John Palaeologus: Meme of the Ancients

Spring 2016, Uncategorized

by Andrew Montiveo

John Palaeologus / Wikimedia Commons

John Palaeologus / Wikimedia Commons

In the 55 years he walked this earth, John Palaeologus left behind no great monument, no work of scholarship, and–despite three marriages–no children. Instead, he left behind his image, and that was enough for him to be remembered by. That image was to give John a long and colorful afterlife, one that traversed the boundaries of time, space, and media. More importantly, his image was destined to be the ancestor to the most pervasive and perplexing of modern phenomena–the meme.

John was the eighty-sixth ruler of Byzantium, the medieval heart of Orthodox Christendom.1 He ascended the throne in 1425, becoming the eighth member of the House Palaiologos to rule the Byzantine Empire. Thirteen years after his ascent, he journeyed to Italy to meet with Pope Eugenius IV and try to end nearly four centuries of schism.

During this visit, John encountered Antonio di Pisanello, an artist in the service of Niccolò III, marquis of Ferrara. The marquis commissioned Pisanello to design a medallion that would commemorate John’s visit to the city.2 The emperor’s profile would be on the obverse side; a scene of him on horseback would be on the reverse.

The first examples appeared less than a year later. By then, the Byzantine and Roman delegations signed a ceremonial union of churches. However, neither the union nor its signatories had much time left on this earth: Eugenius died in 1447, and John in ‘48. Byzantium fell to the Turks five years later, ending the symbolic reunification of Christendom. John, his sole achievement undone, seemed destined to be forgotten.

And yet he wasn’t. John–or at least his likeness, his mîmêma–survived. Orders for Pisanello’s medallion continued until the artist’s death in 1455. The papacy, enamored with the design, went so far as to have its own artist, Antonio di Filarete, reproduce Pisanello’s medallion en masse.3 By the 1460s, John’s likeness could be seen on frescoes, tapestries, ceramics, busts, doorways, and even funerary monuments.

John’s image was taking on a life of its own. The subject may have been dead, but his mîmêma was thriving across different media. It appeared that John’s epilogue was to last much longer than anyone imagined.

The portraiture of Pisanello and Filarete only touched upon the value of John’s image. He was not just some opulently attired monarch: He was, to Italians of the time, a glimpse to a distant epoch. Even in the fifteenth century, Byzantine society held a reputation as a curator of Greco-Roman antiquity, an antiquity that Italians of the Renaissance were obsessed with reviving.

To the philosopher, John was a link to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. To the theologian, John was a living glimpse to the era of Christ and the Apostles. To the artist, John, exotically attired, was a work of art in himself. For everyone, John’s image was a graspable, illustrated vestige of a time, perhaps a place, lost to the ages. He was, in a sense, the embodiment of nostalgia.

Where Pisanello and Filarete replicated John’s likeness, later artists took liberty with the emperor’s image. Benozzo Gozzoli cast John as one of the three Biblical Magi on a tapestry for Cosimo de’ Medici. Piero della Francesca cast the emperor in the role of Constantine the Great. Hans Holbein the Elder placed John in the seat of Pontius Pilate, sentencing the Christian messiah to his grim fate. The mîmêma was becoming the meme.

John Palaeologus as Pontius Pialte / Wikimedia Commons

John Palaeologus as Pontius Pialte / Wikimedia Commons

The following decades saw John be everyone and everywhere. He became Theseus, mythical hero; Lycurgus, Spartan lawgiver; Averroes, Iberian mathematician; and even Mehmed II, Turkish sultan and conqueror of Byzantium. He was at the scene of Jesus Christ’s resurrection in Emmaus, Saint Catherine’s martyrdom in Alexandria, and Maxentius’s demise outside Rome.4 He was everything: a pagan, a Christian, a Muslim, a reference, an allegory. He was whatever the artist needed him to be.

John VII Paleologos by Benozzo Gozzoli, detail of the back wall of the Cappella dei Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, Italy /Alinari Archives / Universal Images Group

John VII Paleologos by Benozzo Gozzoli, detail of the back wall of the Cappella dei Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, Italy /Alinari Archives / Universal Images Group

Time, so often an enemy, worked to his image’s benefit. The more time passed, the more malleable John’s image became–though at the expense of context. The man behind the image was forgotten as the ages progressed. John’s sole twentieth century cameo, asreported by Alessandra Pedersoli of Engramma Magazine, was as a nameless “Oriental Prince” on a Scottish liquor bottle, dated 1970.

Then came the Digital Age, with its countless blogs and wikis, restoring that long-absent context. John was no longer relegated to being some random “Oriental Prince” on a liquor set; but rather, he resumed his role as John Palaeologus, distant heir to Augustus and penultimate emperor of Byzantium.

History has seen so many figures resort to desperate, sometimes catastrophic, measures in the hopes of being remembered: the building of monoliths, the founding of cities, or the conquest of nations. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Other times, an image is all it takes.

Andrew Montiveo is a writer  based in Los Angeles. He graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with a degree in film and media studies (and a minor in history) in 2012. He co-founded 4-Pistons Media, a small production company, in 2013.


Photo credit: Gozzoli, Benozzo, Benozzo di Lese, known as. Fine Art. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 10 Mar 2016.


Political Animals

Uncategorized, Winter 2015-16

by Noah Keates

Listen to this populist politician sticking it to the rich: “[T]hough they abuse their wealth in every possible method, they cannot, with the utmost efforts, exhaust it.  While for us there is poverty at home, debts abroad; our present circumstance is bad, our prospects much worse.”

No, it’s not Bernie Sanders. It’s Lucius Sergius Catiline campaigning in the Roman consular election of 63 B.C.

Cicero denounces Catline. Cicero denounces Catline.

In politics, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Those running for office are always looking for what they think are weaknesses in their opponents, and that’s why we hear so much about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, Donald Trump’s casino dealings, and so on. It was just the same in ancient Rome, right down to the sex scandal. Catiline himself was accused of an unholy dalliance with one of the Vestal Virgins.

But it’s also true that today’s politicians could learn a thing or two from the ancients.

For a start, there was far less passive-aggressive hypocrisy.  In place of the snide pot shots we hear nowadays, such as Donald Trump criticizing Carly Fiorina’s facial appearance, we had Cicero, the great Roman orator, informing Catiline that he was “the root and seed of all evil” and that he intended to “rid the world of the disease of a man that he was.”  Maybe this unadulterated directness would be healthy for our 2016 election; a taste of Roman-style banter would certainly spice up the current race.

Certain contenders have already warmed to the idea of resorting to Roman rhetoric, notably Ted Cruz who stood before the Senate recently and delivered nearly word-for-word one of Cicero’s most famous speeches against his rival Catiline, with slight pronoun modifications to instead attack our current president.

Will quoting of the great Roman orators improve the discourse of our current political arena? I doubt it. The great leaders of the Roman republic, such as Sulla, Cicero, and Caesar, felt a freedom to confidently speak their minds on all matters of the state.  Political leaders led their followers through audacious and inspiring speeches that came from the heart.

Our modern-day candidates pale by comparison. Today it is the parties that mold the candidates, with each presidential contender desperately attempting to be perceived as the ideal Democrat or Republican.  Perhaps in this respect Donald Trump has channeled at least some of the positive influences of Roman politicians simply in his boldness to say whatever he wants, however off the mark these comments tend to be.

This epidemic of modern politicians losing their personal identity to assume the identity of their party connects fairly directly to the problems plaguing our government today.  It is certainly difficult to find national pride behind men and women who struggle to even piece together their own personal points of view. Where Rome was able to construct the greatest empire in history on the shoulders of individualistic men striving to pursue their own agenda, the success of the U.S. falls to 435 representatives, 100 senators, and one president each trying to navigate his or her way into the good graces of the party—not to mention the lobbyists.  While a multi-continental empire may not be a healthy end goal for our nation, a bit of Roman directness and audacity from our politicians would certainly be a welcome change.

Noah Keates is a senior at Bancroft School, Worcester, Massachusetts.  His interests are history and politics, especially concerning Europe, and he hopes to study political science in college.

Photo credit: ROMAN SENATE: CATILINE. – Cicero denounces Catiline (c108-62 B.C.) in the Senate. Line engraving, 19th century.. Fine Art. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 6 Jan 2016.

Fighting for the Home Front

Fall 2015, Uncategorized

by Noah Keates

Over the centuries, the nations of Europe have gone to war over religion, land, political influence, and countless other points of contention. In the nineteenth century, however, we see European wars being fought not so much to overpower foreign enemies but to further a nation’s internal agenda, using war as a kind of political activism.

The aim of war was often to encourage nationalism, and politicians regarded death and destruction a price worth paying to achieve a spirited national unity. In some instances, however, this drive for national pride yielded horrific results and left nations vulnerable and unstable. The trick was to find an acceptable level of death and destruction while gaining the socio-political advantages of going to war.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Russian Tsar Nicholas Romanov II both played this dangerous game.  Bismarck successfully led the nation-states of Germany into wars that furthered his agenda of uniting Germany, while Nicholas watched his regime collapse as the Russian army fell to the Japanese.

What led to such drastically different results?  On the 150th and 110th anniversaries of these two campaigns, it’s interesting to analyze the social and political factors that produced such varied outcomes and observe the reverberating effects that these conflicts have had on modern warfare.

The Proclamation of Wilhelm as Kaiser of the new German Reich, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on 18th January 1871, painted 1885 / imageuest / Bridgeman Art Library / Universal Images Group

The Proclamation of Wilhelm as Kaiser of the new German Reich, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on 18th January 1871, painted 1885 / imageuest / Bridgeman Art Library / Universal Images Group

During the last half of the 19th century, no politician manipulated warfare to aid his internal agenda more successfully than Bismarck.  When Bismarck entered the political arena in the 1860s, Germany was a divided array of nation-states lacking central leadership or organized politics.  Bismarck saw an opportunity for a powerful German nation of unified states under a central government, but tensions among political parties throughout the German states made this nearly impossible to achieve internally.   In 1862, Bismarck, then Prussian prime minister, turned the eye of the German people towards the small Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein, which were populated by many native Germans.  Bismarck declared war on Denmark, putatively to protect the political freedoms of the Holstein region from Danish influence, though he kept a shrewd eye on the long-term political progress that the move could incur.

It worked. Bismarck’s call to arms not only united the German states but also strengthened the political bond with Austria, a powerful neighbor. Hostilities broke out in early 1864, and after only eight months of fighting the Danish suffered major casualties at the hands of the far more powerful German and Austrian forces and were forced to sign the Treaty of Vienna, surrendering nearly all of Schleswig and Holstein.

The success of this relatively small war was not lost on Bismarck. It instilled a sense of patriotism in the citizens and demonstrated Germany’s military might.  Buoyed by this triumph, Bismarck manufactured two more similar wars.  He first turned the animosity of the German people towards their recent ally, Austria, using the excuse of a small dispute over the ruling of the newly acquired Schleswig and Holstein provinces.  This short war of 1866 produced an overwhelming German victory and helped achieve Bismarck’s goal of uniting Prussia and its surrounding states into the North German confederation, which was segregated from any unwanted Austrian influence.  Bismarck went on to a third decisive victory, this time against the French, resulting in the unification of Prussia and most other German states.  Bismarck would have a lasting effect on Germany, leading to the nation’s bold military aggression in the First World War.  Bismarck’s public agenda of instilling a universal empathy among all German speakers would be later warped by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler as a justification for his tyrannical conquests in the 1930s.
The German wars of Unification showed the usefulness of warfare for political progress. By capitalizing on the growing patriotic fervor and the desire of the German people to protect their fellow German speakers, Bismarck was able to execute his military operations with general public support.  Each of these brief but impassioned wars encouraged a growing nationalist sentiment that led eventually to unification.

Tsar Nicholas II blessing a regiment leaving for the Russo-Japanese War, 1904, Russia /imagequest /  Universal Images Group / Rights Managed /

Tsar Nicholas II blessing a regiment leaving for the Russo-Japanese War, 1904, Russia /imagequest /  Universal Images Group / Rights Managed /

In contrast, according to scholar Chris Trueman, Tsar Nicholas Romanov attempted to manufacture a war to create a sense of patriotism in his restless nation.  When Nicholas came to power, the Romanov family had ruled over Russia for three and a half centuries, and critical flaws in the Russian political system had been revealed.  The Russian people felt repressed by the traditionally strict regulations set by the Romanov leaders, and a lack of food brought a new sense of discontent towards the Tsar.  Nicholas hoped that a military success would engender nationalist sentiment, and he turned his attention to remote Japan. Tensions had existed over control of the crucial Russian trade post Port Arthur on the Korean peninsula, and in 1904 these tensions erupted into the Russo-Japanese war.  Shockingly, the far superior size of the Russian army yielded no apparent military advantage as Japanese forces continually drove back the foreign militants, and by 1905 the crippled Russian army was forced to retreat from the Korean peninsula nursing a wounded honor and thousands of wartime casualties.  Anti-Tsar sentiment increased, as did the decay of Nicholas’s authority over his vast nation.  Roughly a decade later in World War I, once again in the midst of Russia’s military failures, the deflated Russian populous finally overthrew Nicholas.

Why did this military operation fail so dramatically while Bismarck’s were so successful?  A key difference lay in the simple geography of the combat.  In declaring war on Denmark, Austria and eventually France, Bismarck aroused an animosity of the German people towards their closest neighbors. According to historian James Graham, the citizens of Prussia and all other German states had experienced the past political tensions with these neighboring nations, and Bismarck was able to fan the flames of these tensions.  Additionally, Bismarck argued that his forces would be fighting to protect fellow German speakers, with whom they could identify.

In contrast, Trueman points out, Japan was a distant, shrouded island to most Russians. The task of mobilizing the Russian armed forces across such a vast expanse simply to reach the battlefields proved thoroughly dispiriting.  Additionally, a lack of knowledge of Japanese society and of the true Russian military objectives sealed fate of the Russian army as they fell at the hands of the Japanese forces.

These two wars, fought not for the purpose of extending political influence, but rather to improve the internal influence of their respective leaders, displayed several key factors about modern European warfare.  Even in the midst of such new powerful military technologies as the industrial revolution had brought, the emotional mindset of the soldiers still proved a critical factor in the success or failure of each war.  The German wars of Unification and Russo-Japanese war illustrated an important element of nationalism: citizens will fight to extend their national pride, as in the German states, but citizens lacking any initial sense of patriotism will be hard-pressed to increase their national pride when thrown into the horrors of modern war.  These two military confrontations certainly displayed the true equation of success for manipulating warfare to aid an internal agenda; although the conquests of Bismarck and failures of Nicholas each played out on a relatively small scale, these wars of nationalism laid a strategic blueprint for many of the wars that would follow.

Works Cited

The editors of Encylopaedia Brittanica. “Russo Japanese War.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

“The Franco Prussian War.” World History International Project. History World International, n.d. Web. 25 May 2015.

“German Danish War.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. N.p.: n.p., 2015. N. pag. Print.

Graham, James. “History Orb.” Was Bismarck the Key Factor in the Unification of Germany? N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2015.

“Issues Relevant to U.S. Foreign Diplomacy: Unification of German States.” Office of the Historian. U.S. Department of State, n.d. Web. 25 May 2015.

Kohn, Hans. “Nationalism.” Encyclopedia Brittanica. N.p.: n.p., 2014. 1-4. Print.

Trueman, Chris. “The Russo Japanese War.” History Learning Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2015.

Charles Dickens and the Lowell Mills

Fall 2014

by Courtney Carroll

Charles Dickens is well known for his close examination of working conditions in 19th-century London in his works of fiction. Forced at the age of 12 to work at a boot black factory and repay  his father’s debts, Dickens in later life scrutinized and criticized the labor conditions, specifically child labor conditions, in notable works such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

Charles Dickens Charles Dickens

In 1842, Dickens embarked on a four-month excursion through America that included a visit to Massachusetts.  The resulting  work, American Notes, is infamous for its criticisms of America and Americans, but less noted is the fact that  Dickens found America’s factories laudable in many respects, including the treatment of workers.

Dickens visited several factories in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was given tours of the factories “in their ordinary working aspect, with no preparation of any kind, or departure from their ordinary everyday proceedings.”

Ladies of the Mills

 Dickens described the women of the mills as “well dressed” and wearing “serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks and shawls.” The author also remarked that these women were “healthy in appearance” and that they “had the manners and deportment of young women, not of degrading brutes.”

Dickens was impressed not only by the appearance and comportment of these women, but also by their literacy. Many  subscribed to the lending libraries often provided in the boarding houses, and some contributed to a periodical called The Lowell Offering. Dickens lauded this periodical as comparable “advantageously with a great many English Annuals” and bought a copy for himself, which he read all the way through. For the time period, this publication was a great feat for working-class women and was an achievement largely unimaginable for the workforce in Dickens’ native England.

Despite the fine dress and mannerisms, many of the women seen by Dickens came from humble backgrounds on Northern New England farms. According to Thomas Dublin’s analysis of the women in the Lowell Mills, 74 percent of the workforce in the Hamilton Manufacturing Company was female and 96 percent of those women were native born. The City of Lowell website states that the average age of a woman working in a mill was 24, with ages ranging from 10 to 30. In her account of working in the Lowell Mills, Harriet Robinson remembers country girls arriving at the corporations in covered wagons, often speaking in a “nasal Yankee twang” that was “almost unintelligible.” These country girls had little, if any, education, and no formal education was provided to them in Lowell. Instead, Robinson recounts, “the severe discipline and ridicule which met them was as good as a school education, and they were soon taught the ‘city way of speaking.’”

Not all women in the mills were of a rural descent or uneducated; some lived comfortable lifestyles but had been taught that “work is no disgrace.” According to Robinson, many came to Lowell for the social or literary advantages in Lowell, including the lending libraries and other luxuries.

Many of the women working in the factories lived in boarding houses on the factory property. These houses became centers of learning, culture and worship for their residents. Harriet Robinson recalls her stay in the boarding houses as “very agreeable” and described living with 50 to 60 women from all different backgrounds. In one article published in The Lowell Offering, the author recalled her 13-member “family” in the boarding house consisting of women who were “Calvinist Baptist, Unitarian, Congregational, Catholic, Episcopalian, and Mormonite, one each; Universalist and Methodist, two each; Christian Baptist, three.”

The residents were strongly encouraged to read, learn, and worship regularly, no matter what their denomination. Popular literary choices included novels, newspapers, bibles and periodicals, and many of these works were provided by a lending library for a small fee. These books would be the basis of learning for many of the women working in the mills.

Working Conditions

Upon touring three factories in Lowell in 1842, Dickens was fascinated by the order and comfort of the work stations. He described the factories as having “much fresh air, cleanliness and comfort as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of.” Dickens also believed that the labor of these women was fitting of their delicate stature and that they enjoyed it, noting that their work was “cheerfully done and the occupation of tomorrow was cheerfully looked to.”

Dickens may  have been too willing to believe in the workers taking so much pleasure in their labors. In 1845, 2,139 factory workers from across Massachusetts submitted a petition to the Massachusetts House of Labor for better working conditions. Of these, 1,159 were workers in the Lowell mills and a very large proportion of these were female. The main concerns of the workers were long hours, poor health as a result of unsatisfactory working conditions, and the brief time allowed for meals during the working day.

In the petition, Eliza R. Hemingway, a mill worker in two factories, complained that the “hours for labor [were] too many and the time for meals [were] too short”. The average working day for women in the Lowell mills was approximately 14 hours, with work starting at 5 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m. In summer, only 30 minutes  wereallowed for breakfast and 45 minutes for dinner. In winter, The time allowed for dinner decreased to 30 minutes. During these breaks, women had to walk to their dormitories, eat, and walk back to their workstations.

Many women testified that long hours and unsanitary working conditions contributed to their poor health. Judith Paine worked for a year and a half in the Merrimack Cotton Mills before having to leave for seven years due to serious health concerns. After returning from her illness, she worked in the Boott Mills for seven more years, but was too sick to work for a full year of her employment there. She attributed her poor health to “long hours of labor, the shortness of time for meals, and the bad air of the mills.” Similarly, Sarah G. Bagley of New Hampshire testified that “the health of the operatives is not so good as the health of females who do house-work or millinery business,” suggesting that the health problems experienced by the Lowell mill workers were a direct result of the mills themselves. Sarah Bagley would later go on to form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to improve the working conditions for women in the Lowell factories.

Data taken by the Massachusetts House of Labor reveals that the most significant illnesses suffered during this period were consumption, inflammation of the lungs, cholera infantum, scarlet fever, measles, dysentery, inflammation of the brain, and croup. It should be noted that of these seven ailments, three are infectious and can be spread amongst people in close proximity. Three mill workers testified to the House of Labor that the air in the mills was considered “not to be wholesome” and “bad on account of the small particles of cotton which fly about.” The mill workers were in this atmosphere for fourteen hours per day, six days per week while they worked at very hot, humid, crowded workstations that served as a breeding ground for infectious diseases.

A Good System?

While Dickens was only in Lowell for a day in 1842, he was impressed by the mills of Lowell and the women who worked in them. By all appearances, these mills were clean and ordered and the ladies who worked there were happy and literate. However, the poor working conditions and long hours suffered and articulated by the mill girls differ greatly from Dickens’ account.

The discrepancy could have been due to many factors, the first being that Charles Dickens was only present for a brief visit in 1842, while the Lowell Mill System existed was an important element in the New England industrial economy for much of the nineteenth century.

According to Professor Joel Brattin, a Dickens Scholar at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Dickens had a fondness for Massachusetts, despite his strong criticisms of America. In his American Notes, Dickens condemned Ameri
ca for its ongoing institution of slavery, tobacco spitting, and overwhelming greed. Despite his displeasure with many aspects of the American culture, Dickens had positive reviews of his visit to Boston and Lowell. While this fondness may not have directly swayed his review of the Lowell mill conditions, the fact remains that Dickens thought highly of Massachusetts.

In the final section of his review on the Lowell mills, Dickens states that he does not wish to compare the mills of Lowell to the mills of  London due to “many of the circumstances whose strong influence [had] been at work for years in [England’s] manufacturing towns had not arisen [in Lowell].” Dickens erroneously believed that the manufacturing towns such as Lowell had no permanent residents, as many of the mill girls would come to Lowell to work and then return home for good after a few years. While this may have been true for some, others toiled away in the mills for many years to support their families.

As a resolute proponent for better labor conditions in England, Dickens might have found it difficult to compare and judge fairly  the working conditions in both nations. Whatever the reason, Lowell turned out to be one of the few things about America that Dickens chose not criticize.

Family Feud: The Three Cousins Who Led Europe Into the First World War

Fall 2014, Uncategorized

by Noah Keates

Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons


A century ago, on June 28th, 1914, Slav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, and many historians would concur that this was the ember that was blown into the conflagration of the First World War.  But although the archdukes assassination may have been the catalyst for the subsequent war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the eruption of war on a continental scale may have been caused by other factors. Decades of political distress and foreign alliances had set the stage for the behemoths of European military power–England, Germany, Russia– to take up arms.  And at the center of this stage stood three cousins, King George V of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, whose complicated family relationships partly fueled the international animosity that led to the horrors of The Great War.

George and Wilhelm shared a common relation through their grandmother Queen Victoria, while George and Nicholas were bonded through their mothers, the two Danish princesses, Alexandra and Dagmar.  Nicholas and Wilhelm shared no blood relation, though they became cousins-in-law when Nicholas married Wilhelms first cousin, Alexandra of Germany.

The three cousins grew up under great pressure from the past, and the political leanings of their predecessors molded their opinions and ideas as they rose to power.  Though tension existed among the three nations in the decades preceding World War I, the young cousins remained in contact with each other, partially driven by the expectation of courtesy from their common relations, yet also due to a genuine interest in the lives of their social counterparts.  However, through the first decade of the 20th century, the bonds among George, Wilhelm, and Nicholas began to be strained.

Queen Victoria acted as one of the strongest influences on two of the young boys, as she grandmothered both George and Wilhelm.  Victoria ruled in Great Britain for 64 years from 1837-1901, and acquired the name The Mother of Europe due to the number of thrones occupied by her descendants.  A special bond quickly developed between the Queen and her first-born grandchild, Wilhelm, in whom Victoria keenly inculcated the appeal and successes of British culture and policy. Wilhelm would acquire great power in adulthood, and Victoria intended to capitalize on the mutual affection with her German grandson to influence German political policy in a direction favorable to Great Britain.  However, although the Queen guided Wilhelm towards British influence, she did not encourage the friendship between Wilhelm and the one person who could have cemented the Kaisers positive relationship with her island nation, her younger grandson, George, the future king.  Victoria disliked the idea of her grandchildren mingling together and kept a general policy to avoid having more than one set of grandchildren staying at any one time, according to historian Miranda Carter.  Consequently, Wilhelm and George did not form any real relationship as children, which might have induced a stronger bond between the two rulers as they rose to power.

Victoria was not the only one to discourage this friendship.  Georges mother, the Danish Princess Alexandra, still harbored resentment towards Germany stemming from the brutality of the Prussians towards her kingdom in the Dane-Prussian War of 1864. Otto Von Bismarck, the German chancellor, had orchestrated this conflict to aid in the unification of the German state and to cement a political alliance with Austria, who offered military support in the struggle.  Alexandra also fostered the bond between George and her sisters son, Nicholas II. Nicholas made the long trip across the continent with his Danish mother, Dagmar, to visit his British cousin, and the two quickly developed a strong bond that would persevere through the hostility between Russia and Great Britain in the final decades of the 19th century.

Through the Danish sisters and Queen Victoria, a social dynamic quickly formed among the three cousins, in which Wilhelm constantly found himself on the outside, isolated on both sides by anti-Prussian feelings.

From the early years of their reigns, a game of influence and power quickly developed among George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm, each looking to seize the political advantage over the other. Wilhelm grew to favor Russia over Great Britain, deeming it a necessity to form an alliance with one of these countries in order to prevent an alliance between Great Britain and Russia that would leave Germany flanked to the east and west by two of the strongest military forces in Europe.


Nicholas and George (via Wikimedia Commons)

Nicholas and George (via Wikimedia Commons)

Wilhelm (via Wikimedia Commons)

Wilhelm (via Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration by Noah Keates

Illustration by Noah Keates

Wilhelm, for his part, saw an opportunity to capitalize on younger Nicholas’s political inexperience and influence the recently crowned Tsar.  Although some hard feelings existed between the two young men due to their common romantic interest in Alexandra, who became Nicholas’s wife, the Kaiser overcame this envy in order to attain a Russian alliance.  Wilhelm aggressively forged a friendship Nicholas, soaking him in compliment and flattery, and tired to mold his political ideas, according to historian Robert K. Massie.  At first, Nicholas embraced the support of the older more experienced Wilhelm, seeing him as a mentor.  However, as the years passed, and the tsar accumulated experience in the political world, he began to find Wilhelm’s influence as more overbearing than helpful.  Nicholas had a greater interest in maintaining his relationship with his long-time friend George, a friendship that became increasingly difficult as Great Britain and Russia’s always tense relationship stretched thinner. However, guided by similar influences as children and similar interests as adults (each was extremely fond of his nation’s navy), the relationship between the two remained cordial.

While Nicholas and Wilhelm had obtained their thrones as young adults, Georges father, Edward VII, remained king until almost the eve of the War, meaning that the friendship between George and Nicholas did not factor into the politics of these rival powers. But when George ascended the throne, this bond became crucial in the arrangement of pre-war alliances. And as George and Nicholas forged a bond between Russia and Great Britain, Germany became more isolated.

By 1907 the Triple Entente had been formalized, officially forming the political alliance among Russia, Great Britain, and France.  Three years later, upon Edwards death, George at last acquired his throne and he and Nicholas could meld their life-long friendship into political reality.  At the same time, Nicholass growing annoyance at the Kaiser escalated to contempt.  Encouraged by Wilhelm, Nicholas had waged war with the Japanese in an effort to acquire a warm-water port on the pacific, but this military campaign ended in catastrophe, with Russias seemingly superior forces decimated by the smaller Japanese army. This was the final straw for the Tsar.

To make things worse, this defeat in the east along with a host of social and economic issues caused a growing animosity towards Nicholas in his own country. With the deterioration of this relationship between Tsar and Kaiser, tension emerged between the two nations.

There is no doubt that numerous factors contributed to the rising animosity among nations that erupted into World War I.  However, the social dynamics of Wilhelm finding himself the odd-one-out in the family from an early age and his struggling to join the previously existing friendship between George and Nicholas may also have played a part. It is amazing, and saddening, that the projection of a familys dynamics onto the global scene in the form of shifting national alliances could have consequences as global and as horrific as the First World War.

Noah Keates is a junior at the Bancroft School, Worcester, Massachusetts.  His interests are history and politics, especially concerning Europe, and he hopes to study political science in college.







/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;