The Diabolic Kaiser


In the French thriller Rouletabille Chez Krupp (1917) by Gaston Leroux, the hero and his sidekick enter a workshop of the Krupp factory complex where furnaces are blazing:

Dante shivered when he entered the last circle of hell… and glimpsed the monarch of the empire of tears… It was with chattering teeth that ‘s companion fixed his terrified gaze on the God of file, the modern Lucifer. (my translation, the author’s suspension points)

The man he sees is Kaiser Wilhelm, and the diabolic imagery continues:

His face, like that of Satan, was red with fire! A mad pride straightened his stature and swelled his armour. His flamboyant helmet, which bore a bird of prey, crowned him like a frightful crest. His hideous traits gathered on his face all the fatal marks that stigmatised the fallen archangels, when the Creature turned against his Creator.

And so forth.
Reading this, it struck me that I can’t recall any similarly Satanic imagery attached to the Kaiser in British fiction. I’m sure that some British cartoonists would have presented him as diabolic, but all the fictional versions that I can think of prefer to render him as either ridiculous or pitiful. John Buchan in Greenmantle portrays him with a pitying sympathy as a man who has unleashed forces he cannot control:

He was no common man, for in his presence I felt an attraction which was not merely the mastery of one used to command. That would not have impressed me, for I had never owned a master. But here was a human being who, unlike Stumm and his kind, had the power of laying himself alongside other men. That was the irony of it. Stumm would not have cared a tinker’s curse for all the massacres in history. But this man, the chief of a nation of Stumms, paid the price in war for the gifts that had made him successful in peace. He had imagination and nerves, and the one was white hot and the others were quivering. I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe …

George Bernard Shaw’s The Emperor and the Little Girl also shows him as a pathetic figure in the middle of a battlefield for which he is responsible. the little girl makes him see the error of his ways. I once read a similar treatment by Alfred Noyes.
Comic writing tends to show him as a windbag. In the original (Passing Show)version of Alf’s Button by W. A. Darlington, in an attempt to stop the War, the genie is ordered to bring the Kaiser to face the rhetoric of Horatio Bottomley. He is a pompous idiot, whose ‘eyes protruded till he seemed on the very brink of apoplexy’, but Bottomley is no better, and the pair of them are dismissed back where they came from while Darlington’s soldier-heroes get on with the real business of the War, carrying riveting-wire up to the front line..
The British, it would seem, preferred to present the Kaiser not as diabolic, but as all too human, belittling him rather than exaggerating his wickedness.
Maybe the French treatment is more extreme because the man’s army had actually invaded their country. Or maybe there is a difference in the literary cultures.
But is the depiction by Leroux typical of French portrayals of the Kaiser? And are there any British diabolical portrayals that I have missed or forgotten? I’d be grateful for feedback on this one.


  1. Peter Willman
    Posted February 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Thriller writer Valentine Williams who had been a Berlin corrspondent before the war has an encounter between his hero and the Kaiser in his 1918 “The Man with the Clubfoot” – first link takes you to the start of the novel, second straight to the relevant chapter. Not quite diabolic but his reminiscences of the Kaiser in his later memoirs “World of Action” – third link – are much more sympathetic.

    • Posted February 4, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Thanks very much for this. It’s a striking description. I think, though, that it is closer to the other British descriptions of a crushed, careworn Kaiser than to the satanic emperor in the French thriller:

      Only one man in the world to-day could show, by the ravage in his face, the appalling weight of responsibility slowly crushing one of the most vigorous and resilient personalities in Europe. His figure, erstwhile erect and well-knit, seemed to have shrunk, and his withered arm, unnaturally looped away into his pocket, assumed a prominence that lent something sinister to that forbidding grey and harassed face.

      His head was sunk forward on his breast. His face, always intensely sallow, almost Italian in its olive tint, was livid. All its alertness was gone; the features seemed to have collapsed, and the flesh hung flabbily, bulging in deep pouches under the eyes and in loose folds at the corners of the mouth. His head was grizzled an iron-grey but the hair at the temples was white as driven snow. Only his eyes were unchanged. They were the same grey, steely eyes, restless, shifting, unreliable, mirrors of the man’s impulsive, wayward and fickle mind.

      He lowered at me. His brow was furrowed and his eyes flashed malice. In the brief instant in which I gazed at him I thought of a phrase a friend had used after seeing the Kaiser in one of his angry moods—”His icy, black look.”

  2. Roger
    Posted February 4, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Is condemning with sympathy a characteristic of British writing? George Orwell reviewing Mein Kampf in 1940: “I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler. Ever since he came to power — till then, like nearly everyone, I had been deceived into thinking that he did not matter — I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity. The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him”

    • Posted February 4, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

      You’re right. ‘Condemning with sympathy’ is a way of patronising, and showing that you’re superior to the other person. And it can be a very effective rhetorical strategy indeed.

  3. Nemo
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    You or some of your readers might be interested to learn that there is an English translation of this book from Black Coat Press, which specializes in English tranlations of vintage French genre (SF, fantasy, horror, thriller, mystery) literature.

    I don’t have this book, but I have some other Black Coat books are they are generally excellent. They have introductions and some annotations to make them more comprehensible to contemporary English speaking readers.

    The entry point to their website is here. Plenty of interest

    Now if someone would just do the same for German genre literature…

    • Bill
      Posted February 5, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Thanks. I am a little concerned most of the books are described as “adapted by” – do you know how accurate the translations are?

      I was also interested to see one collection containing a story called “The Germans on Venus” dating from 1913, which is a rather bizarre addition to invasion fiction.

      • Nemo
        Posted February 5, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        There is a discussion of “adaptation” rather than “translation” somewhere on the website. They explain that the books are literal translations except that racist statements are deleted. I think this is an unfortunate example of “political correctness” run wild, particulary since it is unlikely that anyone else will ever translate these works.

    • Posted February 5, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Nemo. The Black Cat list looks like a useful resource. I’m trying to discover which of their titles might have some Great War interest.
      The blurb for their version of Rouletabille chez Krupp suggests that it was influenced by Greenmantle. This seems likely, since both feature a soldier brought back from the front to undertake a secret mission behind enemy lines (in the course of which he happens to meet the Kaiser). Had Buchan been translated by 1917, I wonder?
      I’m glad I didn’t know about the translation last week, though, as reading the book in the original has done me good. I’m visiting France in April (to give a talk on ‘Sapper’in Amiens) and thought I should brush up my rusty French. It’s a long time since I last read through a novel in French, and I’m rather proud of managing this one. Mind you, it’s easy French, and having the book on my Kindle meant that I could call up the dictionary to explain tricky words at the touch of a finger.

      • Posted February 5, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        Thanks too, Nemo, for passing on the depressing news about the bowdlerisation of these translations. They would still probably be fun to read, but are clearly useless to the student of literary history.

      • Bill
        Posted February 5, 2014 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

        They do, indeed, have a page on their website addressing the question of translation, which is here

        I was interested by the point about librarians (presumably US librarians) having such issues with the N-word and the J-word. Dunno how that works with the poems of Eliot and Pound. I asked Black Coat if they annotated any such “adaptations” and they said they didn’t annotate “semantic stuff”.

        Coming to think of it, I am not sure if there is a word in French that actually demands to be translated as “nigger”, and really it’s the tone of popular fiction must be one of the hardest things to translate. Sapper into French must be even more difficult, even though he hardly uses forbidden words (beyond Jew and Hebrew that is).

  4. Posted February 5, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Bill – I’m reading Sapper’s Island of Terror at the moment, and he’s very fond indeed of the word ‘dago’, which some might consider rather offensive.

    • Bill
      Posted February 6, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      I assume you wouldn’t try and translate ‘dago’ or ‘wop’ or the like. You pretty much have to leave them whole or try and find an “equivalent” in the other language \ culture. Apparently US librarians have struggled for years resisting challenges to “Huckleberry Finn” (200 plus uses of the N-word) and similar works, so might be reluctant to argue for less classic texts.

      I suspect most of the problem is with self-censorship by translators (encouraged by publishers) rather than any direct interference. Only Stableford himself would know if he felt he should have used more “offensive” terms in his translations.

      I think there is a different problem with translation than with “modernisation” of old texts when they are reissued (which mostly applies with children’s books, of course – the disappearing golliwogs et al). Not that I think anyone has ever tried to modernise Sapper, or would find any financial advantage in doing so.

  5. Roger
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    There may be no French equivalent for “nigger”, but “jew” was certainly used offensively, Bill. There was the actress who said of a rival, Rachel: “Je suis une juive, mais elle est un juif”.

  6. Jon Lighter
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Not precisely “diabolic,” but not very “human” either:

    Of course, these are propaganda posters and not novels.

    • Posted February 6, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      And these are American posters. American propaganda rhetoric was generally much more extreme than British. Mostly because the War was a much more divisive issue in America, where large numbers of German-Americans were rooting for the other team. British propaganda was mostly a way of reinforcing an existing commitment to the war, whereas American propagandists felt that they had to take a much more sensational line.

      • Bill
        Posted February 6, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        In fact, George, I think most formal British propaganda was directed at America – to try and get them involved – rather than at the British people.

  7. Posted February 6, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Bill wrote:

    I think most formal British propaganda was directed at America – to try and get them involved – rather than at the British people.

    Very true of literary efforts – much less so of posters.

  8. Jon Lighter
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Wikipedia claims that the famous “Mad Brute” image came from a British original, but several Google Books identify it as a US original.

    (Is there any doubt that the image contributed to Merian C. Cooper’s creation of “King Kong” in 1933?)

    The second poster, however, was designed by Australian Norman Lindsey and was widely displayed in Australia in 1918.

    By that time, of course, the war had been on for four years and stronger stuff may have been required.

    Except among German-Americans, there was little sympathy, even mock sympathy, for the Kaiser in the United States. Aside from the unusual ape image, he was depicted primarily as a villain of melodrama, so wicked as to be slightly amusing:

    “I hope in France I get a chance
    To kick the Kaiser in the pants!”

    Of course there was nothing amusing about Erich von Stroheim as the primordial Prussian in “The Heart of Humanity” (1918).

  9. janevsw
    Posted March 1, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    George, a bit late to this one, and it’s poetry rather than fiction, but vide “The Ballad of the Hun King’s Dream” in Cicely Fox Smith’s book of “The Naval Crown: ballads and poems of the War”.

    • Posted March 1, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Jane. I don’t think I’ve come across Cicely Fox Smith before. She’s rather good.

      • janevsw
        Posted March 2, 2014 at 12:11 am | Permalink

        I like her poems very much – one of the unsung heroes of British maritime poetry. She wrote children’s historical fiction with a maritime theme, too, but I haven’t got hold of that so far.

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