When Uncle Ed died, the whole family gathered at the church for the funeral. That’s just what families do, and it wouldn’t be noteworthy if it hadn’t been such a poignant symbol of the causes of World War One – in terms of sheer painful brutality, maybe the worst war in human history.
Because Uncle Ed was King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, the church was Westminster, and the family was the largest gathering of royalty ever assembled. They took a family picture, shown above.
King Edward VII (who regined from 1901 to 1910) was famous for two things: for being incredibly fat, and for owning a “Love chair” that allowed him to rest his back while two people simultaneously performed oral sex on him – one of whom inspired that the traditional song Daisy, Daisy, with the line “and you’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two.”
Uncle Ed died of a heart attack on Friday, May 6, 1910. His ridiculous last words were that he was glad to hear his favorite horse had won that day’s race. He was buried in a state funeral two weeks later. Among his relatives at the funeral were nine reigning monarchs of European nations. Their time was up, and they didn’t know it yet. Manuel II of Portugal wouldn’t last six months, deposed by his own people. Today, only five of the nine countries even have monarchs, and none of them has any real political power.
There were two major absences, though. Edward’s nephew, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, couldn’t attend and sent his youngest brother Michael instead. Michael isn’t in the picture above because he’s not kingy enough.
The other was Emperor Franz Joseph I of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who has not part of the family – he was from the House of Habsburg instead. He couldn’t make it, but sent his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. His name comes up again later.
The upshot was that all these relationships among leaders led to a set of unstable alliances among their countries. Nicholas’s Russia promised to come to the aid of Franz Joseph’s Austria-Hungary should it ever be attacked. Germany’s Wilhelm made no such promise to Nicholas, but had to Franz Joseph. George V of the United Kingdom made the same promise to Albert of Belgium. Wilhelm didn’t care much for George but had no beef with Albert, except that he later wanted a shortcut to invade kingless France, and Belgium was, like, right there.
Into that fragile network of alliances stepped 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, who missed an opportunity to become a meme by not saying Pridrži moje pivo (hold my beer). Instead, he picked up his gun and stepped in front of Franz Ferdinand’s carriage. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This is one of the few times where a focus on the so-called Great Men of History is actually helpful – because seldom has it been so clear that those Great Men are actually huge morons. The family is still around, and the heir apparent to Austria’s Habsburgs is now a champion Formula 1 driver.
I have no ill will toward these families, and their modern descendants seem like perfectly nice people. I’m not one of those people who wants to see the rich up against the wall – I’d prefer to see nobody face the firing squad.
But compare the family photo above to the photo of the soldiers I shared on Monday. Seldom has it been so clear the consequences of giving so much power to so few people.