Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Emperors: How Europe's Rulers Were Destroyed by the First World War

The Emperors by Gareth Russell is a book I could not put down until the tragic finale. Gareth succinctly but with drama and power describes the apocalyptic fall of the leaders of Western Civilization in 1917. I finished reading it at night, which was a mistake, because then sleep was impossible, so poignantly is the overthrow of empires described.Written with pathos yet meticulously documented, the book destroys the stereotypes of the rulers, the war and the revolutions. For one thing, none of the emperors wanted to go to war; they each shunned the possibility of war until they gave into pressure from the forces of nationalism among their families, nobles and even among the people. No one could foresee, except perhaps Alexandra, Empress of Russia, that millions of lives would be lost and that almost every royal and imperial throne, except for those of England, Belgium and Romania, would be overthrown.

The Emperors is not a long book but it contains more information and more astute analysis than many a tome. Gareth makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, revolution was not inevitable in any of the countries and could have been avoided. In 1913, Russia was flourishing in an unprecedented manner under Nicholas II. To quote from the book:
Millions of peasants became property owners...Five consecutive years of bumper harvests; education reforms and increases in teachers' salaries improved the prospects for Russia's next generation to continue the capitalist dream nurtured by Stolypin's government...Russia's railway networks and steel mines broke records with how quickly they expanded. Coal production doubled. Industrial productivity in general rose by 125 per cent in five years. Government income rose sharply and by 1914 the empire had outstripped the United States as the major global exporter of grain. (p.21)
The royal and imperial marriages are explored with great insight. Unlike rulers of the past, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Karl, and Tsra Nicholas were all devoted to their wives and families. On the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra, the author says:
One of the greatest misconceptions about Nicholas II was that he was always dominated by his wife. A dynamic that occurs at one stage of a relationship does not necessarily show that it was ever thus.. This is especially true in the case of Nicholas and Alexandra. The Tsar's seeming gentleness, his politesse, and the lengths he would go in order to avoid awkward scenes or to avoid embarrassing anybody made him seem like weak putty in the hands of his assertive Anglo-German wife....In fact, prior to the First World War, Alexandra had almost no political influence. Nicholas allowed her none and deliberately kept her in ignorance of policies which he felt she either would not understand or be upset by. (p.116)
I have quoted passages about Russia but the other empires are covered as well.The author makes a strong case that the ending of the vanquished dynasties was a common disaster for Europe and the world.  To quote:
That the central European monarchies came to an end far too soon is difficult to dispute when one looks at what followed. The removal of centuries of stability coupled with desensitizing experiences of the war enabled horrific violence on the streets of Berlin, Munich, Budapest and Vienna. The rise of Nazism in the former Second Reich and then into the Habsburg heartland of Austria through the Anschluss of 1938 created one of the most appalling regimes in human history. In the former Russian Empire, a holocaust of violence had already taken place during Lenin's consolidation of power, in which millions were murdered...The argument that the gulags and purges of Stalinism were somehow am aberration from the purer communism of Lenin and Trotsky is a popular one but entirely incorrect. The wanton cruelty, the amoral viciousness, and the depraved, random disregard for, as Trotsky put it, 'the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life' and all existed and flourished from the moment the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. (p. 212)

Sadly, Woodrow Wilson was the catalyst for the unraveling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire. Ultimately, no one won the First World War; rather all of humanity paid the price as Communism spread throughout the world. Share

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