"George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I," by Miranda Carter, Vintage Books, 560 pages, $19 (paperback ) (published in the U.K. as "The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One," Penguin, 11 pounds sterling )
These are good days for Britain's royal court. In a few weeks, we will all shed a tear as we watch Prince William wed with pomp and grandeur. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world have been deeply touched watching "The King's Speech" - the film that tells the very human story of a stammering King George VI. It has even been reported that Queen Elizabeth II saw the film about her father and enjoyed it immensely. And no wonder, considering how lovely the two little princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, looked playing with their toy ponies. And to top it off, there was the Oscar for best film.
But here and there, one does hear mutterings. Several weeks ago, Jewish organizations in Britain and elsewhere protested the distorted presentation of the king in the film, pointing out that his close associates knew he did not particularly like Jews and made no effort to hide that. Christopher Hitchens protested the attempt by the creators, producers and distributors of the film to give the film what he called an anti-Nazi spin. The one reference made in the film to the Nazis also pertains to the king's speech problem. My impression was that George VI envied the Fuehrer's ability to deliver speeches. In general, Hitchens argues, the whole world knew about the king's political leanings. Historians have repeatedly recorded his position during the surrender in Munich and his fondness for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. No mention of this is made in the film, however, raising some fundamental questions about cinema and historiography.
The producers and creators of "The King's Speech" wanted us to love them, wanted the queen to love them, wanted us to express our love by buying tickets and wanted the Academy Award. Those who want the public to love them at all costs, it seems, are often prepared to make concessions when it comes to adhering to historical facts. Some things are not mentioned at all, while other wrinkles are simply ironed out and "repaired."
What about the way Churchill is presented in the film? Winston and the cigar, the eccentric with the strange mannerisms, is not a character who can easily be left out. The film presents him as a good and devoted adviser to George VI, ignoring quite a few embarrassing facts. Churchill, for example, was one of the greatest and most vocal supporters of Edward VIII - the Prince of Wales who insisted on marrying the divorcee Wallis Simpson even at the cost of abdicating the throne - and the royal family did not like him. During the years covered in the film, Churchill was considered an embarrassing nuisance in what was considered "respectable" society. The newspapers widely reported about his drinking binges and his odd views, and had unanimously decided that politically he was more dead than alive.
In the winter and spring of 1940, when it became blatantly clear that Chamberlain's policy had failed, that Hitler's forces had expanded their control over Europe and that Churchill's strange predictions had been fully and frighteningly fulfilled, George VI stood up like a fortified wall against the proposition that the rebellious Winston would be appointed prime minister. He wanted Lord Halifax, and the mere thought that his position as monarch would require him to encounter Churchill's bad manners on occasion was repugnant to him.
Nothing of the wonderful complexity of Churchill's character remains in the film except for his eccentricity and the impressive bit of information that Winston, too, the greater orator, suffered from a speech defect, which actually made him more appealing and special to his listeners.
I find it hard to believe that the creators of this film were not aware of their power to influence, and their stunning ability to shape the historical memory of the man in the street. Even the most popular and beloved historians are not as good at disseminating historical tales as movies are. Anyone who has attempted to teach students a chapter in Middle East history has surely encountered those who know it all because they have seen "Lawrence of Arabia."
The Three Royal Cousins alluded to in the title of Miranda Carter's book are Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and George V - the same King George after whom some of our streets are named (played in the film by the fabulous Sir Michael Gambon ). The book focuses on the period that precedes the decade of "The King's Speech." What connects the three, aside from the bitter fact that they all reigned during World War I, is that they were related to one another and to the hidden heroine of this fascinating book, the greatest empress of all, Queen Victoria. One of the secrets of Queen Victoria's power, in the second half of the 19th century - aside from the fact that she reigned for nearly 64 years (1837-1901 ) - was her talent at marrying her sons and daughters off to ruling dynasties around Europe. The similarities in the facial features of the three heroes of the book is astounding. Victoria, who maintained a meticulous and constant correspondence with all her offspring, bequeathed to them more than mere outstanding physical characteristics.
She was the grand mother of pretense and royal concealment, of sanctimonious modesty, and apparently, of some nasty hereditary diseases that were passed along with the royal family from one generation to the next. Queen Elizabeth II, who according to press reports is instructing her grandson on how to dress and how to get to his wedding, is only four generations removed from Victoria. Studying her behavior and mannerisms, her sense of style, the distance she maintained and her tendency to impose her will on her sons and especially her daughters-in-law, it is not difficult to figure out where this all comes from.
Carter's book, in some sense, is an attempt to write about the lives and times of three cousins: their ties, their positions in the countries they ruled and the toppling of the world they controlled in the terrible disaster of the Great War. The focus is on their personalities, their lifestyles and even the minute details of their daily conduct, catering to the well-known voyeuristic tendencies of biography readers.
George V, like his son and heir George VI, was not originally destined to reign. In such dynasties, anyone not expected to become king is left by the wayside. His education is not nurtured, and he is not groomed for the lofty position. He is sent to serve in the navy, to have a good time with the guys and not trouble himself with complicated matters. But in this case, his older brother, the Prince of Wales, who was expected to reign, died at a young age, and George, the man of discipline and strict order, ascended to the throne.
He spent most of his days hunting obsessively, filling his diaries with details of the number of pheasants he had shot on a given day. When he had had enough of hunting, he would turn his attention to his stamp collection and make cumbersome demands on those surrounding him regarding discipline, dress, bows and curtsies, and other signs of respect. He groomed his son David (later to become Edward VIII and marry the famous divorcee ) to become king and neglected his brother, Bertie, who became George VI. To the credit of the creators of "The King's Speech," they did not refrain from hinting, on several occasions, that the hero's stammer was connected to his father's heavy-handed and tyrannical conduct.
The senior of the three cousins was Wilhelm II, the German whose hand was partially paralyzed and whose mustache was tilted upward. He, too, inherited from his mighty grandmother an admiration for meticulous order, zealous adherence to protocols, and a domineering style. Willie gave free reign to his madness, and the governing milieu around him did not restrain him.
The third cousin, Nicholas (Nikki, to his relations ) was like his cousins, a strict monarch who hated his position and the demands it imposed on him. He was out of touch with the nation he reigned, and all he wanted was to spend time with his loving family.
The terrible tragedy in what may, on the face of it, appear to be a gossip story about the royalty of Europe is that in one way or another, three defective and abnormal people held power and determined the fate of millions of inhabitants of a huge continent. Carter skillfully mixes stories of the royal European courts with the dangerous road map that ultimately led to the murder of the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo, and from there to the world war.
World War I, its vicissitudes and revolutions, brought an end to two of the triangle's three sides. Wilhelm was expelled from Germany and spent the rest of his life as a political exile in neighboring Holland. Nicholas and his family were murdered with great cruelty by Bolshevik rebels, putting an end to the Romanov dynasty. The one survivor was George the Englishman, and he was able to survive, says Carter, precisely because he enjoyed less power than did his two cousins. In general, the members of the British wing of Victoria's descendants were blessed with a will to survive and an ability to adapt.
During World War I, when any association with the name and memory of Germany was unbearable to the British, they renounced the German origins of Victoria's husband, Albert, changed the dynasty's name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and became very English. As the years progressed, they learned to tend to the family's property, to adhere to every bit of protocol and to make do with the symbolism of their position. These days, when the British prime minister laments the failure of multiculturalism and yearns for a return to the melting-pot era, perhaps a role can yet be found for the royal family.
"The King's Speech" will certainly strengthen this trend, and if we continue to entrust the creation of an acceptable version of the history of the royal family to the hands of exceptionally talented filmmakers, it is highly likely that this can be accomplished - even if historians continue to write books that insist on telling "the real story."
Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and editor of the Ofakim nonfiction series by the Am Oved Publishing House.
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