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Book Review: Crowns in Conflict by Theo Aronson

While reading Theo Aronson’s Crowns in Conflict: The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy 1910-1918, an essentially biographic approach to World War I’s effect on Europe’s monarchies, I often thought of another book I read years ago. The Fall of Eagles, C.L.Suzberger’s account of he fall of the Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov dynasties, was on my bookshelves for decades — until the Great Purge. I say decades because in checking I learned it was published exactly 40 years ago.

Aronson’s approach to this topic differs in two respects from Sulzberger’s. First, 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. Second, as noted, Crowns in Conflict is biographic in nature, not surprising given that Aronson, who died in 2003, wrote nearly two dozen royal biographies. Rather than rehash 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 Habsburg 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 fact, the book may make the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica somewhat prescient. Its entry for monarchy 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.” What the encyclopedia couldn’t or didn’t predict was what would succeed these hereditary autocracies. “Dictatorships of one sort or another shortly were established in almost any country over which the monarchs had once reigned,” Aronson observes.


Monarchs should not lie — or at least, should not be caught lying — to each other.

Theo Aronson, Crowns in Conflict

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