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Royal biographer provides interesting perspective on World War I through biographic approach using European monarchs

Book Review: ‘Crowns in Conflict: The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918’ by Theo Aronson

Crowns in Conflict:
The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918

Theo Aronson
Thistle Publishing, 438 pages

You’ve got to give the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica a bit of credit. At the time, Europe had 20 monarchies, not counting the nearly two dozens kingdoms, duchies, and principalities that were part of the German Empire. Yet in its entry for monarchy, the encyclopedia said that while “it survives as a political force, more or less strongly, in most European countries, ‘monarchists,’ in the strict sense of the word, are everywhere a small and dwindling minority.” Just seven years later, a number of those monarchies would no longer exist, including three of the strongest.

In Crowns in Conflict: The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918, Theo Aronson takes a distinct approach to the end of monarchical Europe. For one, he takes a broader view, looking at roughly a dozen major and minor monarchs who sat on Europe’s thrones in the second decade of the 20th century. The second, and most notable, is that the book is biographical in nature, not surprising given that Aronson, who died in 2003, wrote nearly two dozen royal biographies. His method produces a very readable examination of the topic. Rather than rehash the standard history of how the Central and Entente Powers careened into war, the book looks at the history of each monarch and what the kings and queens did through the course of the war.

This approach works in large part because most of the royalty were related to each other. For example, Britain’s King George V, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and the crown princesses of Romania and Greece were all first cousins. The kings of Belgium and Bulgaria were also cousins of King George. Aronson uses these connections to not only explore the relationships among the monarchs but how each monarchy was led into the war and its ultimate effect on them.

Originally released in 1986 but with a new imprint two years ago, Crowns in Conflict also recognizes and explores the impact the advent of constitutional monarchy on each monarch’s power. The monarchs were no longer the only voice or decision-maker. “When set against the forces of nationalism and militarism, these dynastic relationships counted for nothing,” Aronson observes. Instead, the monarchs’ loyalty was now “country before caste.”

Britain, Germany (ruled by the Hohenzollerns), Austria-Hungary (the Hapsburg empire), and Russia (the Romanovs) were the powerhouses and the last three bore the most responsibility for World War I. Thus, George V, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary are the main focus, Yet other monarchies, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Serbia, also were buffeted by the war. Three such monarchs — King Albert of Belgium, Victor Emmanuel of Italy, and Ferdinand of Bulgaria — also are looked at in detail.

Some may view Aronson’s approach as a bit superficial or perhaps even gossipy. I, though, found it an interesting version of an oft-told tale. Rather than simply being a diplomatic or military history, Crowns in Conflict uniquely personalizes World War I. It also helps place monarchies in a historic context.

In so doing, it has the benefit of hindsight the Encyclopædia Britannica didn’t have. What it couldn’t or didn’t predict was what would replaced the dwindling hereditary autocracies. “Dictatorships of one sort or another shortly were established in almost any country over which the monarchs had once reigned,” Aronson observes.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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