The Kaiser, the Tsar and King George V - cousins at war in WW1

Tsar Nicolas II (left) and George V (right) were first cousins
George V (right) and his cousin Nicholas II of Russia in German uniforms before the war | Wikipedia

As many people who’ve researched their family tree will know, the more you map out your family tree, the more surprises you’re likely to uncover. You might see startling links between far-flung branches of your tree, and learn the unexpected ways that individuals – perhaps from different backgrounds and living in different countries – shared the same bloodline.

For a dramatic example of the kind of surprising story a family tree can tell, just look at the Royal Family, and the curious constellation of connections behind World War One. Britain may have been swept up in jingoistic fervour against Germany, with Rudyard Kipling warning that ‘The Hun is at the gate’, but what’s often forgotten is that the British monarch at the time, George V, was the first cousin of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, both being grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

George V’s father, Edward VII, was Victoria’s eldest son. He had become king upon his mother’s death in 1901, only ruling for a scant nine years until he himself died in 1910 when George V took over. George’s mother, by the way, was Alexandra of Denmark – a significant fact which we’ll get back to in a moment.

The German Kaiser, meanwhile, was Queen Victoria’s grandson through Victoria’s daughter, also named Victoria, who had married Germany’s Frederick III. In fact, Wilhelm’s ties with the British Royal Family were far more than a mere matter of genetics. As an infant, he’d been dressed up in full Highland garb for the wedding of his Uncle Bertie (aka, Edward VII) to Alexandra of Denmark. As a teenager, he’d been awarded the Order of the Garter by Queen Victoria, and he would even be present at her deathbed.

Kaiser Wilhelm II inspecting German soldiers in the field during World War 1
Kaiser Wilhelm II inspecting German soldiers in the field during World War 1 | Image: Everett Collection /

Many chroniclers of this period have been fascinated by Wilhelm’s rocky relationship with his British relations, particularly noting his fierce animosity towards his Uncle Bertie – dubbed ‘the old peacock’ and even ‘a Satan’ by Wilhelm. In the words of historian David Fromkin, ‘the half-German side of him was at war with the half-English side’. Indeed, the Kaiser’s militaristic ambitions and strutting on the European stage may well have been partly fuelled by what Miranda Carter, author of The Three Emperors: Three cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One, calls ‘his adolescent touchiness and almost oedipal desire to outdo the British’.

The third major royal player in World War One, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, also had a very personal stake in things. He was another first cousin of George V, whose mother, Alexandra of Denmark, was the sister of the Tsar’s mother, Dagmar of Denmark. As well as being closely related, George V and Nicholas II looked uncannily alike and had developed a firm friendship in their younger years. The Tsar’s ties with the British royals were further cemented when he married Queen Victoria’s favourite granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse (who would perish alongside him and their children when the Tsar’s family was massacred by Communist revolutionaries in 1918).

As for Wilhelm and Nicholas – well, they were also related, being distant cousins through the Russian and Prussian royal houses. They communicated by telegram and letter in the lead up to World War One, calling each other ‘Willy’ and ‘Nicky’, and sounding increasingly concerned about the likelihood of conflict between their nations. ‘To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war,’ the Tsar wrote to the Kaiser in 1914, ‘I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.’

Of course, conflict did break out. Just over a year after the wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia – a glittering society occasion which saw George, Nicholas and Wilhelm together in person for the last time – the cousins were at war, with Britain and Russia allied against Germany.

The unprecedented slaughter of the Great War – mechanised, brutal and shorn of chivalry – was a savage rebuke to the idea that close familial links between royal families would somehow prevent nations from descending into bloodshed. Queen Victoria had been regarded as the grandmother of Europe, and, as royal historian, Theo Aronson writes, ‘there was hardly a Continental court that did not boast at least one of her relations.’ But all of this would count for nothing in the face of the political alliances that tied different European nations to each other, and would ultimately condemn them all to war.