Thursday 11 September 2014

Elena Maria Vidal reviews my new book "The Emperors"

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, whose reign ended with the February Revolution of 1917

Elena Maria Vidal, creator of the Tea at Trianon blog and author of the novels Trianon, Madame Royale, The Night's Dark Shade and The Paradise Tree (forthcoming), has very kindly reviewed my first non-fiction book, The Emperors: How Europe's Rulers were destroyed by the First World War (Amberley, 2014). In her review, Elena Maria writes: - 
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... The Emperors is not a long book but it contains more information and more astute analysis than many a tome. 
I am obviously very touched and flattered by Elena Maria's wonderful review, which you can read in full by clicking here. I also undertook a short interview with a local paper near my parents' home-town in Northern Ireland, which is available online here, with thanks to Joanne for the commentary.

I thought I'd also take the opportunity to give a brief outline of The Emperors for anyone interested in buying it or knowing a little bit more about what it covers. It was a wonderful book to write and a frightening but fascinating topic to research. With the Scottish secession referendum looming next week, I was struck by how much of what I read about attitudes in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were so applicable to events in the United Kingdom in 2014. Nationalism seemed to me to be the great bogeyman of the early twentieth century, a pernicious and often devastating force, and what I called "nationalism's inherent tendency towards xenophobia" seems to me to be as applicable to much of what is emanating from Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, and the "Yes" campaign.

Chapter 1: 'The Old World in its Sunset' - this chapter, the book's longest, sets the scene in the three empires covered by the book - Russia's, Germany's and Austria-Hungary's. It describes how each empire had reached the state they were in by 1914, focusing not just on the personalities of their rulers, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the Emperor Franz Josef, but also who was advising them, the ruling family's private lives, the country's economy, diplomatic alliances and attitudes to their neighbours. The title comes from a quote by Winston Churchill.

Chapter 2: 'Terrible shock to the dear old Emperor' - here I focus on the life of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este, the Emperor's nephew who became heir to the throne after his cousin's suicide: his decision to marry for love rather than royal rank, his opposition to nationalism, anti-war views and the terrible conspiracies which resulted in his murder in 1914 and the countdown to war. The chapter title comes from a diary entry by King George V of the United Kingdom (below).

Chapter 3: 'Go to the churches, kneel down, and pray for help for our soldiers' - this section covers the countdown to the war in the weeks after the Archduke's assassination, focusing particularly on the moves in Vienna and Berlin between those who wanted war and those who preferred peace. The chapter title comes from a speech made by the Kaiser.

Chapter 4: 'A spectacle at once magnificent and terrible' - shifts focus to look at the first year of the Great War from the Russian perspective, when the armies were under the command of the Tsar's cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai. The quote comes from one of Nicholas II's cabinet ministers.

Chapter 5: 'His Majesty has no understanding of the seriousness of the situation' - centring around the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania (below) by a German submarine in 1915, this chapter looks at those in the German government and armed forces who wanted to accelerate the country's attacks on its neighbours to a state known later as "total war". The opening quote comes from one of the Kaiser's aide-de-camps.

Chapter 6: 'May God bless Your Majesty' - this chapter covers the accession of Emperor Karl I to the Austro-Hungarian thrones and the prominent role played by his wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, a member of the exiled French royal family. The chapter title is taken from the words of Prince Zdenko Lobkowitz to the new Emperor and Empress in 1916.

Chapter 7: 'I cannot and won't believe that he has been killed' - focuses on the personality and political impact of Nicholas II's wife, the Empress Alexandra, and her dependence on her spiritual confidante, Rasputin. The opening quote comes from one of the Empress's letters.

Chapter 8: 'May the Lord God help Russia' - the rapid implosion of the Romanov monarchy in February 1917 is covered here, how it happened and why, as well as looking at the last-minute attempts to save the institution by offering the crown to Nicholas II's youngest brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail. Nicholas II's return to his palace which had become his family's place of house arrest concludes the chapter, and his signing-off phrase from his abdication document inspired the chapter title.

Cecilia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, German Crown Princess
Chapter 9 - 'The Military Dictatorship hardly veiled any more' - this chapter covers the rising prominence of General Paul von Hindenburg and his ultra-nationalist confidante, Erich Ludendorff, in the Second Reich, as well as discussing the birth of a princess with Down's Sydrome, Alexandrine, into the German Imperial Family. Her doting mother, Crown Princess Cecilia (above) had already been profiled, and by this stage her opposition to the war was a view increasingly shared by millions of the Kaiser's exhausted subjects.

Chapter 10 - 'It seems to me that we would gladly conclude peace with you' - my take on the Empress Zita's role in the fascinating Sixtus Affair, in which she and her royal relatives in the Allied armed forces played a pivotal role in attempting to thrash out a path towards peace.

Chapter 11 - 'Our souls are at peace' - this chapter discusses the Russian Imperial Family's life in captivity and their murder in Yekaterinburg in July 1917, including a discussion of whether or not Vladimir Lenin gave the order for the entire family to be slaughtered.

Chapter 12 - 'It was neck and neck to the very end' - this too has its title taken from a quote by Winston Churchill, who thought that up until the spring of 1918, the Great War had been too close to call. The realisation that Germany and her allies could not win the war caused widespread unrest throughout central Europe, resulting in the downfall of the German and Austrian monarchies, but as I discuss in this chapter, the similarities are potentially deceptive and both courts faced very different situations in the second week of November 1918.

Epilogue - 'She's too short to be Tatiana' - with all the fascinating and often tragic lives of the royals in the post-war world, it was difficult to scale everything down to one chapter, but hopefully I succeeded. The famous affair of the Grand Duchess Anastasia's alleged survival is discussed, as are the royals' attitudes towards Nazism and Communism, and how they are often viewed today.

Many thanks again to everyone who has been in touch!


  1. Hi Gareth,

    (Sorry if this is a repeat comment, the one I posted earlier didn't seem to work!)

    I just wanted to quickly drop you a line, I have followed your blog for a few years now and only a few minutes ago finished reading The Emperors. It was well written, meticulously researched and thought provoking - a joy to read. Thank you for the time and effort that you invested in it. I hope this is just the first of many historical accounts that we get to see from you.

    Best Regards,

  2. Hi Kim,

    Thank you very much for your kind comment; it was lovely to read and very much appreciated. I'm so glad that you enjoyed "The Emperors", it was a pleasure to write as well.

    Thank you again!


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