Between them, royal cousins King George V, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled over half the world’s population. However, pitted on different sides of the First World War, the conflict shattered family ties and swept away their power.
Queen Victoria’s grandson Wilhelm becomes Kaiser of Germany and King of Prussia. Determined to cement Germany’s status as a great power, he embarks on a huge naval build-up. His aggressive rhetoric and actions steer the country down a dangerous path and range European powers against it, leaving Germany encircled by potential enemies.
<p">Tsar Alexander of Russia dies and his son Nicholas becomes head of the House of Romanov, the richest and most powerful royal family in Europe. Wilhelm’s relations with his English relatives are often strained. After being relegated to a minor role at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, he turns his attention towards Russia where the succession of his cousin gives him the chance to renew diplomatic relations.
Meeting aboard a yacht off the Finnish coast, Wilhelm and Nicholas attempt to strengthen relations between Germany and Russia with the Treaty of Björkö but the initiative exposes the limits of royal power. Russia has been allied to France since 1894 and cannot be allied to Germany at the same time therefore both governments refuse to ratify it. The age of autocratic monarchy is coming to an end.
Britain signs a historic entente with Russia. Although they are former enemies, the countries’ royal connections had smoothed the path to friendship. By spending their summers together, the Danish royal sisters Dagmar (Tsarvena Maria Feodorova) and Princess Alexandra (the wife of the future Edward VII) bring their husbands Tsar Alexander and ‘Bertie’ (Edward VII) into close contact and away from Germany.
Made heir after the death of his older brother, ‘Eddy’, George V accedes the British throne. Having lived in the shadow of his father Edward VII, he is underprepared for the role and the prospect of kingship terrifies him. Wilhelm sees George as less of rival and looks forward to a better relationship with his cousin than he had with Edward.
Wilhelm invites George and Nicholas to the wedding of his eldest daughter Victoria Louisa in Berlin. Being Prussian, Wilhelm never attended the family gatherings in Denmark and the same childhood dynamic resurfaces. Wilhelm feels shunned as George and Nicholas once again prove inseparable. A watershed moment as a new age dawns, this is the last time the cousins see each other.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria triggers a complex network of alliances, and unrest in the Balkans draws Europe into war. George is appalled but powerless, Nicholas feels like he has no choice, and Wilhelm stands his ground. Despite a frantic exchange of telegrams, the cousins cannot stop the course of events. Pitted on opposing sides, family ties count for nothing and three different fates are sealed.
Deposed by the Russian Revolution in 1917 and forced to live under house arrest, Nicholas and his family are executed the following year. As defeat looms in Germany and a socialist revolution gains momentum, Wilhelm is forced to abdicate by his generals and is sent into exile in Holland. Distancing himself from his German relatives, George remains king – dutiful but essentially powerless – and establishes the template for modern monarchy.