I started this on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the war, as I thought it was a fitting time to start it. I’ve been interested in the last days of Imperial Russia and I watched the BBC drama 39 Days earlier this year, so I probably bought this book around then.
Anyway, the book is a tricky prospect: how do you combine the biographies of three quite frankly odd men who were bound together by family ties but separated by nation ideologies? The book not only looks at the lives of Nicholas II, George V and Wilhelm II but also the legacy of Queen Victoria and the effect of Edward VII’s charm and congeniality (the author jokes that at one point, she seriously considered naming the book ‘Four Emperors and an Empress’.) It’s an awesome task and one that Miranda Carter does well and with humour- which is not always an easy feat.
I found the book engrossing, although difficult at times- getting into the various foreign policies of countries a hundred years ago is never going to be the stuff of the Edinburgh Fringe, although Carter does it well. It’s absurd how three men, none of whom seemed especially ready for their roles, held the key to international peace. Nicholas comes across as kind but deluded, George as pretty dull and Wilhelm as a man obsessed with machismo but lacking common sense.
It’s hard, too, to not look at the events of the world then and compare them with now- I came away from the book feeling like although we’d lived through various revolutions, we haven’t learnt any lessons.