Miranda Carter

Czar Nicholas II of Russia, circa 1914. (Associate Press / April 24, 2011)

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm

Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War One

Miranda Carter

Vintage: 498 pp., $19 paper

Queen Victoria's grand plan to marry as many of her descendants as possible into the reigning families of Europe resulted in her progeny sitting on the thrones of no fewer than 10 nations. After all, as the saying went back then, "blood is thicker than water," and so with this network of rulers related to the woman who was dubbed the "Grandmama of Europe," surely then peace would prevail. But of course, little more than a dozen years after Victoria's 1901 funeral, attended by a host of these relatives, cousin was pitted against cousin in unprecedentedly hideous global combat.

In "George, Nicholas and Wilhelm," a finalist in the biography category for this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, British biographer Miranda Carter focuses on the nexus among the heads of state in three of the major combatants, Britain, Russia and Germany. The allied King George and Czar Nicholas were not only first cousins (their Danish mothers were sisters) but they looked so much alike that people frequently mistook one for the other. Nicholas' wife was also a first cousin to George (on his father's side) and Kaiser Wilhelm bore the same close relationship to both. (He was also related twice over to the czar.) In Carter's capable hands, what could so easily be little more than an annotated family tree springs to life full of vivid, flesh-and-blood characters and replete with family attachments, feuds and quarrels. As her story unfolds, we see just how determinative — and sometimes irrelevant — these turned out to be.

Carter's verdicts on the three royal cousins are generally measured and judicious, nicely balancing censure with necessary sympathy. Some might think that she lets George off a little easily in her account of his refusal, from fear of endangering his own popularity, to permit the czar and czarina exile in Britain, a decision that led directly to their slaughter, along with that of their five children. The true story is an even uglier one. Not only did George succeed in shifting the blame to Prime Minister Lloyd George (who had been willing to have them come) but he even refused them the briefest of transits on their way to republican France, which had offered salvation to their common ally.

It is certainly true, as Carter avers, that this shameful episode was "a final blow to the cult of the family which his queen empress grandmother had so heartily embraced." But the brutal fact is that, since 1914, Victoria's sanguinary expectations had been quenched in an avalanche of the real thing in what Yeats so memorably dubbed "the blood-dimmed tide" of realpolitik. The real lesson of this fascinating book is that if, as has often been noted, nations have no friends but only common interests, monarchs don't really have relatives — not when it comes to the crunch, anyway.

Rubin is the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."