There was Georgie, dutiful and perhaps a little bit dim. Nicky, loving but weak. And Willy, jealous, cruel, and insecure. Bound by family ties, dominated by bossy relatives, and crippled by personal weaknesses, these three royal cousins ineptly reigned as Europe fell into the abyss of the Great War.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? Ah, but there's plenty of life in these long-dead royals and their colorful clans, as British author Catrine Clay proves in her witty, revealing, and perceptive new history.
The scandals, quarrels, and rivalries of these ruling families "were played out in public, on the dangerous stage of international politics," writes Clay in King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War.
And what glorious dysfunction it was that surrounded the "Trade Union of Kings" – British King George V, Russian Czar Nicholas II, and German Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Today, only Czar Nicholas, leader of the doomed Romanov clan, is much remembered on this side of the pond. To many, Kaiser Wilhelm is just some vague 19th-century German in a pointy helmet, and King George – which one was he?
Readers of Clay's book will never confuse them again. She paints vivid pictures of the turn-of-the-century royals through sharp historical analysis and a plethora of lively excerpts from their personal letters and diaries.
Georgie and Willy – the childhood nicknames stuck with all three royals for life – were grandchildren of an aging Queen Victoria, who comes across as a maniacally controlling matriarch with a heart of gold.
On one hand, she's forever arranging marriages and ordering her offspring around, once fretting that one of her sons married a woman with a small head, bad tidings for their children considering the future king's own "small empty brain."
But Victoria is also passionate and even sensitive, not quite the stiff-necked party pooper of popular history. In one letter, she even defends the lower classes against "the wretched ... high-born beings who live only to kill time." (Today, we might call those folks royalty, but never mind.)
Willy is the villain of the piece, and no wonder. Crippled at birth, his sense of inferiority knew no bounds. As the "odd one out," his relatives snubbed him, and it certainly didn't help that he liked to slap diminutive Nicky on the back and poke him in the ribs.
Both Georgie and Nicky, meanwhile, developed an antipathy toward Germany thanks to their mothers, a pair of beautiful Danish princesses who were never able to forgive or forget the Prussian onslaught of their tiny country in 1865. Master manipulators, the sisters did everything they could to see to it that no one would give Germany the time of day, let alone the respect Willy craved.
"King, Kaiser, Tsar" is especially enjoyable when Clay relates stories about the personal lives of the royals. They were eternally sending each other gossipy missives full of exclamation points and capital letters, often expressing their fury about some misguided marriage or annoying relation.
Of the three men, Wilhelm is by far the most bizarre. Today, the kaiser might have been sent to a psychiatrist and put on medication to calm his lack of attention and hyperactivity. But back then, he was simply allowed to run wild.
He sired a huge family but preferred the company of fawning aristocrats who had no use for women or democracy. In one of many delicious details, Clay notes that one compatriot, a top military chief, died after dancing for the kaiser in a tutu.
The rapturously romantic Czar Nicholas, meanwhile, is hesitant, easily influenced and sternly autocratic. During the Russian revolution, he and his famous family died in the middle of nowhere, shot to death with no defense except the many pounds of jewelry hidden in their clothes.
For his part, the good King George (favorite word: "Bosh!") was solid and dependable, neither a careless playboy like his married father nor much of an international strategist. His diaries were more concerned with the weather than his role as a peacemaker: "fairly warm, showers & windy," he wrote on the day his country declared war on Germany.
In fact, none of the three men stood in the way of war, and instead allowed themselves to be overtaken by events and their own misjudgments.
Nearly a century later, monarchs are in decline. With little power residing in palaces, Queen Elizabeth II – George V's granddaughter – can't network her way through royal relations as her grandfather and two distant cousins could.
Then again, "King, Kaiser, Tsar" makes it clear that close family ties offer no immunity from war. Ultimately, the cousins were more interested in preserving their crowns than one another. The world is still paying the price for their hubris.
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.