Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Man and the New Order

Magazine article The Spectator

The Old Man and the New Order

Article excerpt

The old man and the new order

THE KAISER'S LAST KISS by Alan Judd HarperCollins, L16.99, pp. 184, ISBN 00007124465

One might call it the Gulliver effect. Lemuel in Brobdingnag is tiny and represents no threat, so he can see the vast creatures about him in all their grotesquerie, and with impunity. The same intimacy in regard to the high and mighty can be achieved by fiction. Those figures who have 'passed into history' gather a curious lustre from the process, even the monstrous creatures of the Third Reich, but fiction (using documentation astutely) can creep up close enough to scrape the lustre off again. Fame is defamiliarised into humanity, or its egregious deformation. This is one of the things Alan Judd achieves in this highly accomplished novel. So an SS officer gazes upon Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer, the man whom Hitler called the Ignatius Loyola of the Party, but what he sees is this:

In profile, his chin receded almost seamlessly into flaccid and wrinkled skin. His cap, with its prominent Death's Head badge, looked suddenly too big for him. Krebbs was unwillingly reminded of a boy in man's uniform.

Krebbs is the SS officer and his mission is to bring the watching eye of Nazism to Huis Doorn, the country house in Holland to which Kaiser Wilhelm II was exiled after coming a disappointing second in the Great War.

The Nazis want to know what the old man thinks about the new regime in the fatherland. Not much, is the short answer. They look like a grubby lot from his vantage point in exile and genealogy. In fact he describes Adolf and his cronies as a 'bunch of shirted gansters'. Dangerous talk, even for an ex-Kaiser. He behaves regally, indeed imperiously, as might be expected from one of the last great crowns of Europe.

The book, without giving away its intricate and superbly crafted plot, has at its centre the figure of the old man. The Nazis want to make sure he can't be used for purposes inimical to the new Germany. Britain, it appears, might have an interest. Churchill appears to feel that the Kaiser could well regard with distaste that bunch of shirted gangsters who have claimed ownership rights over his patrimony. Old Willie is suddenly an object of interest to the great powers, and is evidently not averse to the attention.

He is portrayed as a splendid, if somewhat hollow, relic. His famously withered arm, and his manful overcoming of any disabilities it might have brought his way, play their part in the plot, as do his extraordinary collection of 300 military uniforms and his medals, not one of which (the young SS man can't help remarking to himself) he has any right to wear, never having led his people in battle. In fact, he only ever hears the report of guns while slaughtering game, which he does with an unnerving gusto, keeping detailed records of all his annihilations, as his wife records:

Dear Willie, meanwhile, was detailing some of the 33,967 birds and other animals recorded in his game book during his first 25 years of shooting. His memory was formidable still - who else could remember by heart 9,643 pheasant, 54 capercaillie, 16,188 hare, 581 'unspecified beasts"?

Princess Hermine is a woman distinguished solely by her looks, which are now sadly entering the sere and yellow phase, throwing her back on the resources of her mind, which are extremely slender, even by the exiguous standards of the uniformed characters surrounding her. …

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