Before World War I the belief that monarchs ruled by divine right was alive and well in Europe—at least among the monarchs themselves. George, Nicolas and Wilhelm were cousins who reigned in Britain, Russia and Germany during the years leading up to the war. By the end of the war Tsar Nicolas and his family had been assassinated, and Kaiser Wilhelm was in exile having been forced to abdicate. Interestingly, only the monarch with almost no political power survived the war with his title in tact, but the experiences of the war aged and haunted King George so that it is almost impossible to see the handsome young man he had been in the worn face of his post-war photos. As the grandmother of King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicolas’s wife Alix, Queen Victoria played a pivotal role in the lives of all three rulers. Though, like King George, her main functions in politics were decorative, Queen Victoria was able to strengthen her position by marrying eight of her nine children into European reigning houses, most of which had more real power than the British monarchy. All her scattered, royal children and grandchildren were brought up to believe that the close family relationships they maintained would ensure peace and harmony for Europe. Even as their countries bickered in an increasingly ominous way, the royals wrote each other loving notes, took hunting vacations together, and met on each other’s yachts. I really enjoyed this triple biography; all of its subjects are fascinating. Kaiser Wilhelm is Queen Victoria’s first grandson, born to her eldest daughter. That daughter, Vicky, tried so hard to make Wilhelm venerate all things British that he alternated between rebellion, antagonizing his English family with his bombastic and pseudo-militaristic ways, and supplication, wanting only to be loved and admired by those same relations. He’d threaten dire consequences when he thought he had been disrespected, but he became happy as a child with a new toy when presented with foreign military uniforms. These were honorary tokens that he seemed to believe gave him real decision making power in the British navy and Russian army. Though he lived a cushy, royal life Wilhelm always considered himself a strong, disciplined military man. He had a withered, unusable arm from a difficult birth that was never allowed to appear in pictures. He encouraged and strengthened the Germany military—a group of men who believed in a warped social Darwinism that saw war as a necessary tool to cull the continent’s population—to the point that his armed forces became so powerful they ruled themselves, unanswerable to him or the civilian government. He felt betrayed by them when he was forced to abdicate. Tsar Nicolas was a family man who wanted nothing more than to be secluded with his wife and five children far from the seats of power. He was mainly ignorant of the devastation the Russian people were experiencing and the rebellion that was causing, and when he did have a glimpse of it he truly did not understand what he was seeing. One reason for this was that he was worried and distracted by the ill health of his only son, who had hemophilia. Also, his very religious wife kept him convinced that he alone, as the divinely appointed ruler, knew what was best for Russia, so he wouldn’t listen to advisors and kept weakening and dissolving the Duma, Russia’s representative assembly. The chaos this produced led to Russia’s disastrous participation in World War I and then to revolution and his own death.King George looked so much like his first cousin Tsar Nicolas that in photos of the two of them it is hard to tell them apart. Though George loved and admired his father, the rotund but stylish King Edward, he was embarrassed by his father’s dalliances and so his court was much more conservative. Well into the new century he continued to dress in the fashions popular when his grandmother Queen Victoria was alive, and he insisted that his wife wear the old styles too. Miranda Carter credits his war activities—stoic visits to the front, hospitals and factories—with a resurgence in popularity of the British monarchy. His frayed ordinariness was seen as a rebuke to the claims of divine right made by the absolutist monarchies his country felt it was fighting against. I didn’t know much about this period in history before I read the book and one of the things that surprised me was the large role that Austria—land of edelweiss—played in instigating the First World War. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated Austria saw it as an opportunity to crush Serbia, the self-proclaimed leader of the southern Slavs. Empire building was seen as a key to wealth and power and Austria considered Serbia, which had doubled its size after the Balkan war, a threat to the Austria-Hungry Empire it had built. Austria’s military leaders were just as enthusiastic about war as Wilhelm’s German generals were, and the German military encouraged Austria to ignore all the appeasements and concessions the Serbs made in its fruitless effort to secure peace.I became interested in the pre-WWI era while reading Juliet Nicholson’s The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. While Miranda Carter’s book focuses on different aspects of that era—there is nothing about socialite Diana Cooper who has a prominent role in Perfect Summer—it is just as captivating and we do learn more about some of the other interesting characters in the earlier book. There is a little bit more about George’s dutiful wife Queen Mary for instance, and the sections dealing with Lloyd George, who was the first and so far only Welsh Prime minister of the United Kingdom, were new to me. I’m looking forward to reading Nicholson’s new book about the post-war period—The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age.