royal household, was shut out. “Never did I4 believe there could be such utter happiness in this world,” she had written in Nicholas’s diary after their wedding night. “I am indescribably happy,” he added a few weeks later. They called each other “hubby” and “wifey” (using the English words). “My sweet old5 darling, many kisses, wifey loves you so deeply and strongly! You are my one and all,” she wrote in his diary. They would chat together in English, or German or French; he would read Pushkin, Tolstoy or the latest fashionable English or French novel to her; they might paste photographs of themselves into an album—albums which still today conjure a vivid portrait of idyllic turn-of-the century family life.
The only blight was Alix’s chronic ill health and their failure to have a son. From the beginning of their marriage she lived in a permanent state of exhausted semi-invalidity. It’s possible the symptoms were psychosomatic; the court doctor, Eugene Botkin, seems to have thought so. It’s also possible, however, that along with the carrier gene for haemophilia which would manifest itself in their son, Alexei, Queen Victoria had passed on to Alix porphyria, the illness that sent George III mad, but which also had a range of more common chronic physical symptoms.* As the evening closed they went to sleep in the same bed—unlike most of their royal contemporaries.
The problem was that Nicholas wasn’t a simple family man who could shut himself away from the world. From the start of his reign, it was clear that domestic life was more vividly important to him than anything to do with his public office. Even the most reactionary members of the court recognized that this was a problem and the tsar was isolated. The head of his Chancellery, A. A. Mossolov, actually gave it a name; he called it “sredostenie,” “the wall,” that surrounded Nicholas, preventing him from getting “fresh ideas” and “sound information.” Mossolov, like other court conservatives, believed the wall was made up of the bureaucracy and its ministers, the intelligentsia and the press. Ministers deliberately obscured the information the tsar received and perpetrated all sorts of unknown evils in his name; the intelligentsia agitated against the regime; the press “misrepresented” the tsar and his relationship with the people. In truth, the wall was made up of tradition, etiquette and Nicholas’s own withdrawal and refusal to accept the need for change. Russia was in the grip of great social and economic change, and the government was increasingly inadequate to confront it, and he himself believed utterly that he was the only man who could rule it. But he closed himself away. “I only hear6 good reports about No 1,” the German diplomat Prince Radolin told his friend Fritz Holstein in late 1895. “The only thing I regret is that he cuts himself off and sees only Lobanov and Witte, who don’t like each other. People think that this shutting himself off will cease after the coronation.”
In the winter of 1895, however, the couple moved out of St. Petersburg altogether, fifteen miles east, to Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, “the Tsar’s village,” fifteen miles east of St. Petersburg. Tsarskoe Selo was an elegant provincial town, though in Russia there weren’t any other towns like it. Built originally by Catherine the Great, it was a weird, idealized miniature royal theme park—two royal palaces and the holiday homes of the highest aristocracy, set in 800 acres of perfectly manicured gardens and hedges, surrounded by a high fence and Cossack guards, maintained by thousands of servants and a permanent garrison of 5,000. Within its borders were the only town-wide electrical system in the country, the first railway, a telegraph and radio station, and the most advanced water and sewage system in the whole of Russia. Most Russian villages had no running water or drains.
There, in the midst of vast neoclassical splendour and circumscribed by imperial etiquette, they lived a life of almost self-conscious bourgeois moderation. Nicholas wore his clothes until they wore out. They ate simply—Alix wasn’t interested and his digestion couldn’t take it. The family apartments were comfortable rather than grand. Alix, her lady-in-waiting Sophie Buxhoeveden observed, “loved a homely home, with children and dogs about it.” The rooms had been made more intimate and “cosy” with dark polished wood galleries and panels in the Jugendstil (German art nouveau) style patronized by Alix’s brother Ernst of Hesse-Darmstadt. They were decorated in English chintzes—“just like those in a comfortable English house”7—and packed with small framed photographs, knick-knacks, bookshelves and icons. The knick-knacks, however, came from Fabergé and the icons were priceless. The food arrived on silver platters, the palace chef was one of the greatest of his generation, and Alexandra came to the family dinner table wreathed in diamonds.
The imperial household and the imperial court consisted of 16,500 persons, mostly servants. Among them were four large black men, known in the palace as “Ethiopians” (though at least one was American), dressed in a kind of northern fantaisie of Turkish harem dress—white turbans, gold-embroidered jackets, slippers curved at the toe—whose sole function was to stand outside the tsar’s study ready to open the doors silently. There were hundreds of court officials: 287 chamberlains, 309 chief gentlemen-in-waiting, 103 stewards, 40 gentlemen of the bedchamber, 22 churchmen, and in the imperial suite, hundreds of officers from major-generals to adjutants. So numerous was the court that the office which ran it itself required a staff of 1,300.
Then there were the palaces: in addition to the hundred-room Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, there was the larger Catherine Palace, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the many summer villas at Peterhof, the various hunting lodges—including three in Poland—the estates at Livadia in the Crimea, a bunch of other royal palaces occupied by various relatives such as the Anichkov and Pavlovsk. And there were the yachts—the grandest of which, Standart, elegantly black with a gold stripe down the sides and a gold double eagle on the stern, was the size of a warship and weighed 4,500 tons, sat eighty for dinner and housed a full balalaika orchestra. Everything was paid for by a one-off payment which Nicholas received each year on 1 January, and which also covered, among other things, his Romanov relatives’ lavish lifestyles, the court personnel’s pensions, and all the various theatres and ballets and initiatives of which the tsar was patron. It was a much-repeated truism among the Romanovs that poor Nicholas was often “broke” by the autumn, which rendered the thriftiness all the more Marie Antoinette–esque and out of kilter with reality.
The move to Tsarskoe Selo represented more than just geographical distance from the aristocratic and governing elite of St. Petersburg. In his father’s time, the tsar’s antipathy to St. Petersburg had been mitigated by his mother, who had been a bridge between the emperor, court and society. Nicholas had inherited his father’s suspicion of the city and desire to be in the country, and preferred the intimacies of home to wider society. Alix had quickly developed an intense dislike of St. Petersburg and was almost hysterically shy and uncomfortable in public. “She longed to8disappear under the ground,” she told her friend Sophie Buxhoeveden, “her French evaporated, and her conversation languished; she blushed and looked ill at ease.” Rushed into the role of empress, she had had no time to acclimatize to the strangeness of Russia, and her shyness tended to manifest itself as buttoned-up unfriendliness, quickness to take offence, and as an instinctive suspicion of strangers. Even her greatest defenders admitted she was “over sensitive and9 in a way haunted by the notion that she was unpopular and unloved.” Like many self-conscious enclosed elites, gossipy, frivolous St. Petersburg was not especially welcoming or generous. “If Alicky smiled10 they called it mockery. If she looked grave they said she was angry,” her sister-in-law Olga recalled. Those who did make the effort frequently felt their good intentions were met with “stinging answers.”11 She showed her disapproval of society’s frivolity by publicly reprimanding12 ladies whose dresses she thought were too revealing at imperial balls, and even on occasion sending them home. The ladies of St. Petersburg riposted by wearing overlong feathers in their headdresses, which swept across her face when they curtseyed to her, and made her sneeze. She got no points for the philanthropic and charitable projects, hospitals and sewing circles in which she involved herself; nor for her chronic ill health—“It was contrary13 to Russian Court etiquette even to mention the health of the sovereign or his wife.” Her illnesses, however, provided another excuse for her, and her husband’s, less frequent appearances outside Tsarskoe Selo.
Within Tsarskoe Selo, and despite having a personal suite of 600, including 200 ladies-in-waiting to call on, Alix confined herself to her family and a small, tight coterie of women. She viewed the rest of the world with intense mistrust and, Mossolov recalled, “showed jealousy14 of everything that deprived her of the company of her husband”—including affairs of state. When she once complained that she and the tsar saw very few people, a courtier suggested that perhaps they should see more. “Why? So as to hear15 still more lies?” she answered. Nicholas, who as a bachelor had enjoyed parties and dancing, found it only too easy to follow her. “Neither the Tsar16 nor the Empress had any desire to enlarge the circle of the persons admitted to their presence,” Mossolov wrote. By mid-1897 a Russian-based German diplomat expressed concern to the German chancellor that the tsar was “so reserved and closed-off17 that one fears he might lose touch with the living element of his people.”
Like so much about Nicholas’s life, the seeds of this withdrawal from the aristocracy predated him. There had always been a gap between the emperor and the aristocracy, which was by the laws of the autocracy as subject to the whims of the tsar as anyone else. Previous emperors had been suspicious of St. Petersburg’s frivolity and tendency to intrigue, but while the tsar had a foot in the city and in the world, this mattered less. Nicholas and Alexandra’s willed and intense isolation and evident wariness of their natural constituency would create a wedge that would alienate even members of the elite.
Nicholas and Alix claimed to be bored by court etiquette, but were utterly in thrall to the processes which kept them separated from the world. “The sovereigns themselves18 always insisted that they valued in people nothing so much as simplicity and sincerity … they actually appraised people almost solely according to the amount of attention these people gave to quite outward and often nonsensical etiquette,” wrote Gleb Botkin, son of the imperial family’s doctor, who grew up in the imperial family’s orbit. On their travels in 1896 the household at Balmoral had found them at first a little stand-offish and “on their magisterial19 dignity;” and in France it had been noted that the imperial couple spoke only to the most senior government figures and generals. Beyond the court and government Nicholas met virtually no one and he took no interest in the Russian new elites: Jewish society and the new industrial millionaires of Moscow—in contrast to his uncle Bertie in England. “Neither [group] touched us,”20 one of Alix’s ladies wrote. Nicholas’s distance from these and the St. Petersburg elite meant that, even though he and Alix were more literate than their English and German cousins and he knew about the great Russian portraitist Ilya Repin because he painted the court, and he’d seen some plays by Chekhov, who was now world famous, he had little sense of the extraordinary artistic flowering taking place in his country. Nicholas’s ancestors had been the great builders and collectors of Russia, but though he paid for some of the theatres and concert halls where music, opera and ballet were performed, Nicholas had very little direct involvement in patronage.
Once the exclusiveness of the Russian court had been a way to keep the monarch in control and the aristocracy under control; now it simply kept the court from the rest of the world. This was the pattern throughout all the European courts, all desperately trying to keep out new forces—trade, the bourgeoisie, industry, democracy—which they saw as threats to their status and influence, but their only weapon besides barricades was a desperate holding on to the past. They had ceased to be places where one went to seek one’s fortune, where art was created or political debate took place, as they had been in the eighteenth century, instead becoming strangled by hierarchy and a million tiny rules, the more arbitrary the better. But most of all they were crushingly boring—even the tsar admitted this—and most of what took place kept everyone busy but was pointless. In Russia, Nicholas’s preoccupation with his own family and the fact that it was not done to receive anyone who wasn’t noble, meant his court had become little more than a huge extended domestic household full of people obsessively measuring their gold braid. The famous court balls of the winter season, said to be the most glittering and lavish in the world, had their own interminable formal demands. Most people’s experience of them involved standing in a room allotted by class (no chance for the beautiful daughter of minor gentry to be swept off her feet by the handsome prince), and waiting for hours for the emperor to arrive so one could bow to him. Even the head of Nicholas’s own Chancellery admitted to being “royally bored.”21
It was the same in England. The British court had long since given up any claim to being a nexus of power and influence, and now consisted of the queen’s household and a series of annual social engagements. Victoria’s retirement had turned it into a quiet pool of tedium where the outside world rarely intruded, dictated by her whims. The queen would disappear into her apartments for days at a time, leaving her courtiers to hang about bored in corridors, unable to leave the building until she did, or smoke, or warm themselves, as she believed fires were unwholesome.
It was worse in Berlin. Dona’s puritanism—she’d banned modern dances like the polka and the two-step—and Wilhelm’s bossiness made the court so dull that many aristocrats had absented themselves altogether. The main preoccupations of the court had become precedence, rigid ceremonial, the maintenance of endless petty, arbitrary rules and, of course, complete obedience to the sovereign. “It almost seemed22 like living in a prison,” wrote Ethel Howard, an English governess to Wilhelm’s children. The court’s humourlessness and protocol were legendary. Wilhelm liked to say23 that he did not give balls as amusements but as lessons in deportment. “Anything stiffer24 and more wearisome … is difficult to imagine,” one British attaché observed. Members of the court were not allowed to use public transport, or wear spectacles because no one was permitted to look at the monarchs through glass,* and everywhere members were reminded of their position in the hierarchy. They were graded and classified by colour-coded passes; these decided, among other things, which room they stood in at balls and how large a Christmas present they received from the imperial couple. Even the size of Christmas trees set up for members of the imperial family at the Berlin Schloss each year was determined by how high up the scale they were.
Being part of the kaiser’s entourage seems to have been in large part simply an exercise in fortitude and standing up: no one was allowed to sit in his presence or allowed to go to bed until he did. In the evenings he would insist on reading—with expostulations—or lecturing them for hours as they tried to stay awake. “The elderly generals25 of the Kaiser’s suite were much to be pitied,” one English governess noted. “They wore a smile of patient suffering most of the time, for William showed little consideration for their age and infirmities … As a rule he exacted every ounce of service that a man could give—in a pleasant affable way, it is true—still he exacted it. They looked tired to death sometimes, these gentlemen, bored with the incessant trivialities of their office, bored with William’s flow of conversation which gave them little opportunity to express their own thoughts.” So awful was spending time in the kaiser’s entourage that one adjutant, Gustav von Neumann-Cosel,26 particularly renowned for his obsequiousness and his enthusiasm for kissing the kaiser’s hand, would return home after his statutory time at court, lock himself in his room, swear loudly, then sleep for twenty-four hours.
Because Nicholas and Alexandra were closed off within the court, their experience of other classes remained minimal. While they might imitate the modest values and habits of the middle classes, they actually viewed them as potentially troublesome opponents whose aspirations were a direct challenge to the structures of Russian hierarchy and the tsar’s authority. The educated middle class in particular, which made up the questioning liberal opposition, the “intelligentsia”—a Russian coinage—Nicholas hated. Sergei Witte recalled that “one day at table someone had used the word ‘intellectual,’” to which the tsar replied, “How I detest that word.” He added that he “should order the Academy of Sciences to suppress it in the Russian dictionary.”27 As for the poorest and the workers, Nicholas saw them from his carriage, cheering him, or encountered the odd peasant on rides he made out of Tsarskoe Selo (surrounded naturally by secret police) and would ask how the harvest had gone, unaware of the wretched situation in which they lived. His attitude to them was like the sentimental British colonialists’ attitude to the savages they were “civilizing.” He was their little father, they were honest, innocent children, susceptible to evil influences from which he must protect them. After the Winter Palace massacre of 1905, when government troops shot into a peaceful crowd, Alix wrote, “The poor workmen28 who had been utterly misled, had to suffer, and the organizers have hidden as usual behind them … I love my new country. It’s so young, powerful, and has much good in it, only utterly unbalanced and childlike.”
In this the Russian royal family were more cut off than any of their contemporaries. Even in Germany Wilhelm had broken through some of Prussia’s tight etiquette to meet Jewish banking and shipping magnates, to visit the yachts of American millionaires, to become friendly with the heir to the Krupp empire, the largest company in Europe. More significantly, through his speeches and use of the press, Wilhelm had made himself available to the non-aristocratic literate population of Germany, the German equivalent of the new Daily Mail readers of England—nationalistic, patriotic, aspirational, urban—as no monarch had done before. While he encountered opposition in government or the Reichstag, these new classes increasingly formed the bedrock of his national support. But whereas Wilhelm felt truly alive and in tune only when he was exposing himself to the world, public events still made Nicholas sick with anxiety. “I felt green29 and trembled all over,” he told his mother, after addressing the Viennese court in 1896. The British royal family, meanwhile, were forced to meet influential commoners—even upstart radical politicians such as Joseph Chamberlain and David Lloyd George—by virtue of their constitutional position.
The truth was Nicholas had no idea—and didn’t want to know—how Russia was changing; how the state was no longer the only organizing force; how the zemstvos were increasingly the most effective providers of services in the country; how his grandfather’s reforms had, despite his father’s best efforts, begun to break down the old rigid class determinants—serfs were becoming merchants, tradesmen’s children were becoming teachers, engineers and doctors; how peasant life was impoverished and in crisis and the urban working class was living in misery. And how could you process the changes the modern world was bringing if, like Nicholas and Alexandra, you had convinced yourselves that protocol and etiquette were so ubiquitous that you were, as Alix’s closest friend, Anna Vyrubova, said, “unable to change30 a single deadly detail of the routine of the Russian court,” and that even afternoon tea was immutable. “The same plates for hot bread and butter on the same tea table were traditions going back to Catherine the Great.” Nicholas could see no reason why this should change—the country must remain as it always had been. It was as if he had made it structurally impossible for himself to learn from experience—just like Wilhelm, who for different reasons was quite unable to learn from his mistakes—as if he was systematically disqualifying himself from taking part in the modern world.
As the son of Dr. Botkin, the imperial doctor, wrote, “The enchanted little31 fairyland of Tsarskoe Selo slumbered peacefully on the brink of an abyss, lulled by the sweet songs of bewhiskered sirens who gently hummed ‘God Save the Tsar.’”
Driving Nicholas ever more intensely into the arms of his family was his fear, discomfort and dislike of his new role as emperor. He took his inheritance exceptionally seriously, but he had no ideas save holding on to his father’s truisms: only autocracy could save Russia; liberal reform and a free press were recipes for disaster; close family were the only people you could trust; Russia must be preserved in aspic. He quickly acquired a reputation as a good man, but neither as firm nor consistent as could be wished. He was too susceptible to his bullying uncles and the last person who’d spoken to him. “Our young monarch32 changes his mind with terrifying speed,” sighed one senior Foreign Office bureaucrat in 1896. “He remains33 too often under the impression, and consequently under the influence of the last words spoken to him,” his cousins Sandro and Konstantin agreed in 1897. “The Emperor is34 influenced by the arguments of his last adviser,” one British ambassador reported. “The reputation of35 the monarchy has suffered …” the German ambassador told the chancellor in 1898. “Like a reed in the wind, Tsar Nicholas is wavering between the Ministers and Grand Dukes and last but not least his own mother.”
Wilhelm, of course, had been accused of the same thing. “It is unendurable. Today one thing36 and tomorrow the next and a few days after that something completely different,” one minister had written wearily. The personal roots of their inconsistency were different—Wilhelm’s manic restlessness, Nicholas’s insecurity—but in both cases it reflected an underlying inability to grapple with the ever-expanding demands of modern government, and a deep desire not to rely on any one person who might undermine their power.
Nicholas compensated for his anxious feelings of inadequacy and lack of preparedness by holding tenaciously to his belief in divine right. The moment the crown had touched his head, he had become a vehicle for God’s purpose and had magically absorbed a kind of spiritual superiority which made him, whatever his inadequacies, better equipped than any minister to know what Russia needed. It was a mystical idea far more literal even than the pronouncements about his relationship with God which had brought Wilhelm such derision in Europe, and in Nicholas it encouraged a kind of fatalism which would make him oddly passive in a crisis. It also made him extremely possessive of his authority, and sensitive to anything that could be interpreted as interference. While Nicholas the family man was gentle and charming, Nicholas the emperor was often touchy, mistrustful and stubborn.
As the years passed, this sense of entitlement and magical ability provided an uneasy counterbalance to his lack of confidence. While on individual issues he remained susceptible to one or another minister’s, or even his family’s, opinions, Nicholas was increasingly resentful of what he regarded as trespasses on his wider authority, or contradiction, especially from the imperial household, who could be dismissed for mentioning politics or the wider world—especially if they implied criticism of the system. Among Nicholas’s entourage, according to A. A. Mossolov, the emphasis was on scrupulous politeness and obedience, “the motto was ‘lie low’ and ‘do nothing on your own responsibility.’” Despite mountains of paperwork Nicholas refused to have even one secretary, or to let anyone else seal his letters or lick his stamps. “It would have been necessary to take a third party into his confidence, and the Tsar hated to confide his ideas to anybody.”37 He persisted in seeing Russia as a large private estate which he could run like a paternalistic landowner. Without a secretariat, mountains of trivia fell across his desk. The tsar was the only person in the empire who could grant a divorce or sanction a name change; ministers were obliged to consult him over the smallest changes of personnel. Concentrating on the trivial allowed him to think he was actually running the country.
As for the government, Nicholas seemed intrinsically to distrust and dislike his ministers, even though they were virtually his sole source of information about the world outside. This was partly to do with class and codes. In Russia the landed aristocracy—in contrast to Britain—looked down on the not so elevated “bureaucratic” nobility, who dirtied their hands in government. Nicholas, like George, had absorbed an aristocratic military code which perceived the world in black and white, and found the complexities, ambiguities and grey areas of politics distasteful. As the court saw it, the bureaucratic class—themselves nobles, of course, but of a lower sort—were self-interested careerists, who intrigued and deliberately misled the tsar for their own ends. “The bureaucracy is38 interested … in keeping the Tsar in ignorance of what is going on; it is in this way that it makes itself more and more indispensable,” wrote Nicholas’s deputy minister of the court. The tsar also showed a tendency to look to, and rely on, his largely useless, self-serving cousins and uncles in the Romanov clan, and to have his head turned by wild schemes brought to him by totally inexperienced aristocratic former guards officers, whose company and outlook he found more congenial. It was just such a plan that eventually drew Russia into its disastrous war with Japan.
And it was true that the Russian government was full of backstabbing, intrigue and muddle, a state of affairs which had arisen because, in the absence of anything providing policy coordination, each minister and department ended up fighting its corner against the rest. Nicholas was supposed to be the figure who controlled and coordinated policy, who took the overview. But like Wilhelm, he was entirely incapable of doing so and the country was so large, and the government so primitive and chaotic, that probably no one could have run Russia on their own. In the absence of established policy priorities, ministers and departments slugged it out for dominance. Ministers had one-to-one interviews with the tsar which weren’t minuted. Decisions made in one meeting were often swept away by the next. Contradictory orders were not resolved. Long, carefully researched reports went unread—for lack of time and the tsar’s patience. Like his cousins, Nicholas was irritated by too much complexity. Annotated reports disappeared. His habit of changing his mind complicated everything, and led ministers to ever more byzantine and manipulative efforts to keep him on track,39 which in turn alienated him still further. In the 1900s a couple of attempts were made to get all the ministers round one table for a weekly meeting with the emperor. Nicholas refused to see the point of it. He was, besides, extremely bad at running a meeting, and got bored and irritated quickly. Perhaps it was his loathing of any form of confrontation, perhaps it was his increasing dislike of being contradicted. Certainly he was reluctant to accept that discussion and debate could lead anywhere useful. “The very idea40 of discussion was wholly alien to the nature of Nicholas II,” wrote Mossolov, head of the tsar’s Chancellery—the office which organized government matters which needed the tsar’s personal attention, but which had become overwhelmed by paper and trivia. He seemed unable to see policy in any larger context. “He only grasps41 the significance of a fact in isolation without its relationship to other facts,” his old tutor Pobedonostsev wrote dismissively in 1900. “Events, currents … wide general ideas worked out by an exchange of views, arguments or discussion are lacking.”
Nicholas’s most able minister, Sergei Witte, particularly offended him. Witte was the man who had supervised and shepherded Russia’s industrialization—to such an extent that the Russian economy was now growing almost as fast as the German one. Iron, steel and coal42 production tripled between 1890 and 1900, though the human costs of this had been devastating in some places. The famine of the early 1890s had been exacerbated, if not caused, by Witte’s insistence on exporting wheat in exchange for foreign capital. Witte was as tall—six foot six, it was said—as Nicholas was small, as aggressively uninterested in the niceties of etiquette and courtesy as Nicholas was preoccupied with them. He emanated a kind of brute force, was openly ambitious and ruthless in pursuit of his ends and was convinced of the correctness of his policies. He believed that to better Russia’s position in the world its government had to improve the economy, through industrial development, railways and new markets. There was nothing suave or courtly about him; he was cynical, manipulative and often rude. He once shouted so angrily at another minister in front of the emperor that Nicholas left the room. Nicholas hated this. He recognized that Witte was able but he didn’t trust him, and consciously or not, he felt threatened by Witte’s confidence and ability. He preferred the acknowledgedly mediocre and supine Goremykin, who behaved “like a butler,43 taking instruction to the other servants.” Nicholas and Alexandra nursed a fantasy that beyond the ministries there were good, honest advisers with whose counsel he would be able to solve everything. “He has nobody44 on whom he can thoroughly rely and who can be a real help to him,” Alix wrote at the height of the revolutionary crisis of 1905. “… He tries so hard, works with such great perseverance, but the lack of what I call ‘real’ men is great … The bad are always close at hand, the others through false humility keep in the background.”
Not that the tsar expressed his feelings openly. Just as in his foreign dealings, he was always calm, never lost his temper and frequently seemed entirely amenable to whatever was being said to him. He would smile, nod, and do something else entirely, erecting his own wall around his emotions and reactions. In his memoirs Witte described being sacked by Nicholas: “We talked for45 two solid hours. He shook my hand. He embraced me. He wished me all the luck in the world. I returned home beside myself with happiness and found a written order for my dismissal lying on my desk.” Such sackings were not isolated incidents. Nicholas told Wilhelm he never appointed anyone without having a replacement should he decide to sack them.
At the same time, Nicholas was entirely implicated in the regime’s most ill-advised excesses. He knew there was a growing agricultural crisis and was aware of Russia’s increasingly parlous financial situation. He knew of the brutal measures that his government took in the name of national security, he encouraged extravagant spending on the Russian fleet, and the huge sums spent on taking parts of China. He supported the aggressively ham-fisted Russification of the peaceful and independent duchy of Finland, which began in 1898 with the appointment of brutal General Bobrikov as governor-general. By 1904 Finland was on the edge of revolt, and Bobrikov had been assassinated. In 1902 Nicholas’s mother, in an unprecedentedly critical letter, wrote to him: “It is a complete46 puzzle to me how you, my dear, good Nicky, whose sense of fairness has always been so strong, now choose to be guided and deceived by a liar like Bobrikoff! … The people were perfectly happy and contented, now everything is broken up, everything changed, disorder and hatred sown … All that has been and is being done in Finland is based on lies and deceit and leads straight to revolution.” Nicky disagreed. Tough choices were necessary, he said. His father had Russified the Baltic states: “a strong and steady hand brought complete appeasement, and now all those troubles are quite forgotten.” (In fact, émigré German Balts had become some of the most vociferous anti-Russian propagandists in Germany, at the forefront of anti-Slavic Pan-Germanism.) The tsar added that he had just suffered “a very heavy personal grief”:47 his favourite dog had died and he had cried all day. Perhaps the juxtaposition is unfair—but it was Nicholas who made it.
Like Nicholas, George was only too happy to keep himself as much as possible away from public scrutiny and to withdraw into a quiet, rural domestic life. After he and May married in 1894, they moved into York Cottage, a “glum little villa”48 on the Sandringham estate, a few hundred yards from his father and mother’s grand home. He loved it because Sandringham was the place he felt most comfortable in all the world, because there were 30,000 acres to shoot on, and because it was too small to have to entertain in—it was his own barrier to the outside world. It was, by everyone’s estimation—apart from George’s—gloomy, dark and cramped: “a poky and inconvenient49 place, architecturally repulsive and always full of the smell of cooking,” his cousin Princess Alice wrote. “George adored it, but then he had the only comfortable room in the house, which was called the ‘library,’ though it contained very few books … the drawing-room was small enough when only two adults occupied it—but after tea, when five children were crammed into it as well, it became a veritable bedlam.” It was covered in rough cast and set with fake Tudor beams and sat in the eternal shadow of high trees, looking onto a dark pond on which “a leaden pelican gazed in dejection upon the water lilies and bamboo.” Inside, the red cloth from which the French army made its trousers “saddened,”50 one observer reported, the walls. During the daytime York Cottage accommodated ladies-in-waiting, the equerries and private secretaries, assorted nurses, nurse maids, housemaids, ten footmen, three wine butlers, a valet and a chef—a small suite by royal standards, though the house was bursting. George remained there, despite all attempts to dislodge him, until 1910—and even after, as king, he refused to move into the big house at Sandringham until his mother died.
There he lived the life of a Norfolk country gentleman, an extremely rich one, with an income that after 1901 was worth £100,000 a year (£40,000 from Parliament, £60,000 from the duchy of Cornwall). His tastes were simple but expensive. His suits were from Savile Row and his guns were from Purdey, the cartridges engraved with little red crowns. Having all but left the navy, he had virtually no obligations apart from the very occasional public engagement. (His engagements51 for 1895 were receiving the Freedom of the City of London and making a speech in thanks; sailing to Germany for the opening of the Kiel Canal, where he had dinner with Wilhelm on the Hohenzollern; watching Lord Rosebery’s horse win the Derby; going to Goodwood for more horse-racing and Cowes for the yachting; shooting on the grouse moors of various friends; visiting Balmoral, then returning to Sandringham.) His father’s staff ran the estate. “For seventeen years,”52 his biographer Harold Nicolson wrote exasperatedly, “he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.”
Shooting and stamp collecting were George’s passions. The stamps had begun with a present of his uncle Affie’s collection, bought for him by his father in the early 1890s. Attracted by the pastime’s solitary, methodical orderliness, he would spend several afternoons a week arranging and rearranging his stamps, poring over catalogues, occasionally bidding vast sums for rare issues. By the end of his life he had amassed the largest collection in the world—325 albums full. After 1910, when he became king, he collected only stamps with his own face on them. As for shooting, it was the one thing George did exceptionally well. By the late 1890s he was generally acknowledged to be one of the two or three best shots in the country. Shooting was one of the great signifiers of leisurely aristocratic life. The aristocratic shooting party—complete with thousands of available animals hiding in the brush, plus beaters, someone to carry the guns and lunch—could be staged only on vast, uncultivated estates. Like so many of the leisure habits of British aristocratic life, it had become madly popular abroad among the European super-rich. Nicholas and Wilhelm were both obsessive about hunting and shooting. As tsarevitch, Nicholas had spent five or six hours a day shooting in mid-winter: “667 dead53 creatures for 1596 shots fired,” he recorded for one day in 1893. Wilhelm, who shot leaning on the shoulders of a nearby servant, kept a list of everything he’d ever killed: by 1897 it totalled 33,967 animals, beginning with “two aurochs, 7 elks” and ending with “694 herons and cormorants and 581 unspecified beasts.”54 George could bring down 1,000 pheasants in one day. At Sandringham the quantities of game shot were positively obscene. By the time George was king, the politician Lord Crewe couldn’t help but remark, “it is a misfortune55 for a public personage to have any taste so simply developed as the craze for shooting is in our beloved monarch … His perspective of what is proper seems almost destroyed.”
George didn’t want to engage with the wider world. He couldn’t, as his uncle the Duke of Cambridge remarked, “bear London56 and going out, and hates Society.” Despite his devotion to his father, he was not part of fashionable society. As one observer noted delicately, George’s set were chosen “not for their57 social brilliance, for the wit or sparkle or novelty which their hospitality offered, but for more solid qualities based on old traditions.” He belonged to what the radical Liberal Arthur Ponsonby—royal secretary Fritz Ponsonby’s rebellious and radical brother and author of The Decline of the Aristocracy—described as the “reactionary,” “dull” part of the upper class, which deplored the modern world while enjoying its conveniences, yearned for the past, and expected “unlimited deference”58 from its social inferiors. He hated going abroad, even though, through his grandmother’s efforts, he was now related by blood or marriage to all twenty of the reigning monarchs in western Europe. Travel made him homesick and seasick and exposed his inability to speak any foreign language. He dreaded making speeches in public, and in general being pushed beyond his comfort zone. He didn’t even know about the Sandringham estate on which he lived. When he inherited it in 1910, he had no idea that his labourers were among the worst paid in Norfolk.
His marriage had been hailed as a great success. May produced an heir within a year—David, the future Edward VIII. The couple quickly became a beacon of respectable and contented domesticity. “Every time I59 see them I love and like them more and respect them greatly,” Queen Victoria wrote in 1897. “Thank God! Georgie has got such an excellent, useful, and good wife.” May was regarded at court as having bolstered George’s shyness, lending the partnership a ramrod-backed, rather severely splendid public poise. She showed a particular propensity for draping herself in diamonds and expensive jewellery. Although no extrovert, she enjoyed the public obligations of royalty.
George loved May, as much as he was able. “You know by this60 time,” he wrote to her several months after their wedding,
that I never do anything by halves, when I asked you to marry me I was very fond of you, but not very much in love with you, but I saw in you the person I was capable of loving most deeply, if you only returned that love … I have tried to understand you and to know you, and with the happy result that I know now that I do love you darling girl with all my heart, and am simply devoted to you … I adore you sweet May. My love grows stronger for you every day, mixed with admiration and I thank God every day that he has given me such a darling devoted wife as you are. God bless you my sweet Angel May, who I know will always stick to me as I need our love and help more than ever now.
On paper, George brimmed with the tenderest feelings towards his wife, and told her he couldn’t do without her. In St. Petersburg, for Nicholas’s wedding in 1894, he wrote her twenty letters in two weeks. Face-to-face, however, he continued to be quite unable to express his feelings. “I know that you understood what I felt & what agony it was having to take leave,” he wrote after he left for Russia in 1894; and after their tour of the Commonwealth in 1901, “Somehow I can’t tell you, so I take the first opportunity of writing to say how deeply I am indebted to you darling for the splendid way in which you supported and helped me on our long Tour. It was you who made it a success.”61
The relationship was complicated. George remained very close to his sisters and mother, who lived only minutes away. They were extremely possessive of him and often insensitive and hostile to her. George’s closest sister, Toria, who had remained unmarried because Alexandra wanted a companion, and who regarded May as an interloper, made little effort to hide her antipathy. “Do try to62 talk to May at dinner,” she told a guest shortly after the marriage, “though one knows she is deadly dull.” Alexandra never openly clashed with her daughter-in-law, and treated her with her characteristic breezy friendliness. But there was no mistaking “her jealousy63 of her daughter-in-law,” according to May’s oldest friend, Mabell, Countess of Airlie. Alexandra made a point of demonstrating her power over her son, turning up at the house whenever she felt like it; moving the furniture around when her daughter-in-law was away, “which certainly gives64 ever so much more room, and I think looks much prettier,” George wrote tactlessly to May. “Of course, if you don’t like it … we can move it all back again in a minute.” Alexandra was quick to point out anything that May did which might be construed as the tiniest neglect of her husband: “So my poor65 Georgie has lost his May who has fled to London to look at her glass.” As for her father-in-law, May found Edward’s chaffing discomfiting and disapproved of his lifestyle. Her family, who were enthusiastically pro-German, also disliked what they saw as his “dreadful Russian66 proclivities.” But George still lived in his father’s shadow, consulting the king about everything, even what colour livery his footmen should wear.
George seemed oblivious of his family’s treatment of his wife, just as he was of how dull and monotonous Sandringham and his sporting life must have been to her. Shooting and horse-racing bored her, sailing made her sick. Upper-class wives, however, were expected to fall in line with their husbands’ pursuits, and so she followed the shooters, day after day, smiling enthusiastically. He had no time for her interests—literature and art—and possessed an upper-class philistine contempt for people he thought too clever, referring to them as “eyebrows.” “Sometimes,”67 George’s earliest authorized biographer admitted, “the Duchess’s intellectual life there may have been starved and her energies atrophied in those early years.” Nor would he consider moving to somewhere larger and further away from his family. When in 1901 she proposed they move to Houghton Hall, a nearby Norfolk estate, he vetoed it, egged on by his mother.
May never complained. She had committed herself utterly to accommodating her husband and future king, to boosting his confidence and to demonstrating her devotion to the monarchy. This was, more or less, what was expected. As one biographer of a more recent English princess—Diana—has written, upper-class women of her caste were trained for “a life of68 low emotional expectations and husbands who were not focused on being attentive.” May “sacrificed everything69 to his needs and to the preservation of his peace of mind, thinking of him before she thought of anyone else, her children, and, of course, herself, included,” wrote her biographer James Pope-Hennessy. “… She believed that all should defer to the King’s slightest wish, and she made herself into a living example of her creed … Inwardly it required a constant and dramatic exercise of imagination, foresight and self-control.” Her devotion and abasement, and her insistence that everyone else in the household act the same way, did indeed build George’s confidence.
It also encouraged an already well-established royal habit of behaving like an autocrat within one’s own household. At York Cottage the clocks were all set half an hour fast, because of George’s obsession with punctuality. The head of the household was never contradicted, questioned or criticized. “King George V70 hated all insincerity and flattery, but after a time he got so accustomed to people agreeing with him that he resented the candid friend business,” recalled Fritz Ponsonby, one of the royal family’s longest-serving private secretaries, whose plain speaking was accepted—though not without irritation—by both the queen and Edward. “No one ever71 contradicts him; no subjects are aired but those which they [royals] choose for themselves, and the merest commonplaces from royal lips are listened to as if they were oracles,” the writer Augustus Hare observed when he met George in the mid-1890s. He wondered how George could bear the dullness of the conversation. George took to expressing his opinions and political views—the views of a high Tory Norfolk squire—loudly and at length to anyone who would listen. “Just a little bit72too outspoken,” the secretary of the Viceroy of India noted when he met George in 1905. George had taken an intense dislike to the previous incumbent, Lord Curzon, and couldn’t stop himself from letting everyone know.
May’s submissiveness encouraged George to treat her badly too. “Off the record,”73 the Duke of Windsor told his mother’s biographer, “my father had a most horrible temper. He was foully rude to my mother. Why, I’ve seen her leave the table because he was so rude to her, and we children would follow her out.” Within his own castle, George was quick to anger. A barking temper and often expressed exasperation became two of his most marked characteristics. The anger may have derived from his difficulty in expressing his tenderer feelings; and perhaps because his whole existence was overshadowed by a constant low-level anxiety, uncertainty and dread of the future—that one day he would have to be king. This fed a latent sense of self-pity. Did it also, perhaps, express a tiny, unsayable twinge of disappointment in George about his marriage? A feeling that his irreproachably correct, utterly self-controlled, admirably devoted wife was a little unreachable, even cold; that her deepest attachment was to the monarchy itself, rather than to him? Consciously, George believed utterly in his own uxoriousness. In December 1901 the shocking news came that George’s cousin Victoria Melita, or “Ducky,” had left Alix’s brother Ernst—a union the late queen had bullied them into—for Nicholas’s cousin Kirill. George wrote to Nicholas, “I did not think74 they were at all happy together, but I never thought it would come to this; I am very sorry as I like them both. You and I, thank God, are both so happy with our wives and children, that we can’t understand this sort of thing.”
On May, the marriage had a constraining effect. Three years after the wedding, Marie Mallet, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, wrote in her diary that she hoped “Princess May will75 not be too shy to speak to me. She looks pale and thin as if she longed for sympathy but was too shy to seek it.” A year later she observed, “Princess May is very76 stiff. I am sure she means to be kind but in her case it is often necessary to take the will for the deed.” May’s old friend Mabell, Countess of Airlie, felt that a “hard crust of77 inhibition” had “gradually closed over her, hiding the warmth and tenderness of her own personality.” Away from George, David felt, “she was a different78 person.”
George’s autocracy also extended to the treatment of his six children: five boys—the youngest, John, an epileptic who died at thirteen—and one girl, Mary, all born between 1894 and 1905. The eldest, David, the future Edward VIII, was born during Nicholas’s visit to England in 1894, and the tsar became his godfather. The second, Albert, the future George VI, came a year later. Having been damaged by his own parents’ indulgent neglectfulness, George duly damaged his own children. He was strict, bullying and impatient. He found it as hard to show tenderness to them as he did to his wife. “He retained a gruff blue-water approach to all human situations,” David wrote. “I have often felt that despite his undoubted affection for all of us, my father preferred children in the abstract.” He expected them to behave like adults—or rather, well-trained sailors: punctual, clean and always obedient—while giving them a second-rate education almost identical to his own. And like his father, he frightened them; a summons to the library for lateness, dirty hands, making a noise or wriggling in church was terrifying. “No words that I was ever to hear could be so disconcerting to the spirit,”79 David recalled. Albert developed a stammer which was not improved by his father’s habit of shouting “Get it out”80 at him as he struggled to speak. There is something genuinely sad in George’s claim that his favourite book was Wrong on Both Sides, described by his biographer Harold Nicolson as a “revolting” Lord Fauntleroy–esque story about a strict aristocratic father and his son who love each other but can’t express it because of pride. “Such a lovely book, I always cry over it,”81 George wrote.
May also found it difficult to connect with her children, at least when they were small. After David was born, she seemed disinclined to hold him and left for St. Moritz not long after, while George went to Cowes. It might have been her natural reserve, or post-natal depression, or her insistence that George always come first, or the aristocratic habits of the time, whereby children were bundled off to nursemaids and nannies and barely ever encountered on their own, but she found it hard to get close to her children and hated being pregnant. It took her three years to realize that one nanny was routinely abusing her two eldest boys. “The tragedy was82 that neither had any understanding of a child’s mind,” May’s friend Mabell, Countess of Airlie, admitted. “They had not succeeded in making their children happy.” It was no wonder that for the children, trips to their grandparents, Edward and Alexandra—who seemed “bathed in perpetual83 sunlight,” and spoilt and indulged them in the big house—were like “being given an open-sesame to a totally different world.”
John, the youngest, epileptic and probably autistic, was eventually sent to live separately with his own staff in a cottage on the Sandringham estate called Wood Farm. Children like him were often regarded as an embarrassment to their families, though his life may well have been much freer than his siblings’. The queen ensured that her last-born was looked after by a devoted nurse; he had space, wonderful toys and local children to play with. Her diary suggests she felt tenderness for her child, but, apart from her, the family seems to have cut themselves off from him. George never referred to him, though he was president of the National Society for the Promoting of the Employment of Epileptics. For a long time John didn’t appear on Windsor family trees, and when he died in 1919, aged thirteen, David told his then mistress Frida Dudley Ward that he greatly resented having to go into mourning: “He was more of84 an animal than anything else.”
There were more similarities between George and Nicholas than their looks. They were both shy men who loved the life of the country gentleman, and were happiest when massacring a few thousand birds a week on enormous estates. Both felt most comfortable with the simple patriotic codes of the military; like Nicholas, George would display an instinctive dislike for the ambiguities and grey areas of realpolitik. Both preferred their families and domestic life to court society. Both were aesthetically blind, though nothing in Nicholas’s homes quite ranked with the sheer ugliness of York Cottage. Both were addicted to routine: Nicholas would arrive for tea at precisely the same moment every day; George liked to know exactly what he was doing at every moment in the day, and hated any disruption to his timetable. Both felt an intense uneasiness at change of almost any sort. Even their politics weren’t far from each other: George had a noisy line after 1900 in violent denunciations of Socialists, the Liberal Party, and in particular the radical Liberal David Lloyd George, whose political platform was founded on improving the lives of the poorest and taking pot shots at inherited, unthinking privilege. Inasmuch as George thought about the tsarist system, he seemed to feel sympathy for his cousin, who he told the German ambassador in 1900, “was reliable, but85 his power was constantly being undermined by subversive powers.” Both felt deeply anxious about their role in the world and tried to dull their worries with familiarities and routines. Both were in many respects lamentably out of touch with the world around them. And both found it impossible to see beyond public shows of loyalty and flattering words.
When, in September 1897, George made a rare public visit on behalf of his grandmother to Ireland—the first by a member of the royal family in over eighty years—he was met by cheering orderly crowds, even in the Catholic parts of Londonderry. The whole event had been carefully choreographed. George never saw, for example, the poorest parts of Dublin, which had some of the worst slums in Europe. He was told repeatedly that the visit had been a “remarkable success.” “The devotion to your person you have inspired is not only a result gratifying to yourself,” Lord Salisbury, whose party was determined not to grant Ireland Home Rule, told him, “… but it will have a most valuable effect upon public feeling in Ireland and may do much to restore the loyalty which during the last half century has been so much shaken in many districts.”86 The visit made absolutely no difference to Irish politics. It left George, however, with a false impression of the state of Ireland, and a mistaken faith in the significance of cheering crowds, the power of royal pageantry, and the magic of his own presence. Likewise, Nicholas could persuade himself that a few minutes of experiencing the hysterical cheering of his subjects told him more about their loyalty and the state of the nation than any ministerial report. And for Wilhelm the addictive reassurance of a cheering crowd would still his unquenchable thirst for affirmation and popularity—and lull him into saying anything that came into his head.
The modern world, however, was encroaching on the walls the monarchs had built around themselves in insistent and increasingly direct ways, most particularly in the form of the press and public opinion. By the mid-1890s newspapers all over Europe suddenly seemed more politicized, more engaged by international affairs, more aware of themselves as organs of public opinion, and much more aggressive. The shift was partly predicated on cheaper production processes, which meant cheaper papers; partly on governments’ acknowledgement of how powerful the press and public opinion could be; and partly on rising literacy rates. Even Queen Victoria was paying attention. The British newspapers had long salivated over her eldest son’s involvement in a series of scandals (though they were careful never to mention his mistresses explicitly). In 1895 the queen had been upset by the hostility of the Russian press; in 1896 she wrote of the Kruger telegram, “I wish that the newspapers87 in both countries could be restrained from writing with such bitterness and violence.” Reading the world’s press now led her to wonder why “we are so actively88 hated by other countries.”
Nicholas and Wilhelm both tried to dismiss the increasing power of public opinion and the press, but were increasingly obliged to acknowledge it. Wilhelm liked to claim that he was immune to public opinion; in fact he was obsessed by and utterly susceptible to it. A critical news story could send him into paroxysms of fury or dejection. A flattering article about him in the English papers would inspire a burst of love for “dear old” England, demands for alliances, and enthusiastic midnight visits to the British ambassador. Wilhelm’s entourage and his chancellors exploited his susceptibility to the press—and his habit of never reading all the way through a paper. Both kept discomforting things from him and presented him with a cocktail of selected press cuttings from home and abroad to keep him on-message. Nicholas, whose father had referred to newspaper editors as “swine” and “half-wits,”89 insisted the Russian press had no consequence; references to Russian public opinion made him angry.90 He admitted, however, to reading a German, French, English and Russian newspaper each day—even though he said he didn’t believe what he read because he knew “how they are made.91 Some Jew or other sits there making it his business to stir up the passions of different peoples against each other and the people, who mostly have no political opinion of their own, are guided by what they read.”
What all three monarchs were convinced of was that what foreign newspapers said about one was an accurate measure of how one was regarded abroad. Rising nationalism and chauvinism across Europe meant that coverage was more often unfriendly than not. Just who the press spoke for, however, was another matter. For Wilhelm and Nicholas it was obvious that the press was the mouthpiece of its government. That was, after all, how the press functioned in their countries. The Russian press—such as it was (Sergei Witte told a British diplomat in 1897 that “he doubted if92100,000 people in all Russia read the newspapers or cared what they wrote”)—was the most heavily controlled and censored in the world. Nicholas told a German visitor in 1895 that he would “never set the Russian93 press free as long as I live. The Russian press shall write only what I want … and my will alone shall prevail throughout the country.” The German government’s control of its press was a byword. In 1899 Joseph Chamberlain told the German chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, “that in Germany94 there is no such thing as public opinion. The German people had only the emotions which its Government required it to have.” Large parts of the press were either controlled or subsidized by the government. The Kölnische Zeitung reflected the views of the German Foreign Office; the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung was the creature of the government and the kaiser. Many other papers took subsidies and ran articles fed to them by the government, and would even print the bowdlerized versions of the kaiser’s speeches that the government sent them, or excise the embarrassing bits themselves. (Though, even more embarrassingly, their omissions were often printed in the Austrian papers.) The effect could be considerable. Two weeks before a visit from Edward in 1902, Wilhelm demanded that the German press put out only pro-English articles, and it was pretty much so.
In Britain it was different. The independent press had a much longer history, and literacy rates were high. By the 1890s successful British papers had circulations95 much larger than their European counterparts, large enough not to need or want government subsidies, and possessed an intense self-consciousness about their importance as the cornerstones of liberal democracy. No matter how often British statesmen assured foreigners that they did not control the press, when British papers attacked Germany or Russia, they were regarded as carrying the force of the government’s antipathy. The Times, which was almost universally seen abroad as the semi-official organ of the government, often diverged embarrassingly from the official line. The British Foreign Office cringed at its accounts of Russian brutality in Manchuria, and frequently asked the paper to tone down its coverage. It almost invariably refused, or swapped direct firsthand reportage for an equally critical editorial. Wilhelm took British press criticism of Germany personally, and couldn’t resist seeing his English relatives’—especially his uncle’s—hands in it, consistently overinflating the British royal family’s influence. It was a sign of how successfully the queen had come to be seen as a disinterested force in British politics that in 1898 she managed to persuade the editors of the major papers to tone down their anti-German coverage. Even so, her intervention lasted only a few months. By 1900, the new tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, with the unheard-of circulation of 1 million copies a day, would be putting out a message that was unashamedly populist, emotive, aggressively imperialist, even xenophobic—and quite beyond the control of any government. It would identify Germany as Britain’s key enemy well before the British government did. Salisbury, who loathed it, despite its Conservative affiliations—he called it the paper “for those who could96 read but could not think”—could see it spoke powerfully to and for a new strident and sometimes ugly strand of public opinion.98
In Germany, and even in Russia after 1905, the press and public opinion were developing a voice, or voices, forcefully separate from government. The German government’s relationship with its press was, without the former quite realizing it, becoming increasingly symbiotic. The German papers represented a whole range of interests: powerful new groups such as the Pan-German League and the agricultural and industrialists’ lobbies highly critical of government pussy-footing, as well as the often forgotten left-wing press, which preached a completely different message of internationalism and cooperation. Wilhelm might tell Edward, “I am the sole97 master of German policy, and my country must follow me wherever I go.” But his chancellor, Bernhard von Bülow, wrote, “public opinion even in Germany had to be reckoned with by every Government, and by the Kaiser too, if he did not want to suffer unpleasantness.” Both Wilhelm and Bülow felt increasingly moved to play to public opinion—at least the views of the Right—and increasingly nervous of its power and potential to undermine them. Both, indeed, felt they lived and died by press approval, Bülow was quite as susceptible and vain about his press coverage as the kaiser. He used the German Foreign Office press bureau to feed flattering stories to the papers about where he took his holidays and how close he was to the kaiser. In his desire to sell himself to the country, he even wrote his own PR: “Probably in no other99 question could I have shown more judgement, composure and caution,” went one self-penned encomium. He would try to curry favour abroad by sending stories he’d planted in the German press sympathetic to a particular country, to its embassy. In Russia, even before the October manifesto granted press freedom in 1905, some in Nicholas’s government identified a kind of public opinion emerging from the educated class, the press and the bureaucracy, which held strong and sometimes diverse views on foreign policy in particular—whether its future lay in the Balkans or the East, whether Germany was friend or foe. For the moment, however, “All parties were100 agreed in believing Great Britain to be the arch-enemy … blocking the way of our forward policy.”
For now governments could exert influence over their respective national presses, but with the power of public opinion growing, how long a monarch could absolutely resist its demands was questionable.
* For more about this genetic disease see John Röhl et al., Purple Secret. Röhl and his fellow authors make a good case for Wilhelm’s sister Charlotte having porphyria and suggest that more of Queen Victoria’s descendants, including Vicky and Alix, were sufferers.
* And perhaps also because glasses showed physical weakness in men—monocles were the accepted alternative among German army officers.