I recently enjoyed watching the BBC series "Cousins At War" which charted the complex relationships between the sovereigns of Britain, Germany & Russia in the run up to the First World War. I even learn't something about the run up to the war which I didn't know about before, namely that the Kaiser's brother Prince Henry rushed to meet King George V at Buckingham Palace, to discern Britain's intentions in the impending Europe wide conflict. Tragically His Majesty blew him off after about 5 minutes saying he was going to be late for church, but when pressed King George made the remark that he couldn't foresee a reason for Britain getting involved, and when Prince Henry reported this back to his brother in Berlin, the Kaiser took his cousin at his word to conclude that the British Empire would remain neutral during a German invasion of France... However this being a series by the "Bolshevik Broadcasting Collective", the narrators couldn't resist getting digs into these monarchs, and did so with utter relish with with respect to Kaiser Bill and Emperor Nicky. I shall thus endeavor to set the record straight.
To start with while it is true that Kaiser Bill had a reputation for being a Sabre rattling bombast, with a knack for rubbing people the wrong way, this doesn't make him solely responsible for the series of alliances that set the stage for the impending catastrophe.We must remember that this was a man who grew up, trapped inside a metal brace, without any real affection from his parents which Wilhelm knew arose from their embarrassment towards his infirmaries, which were at odds with the traditional Prussian view that their leaders were filled with strong martial vigor. The result was that the future Kaiser grew up with a complex, and felt compelled to overcompensate for his frailties, by acting with his trademark exaggerated swagger in public. Nobody in Wilhelm's life ever seemed to bother telling him that it was ok to simply be himself, and make an effort to make him feel welcomed and accepted, without reference to his withered arm; something that anyone with a physical or mental disability can surely relate.
Likewise the Kaiser always admired Britain and earnestly desired to secure her friendship, which was only natural since he was half-English after all, but his offers of alliance were always snubbed, simply because Germany happened to be the most powerful country on the continent, and Britain was still making it official policy to make an enemy out of such a power, even though German ambitions neither conflicted with nor threatened British imperial interests whatsoever. Even the expansion of the German Imperial Navy, wasn't as big of a threat to the Royal Navy as was portrayed, since the German's were doing so partly as a way of trying to secure Britain's respect, and also because they had acquired the third largest colonial empire in the world, fairly recently; and which obviously needed defending. However even with this naval expansion Britain still had navy that was the size of the second and third largest navies world combined... Thus it was only after Britain defied all common sense and logic, by showing its aggression in an anti-German alliance with France and Russian that left the Germans encircled, did they decide to concentrate their naval strength in the North Sea...
As for the notion that Tsar Nicolas II was an unfit ruler who was an example of the flaws of monarchy, the facts clearly demonstrate that Nicky was a much better ruler than he has been portrayed. On the whole Nicola's domestic policy was sound, and it was under his rule that Russia entered the industrial revolution and began catching up with its European neighbours. Indeed the case can be made that it was during this period that Nicolas II, laid the foundations for his country's later rise as a superpower, which the communists exploited and tried to take credit for. Likewise it was under the reign of Nicolas II, that the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed which connected the Russian Empire together for the first time, while the Russian armed forces began to modernize, and with Russia also being among the first to establish an air force.
Of course criticism of the Tsar and the advocates of revolutionary treason were not publicly tolerated, however in contrast to what was to come under the Soviets, freedom of expression still existed in other areas, and the Tsar's subjects could still fully express their opinions in private. Likewise even if you run foul of the anti-treason laws of the time, punishment was at most exile in Siberia for a set period, but again in contrast to Soviet times the exiles didn't languish in slavery in the gulags waiting for their short miserable lives to end, but instead could free go about their business, and could make a fresh start with many exiles going on to prosper in their new digs, and sometimes even opting to stay once their sentence was finished. Actions that are certainly not in keeping with the brutal, arbitrary dictatorships that were to come in places like Germany, China, Cuba and North Korea...
In fact the biggest fault of Nicolas was in foreign policy, where he blatantly misjudged the rising power of Japan, and declined a deal that would have recognized of Japanese dominance in Korea in return for Russian dominance of Manchuria, opting instead for what he assumed was a quick and easy war that would boost his popularity. Instead Russia suffered its worst humiliation in living memory and lost control of both Korea and Manchuria, this set the fuse for a failed revolutionary uprising that included the tragic massacre of protesters in front of Winter Palace, for which the Tsar wasn't personally responsible. Nevertheless Nicolas was more flexible than is portrayed, and reacted by granting Russia's first constitution in which the Tsar voluntarily shared some of his traditional authority with a partially elected Duma, although Nicolas was forced to tinker with the electoral system to root out the revolutionary traitors, who spurned their emperor's goodwill gesture and used the Duma as a platform to spew their poisonous verbal filth. Furthermore to further address some of the underlying causes of the revolt, Nicolas II appointed a solid prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, who began the urgent process of land reform, but who was brutally murdered by the revolutionary scum for doing too good a job. Again hardly the actions of a brutal dictator...
At the same time Wilhelm II, offered his cousin a lifeline when he secretly wrote to the Tsar offering to conclude an alliance between Russia and Germany, similar to the one that existed during the reign of their respective fathers. Indeed such an alliance would have served the multipurpose role of mending fencse with Germany, shoring up the Tsar's position in the aftermath of the annus horribilis of 1905, given Russia breathing space to rebuild its economy and armed forces, and an opportunity to break with republican France which aside from mutual hostility with Germany, had nothing in common with Russia, and was in fact a natural enemy whose revolutionary ideology was totally opposed to the Russian imperial system, and served as a safe haven to the Tsar's enemies. But alas after signing the Treaty of Bjorko, Nicolas II was persuaded by his ministers to change his mind, thereby making the treaty stillborn which only served to humiliate the Kaiser who would have made a much better ally than republican France, while inadvertently weakening the Russian monarchy further by cementing a more powerful neighbour as an enemy on the nations western doorstep, when war broke out.
However the Tsars foreign policy blunders, weren't by no means limited to him, with mistakes committed in equal measure on both sides by the members the Triple Entente and the Central Powers, which made war ever more likely. Nevertheless contrary to public opinion in the victorious nations after the conclusion of World War I, the war was neither started by Germany, nor was she wholly to blame as it can be safely show that there was plenty of blame to go round, with the only truly innocent victims of the carnage being Belgium and Luxembourg. The real culprit to striking the fuse that lead to the civilized world entering the abyss, was Serbia who secretly backed, funded and even supplied terrorist training camps to the the Black Hand terrorist group, who assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand in an effort to spark a violent overthrow of Hapsburg rule in the Balkans, to allow Serbia to take their place.
At first Wilhelm encouraged his Austrian ally Franz Joseph to take a hard line against Serbia, with Austrian outrage certainly understandable. However when Serbia surprisingly agreed to nearly all the Austrian demands, and faced with the prospect of the continent set ablaze by war, Kaiser Bill quite sensibly asked Franz Joseph to accept Serbia's concessions. However Wilhelm's government and generals worked to sabotage their emperor's efforts by obstructing the message, and watering it down to the point that it didn't make any sense, and when it did finally arrive it was already too late, as Austria had already attacked. Likewise even the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, was reluctant to give the order to invade Serbia, but was effectively bypassed by his own ministers, who downplayed the seriousness of the crisis until it was too late. However Tsar Nicolas also failed to step in by warning the Serb's that since the current crisis of their own doing, they were on their own and should come to the best possible terms with Austria-Hungary. For the reality was that owing to the state of its economy, military, and simple geography, Russia simply wasn't in a position to offer help to Serbia anyway. Instead Nicolas ignored his instincts and his country's weak position, and allowed himself to by swayed by the war hawks in his government, the French ambassador, and a fear of losing face from backing down; to set in motion events that would lead to the first continent wide conflict in nearly 100 years.
Even at this stage the war could have remained a solely European affair, were it not for British intervention that resulted in its escalation into a world war. Originally Prime Minister Herbert Asquith intended to sit on the fence and remain neutral, however his liberal government was on the verge of losing power to the conservatives, and it was primarily this reason, along with the vocal war hawks in the cabinet, namely the foreign secretary Edward Grey and a certain First Lord of the Admiralty by the name of Winston Churchill; who persuaded Asquith that he could use Belgium as an excuse to throw Britain's hat into the ring, and save his skin from the political chopping block... Of course by Belgium I'm referring to the Belgian Treaty of Neutrality that was signed when the country became independent, which made Belgium perpetually neutral with that neutrality guaranteed by the Great Powers. However the treaty also contained a get out clause, as Britain was not obliged to accept a Belgian request for armed intervention in defence of their aforementioned neutrality.
Indeed from a solely British perspective the approaching war didn't affect the national interest, as even the worse case scenario of a German victory and domination of Europe, still didn't affect British national interests which lay solely in maintaining her vast global empire. Indeed it could be said that the United States posed a greater threat to the British Empire, with her vulnerable holdings in Canada, the rest of the America's, than did Germany which had a tiny military presence in her African and Pacific colonies, and posed no threat to neighboring British possessions. Likewise even the Belgians themselves could see even from their own history and geography, that they were the only thing that stood in the way of France and Germany getting at each others throats. Therefore since maintaining neutrality in such a situation was patently absurd, Belgium needed to pick sides and defend herself accordingly. However even if the sight of poor little Belgium about to be engulfed by German invasion was too still too much to bear, Britain could still have secured German concessions on maintaining the territorial integrity of Belgium, in the event of what would have been an inevitable German victory, as the last thing Germany wanted was British involvement in the war...
Thus when looking at the monarchs of Russia, Germany and Austria, it seems pretty clear to me that while not completely absolved of responsibility, the role they played in the outbreak of World War One has been grossly overblown, while the role played by those country's politicians has likewise been grossly downplayed. Despite the very understandable provocations made, especially against Austria-Hungary, or in the cases of Germany and Russia old scores to settle, their monarchs were still reluctant to get their countries involved in war, because as the father's of their respective nations, these sovereigns could see the conflict as bringing a great deal of suffering upon their people, in return for little or no gain, and were deceived, acting by self-serving politicians, who deceived, browbeat or flagrantly disobeyed their sovereigns either for personal ambition or to settle scores, rather than acting in their countries national interests.
So in final summary then, it was Serbia who started the war, by backing the despicable assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand, for wholly unjustified reasons. Although Austria ultimately invaded Serbia, her reasons for doing so were quite understandable under the circumstances. Russia bears responsibility for activating the series of alliances, that turned a Balkan conflict into a European wide war, despite being unable to come to Serbia's aid, although in fairness since no one had the courage to point out the home truths to Tsar Nicolas II, its not surprising he came under the spell of the war hawks. Kaiser Wilhelm II was deceived by his own ministers who downplayed the seriousness of the situation, meaning he was away from Berlin where he was sorely needed, and when he tried to prevent the invasion of France and thereby the entry of Britain into the conflict at the last minute, his orders were flatly disobeyed by his generals with Von Moltke the Younger bearing special responsibility. Britain's reasons for involvement appear noble on the surface, however on closer examination as we have seen, her intentions were less than savory, with prime minister Herbert Asquith bearing special responsibility, for listening to the war hawks in his cabinet Edward Grey and Winston Churchill, and instructed his king George V to declare war simply as a way of staying in office... Only poor old Belgium was completely absolved of any responsibility for the eruption of the conflict, although like I said earlier it was rather foolish to remain neutral and refuse to arm herself, which ironically, went against the wishes of her king Albert I, whose concerns were ignored by his parliament.
Thus rather than being an example against monarchy, I think the whole sorry affair of the run up to World War I, is an abject lesson of just why it is monarchs rather than politicians, who should be entrusted with foreign policy. For history has shown time and again that by acting as fathers or mothers to their people, sovereigns are far less likely to wage wars of aggression than politicians, who do so largely for selfish reasons like personal gain, or to settle scores. In contrast a sovereign as I've said before, by virtue of being the patriarch of their people, are far less likely to risk the lives of their people, and as a result set the bar much higher when going to war. Consequently if the decision to go to war had been left solely at the discretion of George V, Wilhelm II, Franz Joseph & Nicolas II, and their wishes adhered to by their political and military servants, then war would either not have happened, or at least been greatly reduced in both its scope and severity, as would its ensuring consequences namely: the weakening of Europe, the rise of Fascism and Communism, World War Two, the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, the emergence of the United States as the dominant world power, the Cold War, the European Union, and the fall of monarchies around the world especially, a price that was certainty not worth paying.
Indeed the run up to the outbreak of the First World War, is another reason why I believe that the power to wage war and sue for peace should not be entrusted to politicians of any kind, since history has shown time and again that they simply they are not up to the task of serving as a father to their people, in the way a monarch can, which is why wars initiated by politicians in ceremonial monarchies or republican heads of state; are usually done for the wrong reasons and generally never end well, and that is why I remain an Alberta Royalist.