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Nicholas II (May 18, 1868 – July 17, 1918), known in the Russian Orthodox Church as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer, was the last Emperor of Russia, King of Congress Poland and Grand Duke of Finland, ruling from 1 November 1894 until his abdication on March 15, 1917.

Nicholas Alexandrovich was the eldest son of Emperor Alexander III of Russia and Princess Dagmar of Denmark the daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and Princess Louise of Hesse-Cassel.

On November 26, 1894 Emperor Nicholas II married his cousin Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine the daughter of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom.

Princess Alix converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and was renamed Alexandra Feodorovna.

On June 28, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrillo Princeps, in Sarajevo, who opposed Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este

The outbreak of war was not inevitable, but leaders, diplomats and nineteenth-century alliances created a climate for large-scale conflict. The concept of Pan-Slavism and shared religion created strong public sympathy between Russia and Serbia.

Territorial conflict created rivalries between Germany and France and between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and as a consequence alliance networks developed across Europe. The Triple Entente and Triple Alliance networks were set before the war.

Emperor Nicholas II wanted neither to abandon Serbia to the ultimatum of Austria, nor to provoke a general war. In a series of letters exchanged with Wilhelm of Germany (the “Willy–Nicky correspondence”) the two proclaimed their desire for peace, and each attempted to get the other to back down.

Nicholas II (right) with German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1905. Nicholas is wearing a German Army uniform, while Wilhelm wears that of a Russian hussar regiment.

Nicholas II and Wilhelm II were second cousins once removed. Wilhelm’s great-Aunt Charlotte of Prussia (sister to his grandfather Emperor Wilhelm I) was the wife of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia who was Emperor Nicholas II’s great-grandfather.

Emperor Nicholas II desired that Russia’s mobilization be only against Austria-Hungary, in the hopes of preventing war with Germany.

On 25 July 1914, at his council of ministers, Nicholas decided to intervene in the Austro-Serbian conflict, a step toward general war. He put the Russian army on “alert” on July 25. Although this was not general mobilization, it threatened the German and Austro-Hungarian borders and looked like military preparation for war.

However, his army had no contingency plans for a partial mobilization, and on July 30, 1914 Nicholas took the fateful step of confirming the order for general mobilization, despite being strongly counselled against it.

Emperor Nicholas II (left) with his first cousin King George V of the United Kingdom

On July 28, one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary formally declared war against Serbia. On July 29, 1914, Nicholas sent a telegram to Wilhelm with the suggestion to submit the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague Conference (in Hague tribunal).

Wilhelm did not address the question of the Hague Conference in his subsequent reply. Count Witte told the French Ambassador, Maurice Paléologue that from Russia’s point of view the war was madness, Slav solidarity was simply nonsense and Russia could hope for nothing from the war.

On July 30, Russia ordered general mobilization, but still maintained that it would not attack if peace talks were to begin. Germany, reacting to the discovery of partial mobilization ordered on July 25, announced its own pre-mobilization posture, the Imminent Danger of War.

Emperor Nicholas II declares war on Germany on the balcony of the Winter Palace August 1, 1914

Germany requested that Russia demobilize within the next twelve hours. In Saint Petersburg, at 7 pm, with the ultimatum to Russia having expired, the German ambassador to Russia met with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, asked three times if Russia would reconsider, and then with shaking hands, delivered the note accepting Russia’s war challenge and declaring war on August 1.

Less than a week later, on August 6, (the anniversary of the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire) Emperor Franz Joseph signed the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Russia.