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.