- - Monday, January 30, 2017

THE KAISER’S LAST KISS

By Alan Judd

Touchstone, $16, 219 pages

When it comes to fictionalized portraits of real historical figures and events, generally speaking I am skeptical of such projects. With all due respect to artistic license and the benefits of unleashing a writer’s imagination to enhance our understanding, it has to involve taking liberties with historical fact, which makes me uneasy. But there are times to bend even the best held rules, and “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” — which has just been made into a movie, “The Exception,” starring Christopher Plummer and Lily James of “Downton Abbey” — presents just the occasion for doing so.

Part of this is because of the book’s author, Alan Judd, an accomplished novelist who was a soldier in the British Army and also served as a diplomat. He has an imagination as vibrant as it is intelligent and he makes excellent use of it in this dramatic tale about the German Kaiser Wilhelm II’s last days exiled in Holland, now occupied by Nazi troops.

You know you are in good hands when Mr. Judd disarmingly makes no bones about what his book is and is not:

“This is fiction, not history or biography. It plays fast and loose with history, not least in its conflation of the years 1940, when the Germans invaded Holland, and 1941, when the kaiser died and the Germans launched their invasion of Russia. However, some of what is portrayed happened … Some of the more singular remarks he makes in the novel he actually said or wrote. Queen Victoria really did die in his arms.” Those words testify to Mr. Judd’s scrupulousness, as does identifying other deviation from historical fact in his novel.

Putting a fictional Jewish maid, an emissary/spy from Churchill, right in the kaiser’s house, makes for many a plot twist and turn. As is placing there an equally fictional SS officer holding long conversations with Wilhelm: a great device for allowing the old man to vent and bloviate in the manner to which history has accustomed us. As is what Mr. Judd admits is an invented visit by none other than the monstrous Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler.

This allows Mr. Judd to gives readers an imperial and imperious peroration, which is so relevant nearly 80 years after it was spoken as to be positively spooky:

” ‘But when matters in Europe are settled we shall still need a Zollverein, a customs union,’ said the kaiser, again cutting across what the Reichsfuhrer was saying. “A customs union against America, that is. That is the only way to assure European prosperity and resist American domination. And that itself is only one stage in the fight against materialism and un-German behavior. To achieve it we must first conquer Juda-England, which has become the Trojan horse in Europe for international Jewry, American capital, and freemasonry. Do you not agree, Herr Himmler?”

Wilhelm may not have spoken these actual words, but they have the unmistakable sound of the historical kaiser, a tribute to Mr. Judd’s skill and intuition. The emperor’s relatively recently discovered diaries, where he rages over and over, obsessively using this term Juda-England (which seems to be his own unholy invention), gave us a whole new insight into his personal mania against his twin bugbears. This odd combination seems to be rooted in his intense hatred of his uncle, Britain’s King Edward VII, who was known to have many Jewish friends whom he welcomed to his court, and perhaps in his love-hate relationship with his philo-Semitic parents.

In the final analysis, what makes “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” acceptable even to the most skeptical reader of such speculative fiction is that it is firmly grounded in reality. The emperor in these pages is very recognizable to what we have read about him in most biographical and historical studies, including his maniacal hatred of what he called “Juda-England.” Mr. Judd most plausibly uses this to make him a vocal fan of Hitler’s twin wars against Britain and the Jews, a man who died happy in the knowledge that he was now guarded by his countrymen, rather than the Dutch who had given him safe haven when most of the rest of the world wanted him tried and possibly executed for war crimes.

Yet in the course of my wide reading on the kaiser’s more than two decades-long exile in Holland, I have encountered much evidence of his gratitude and loyalty to the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who had shown such defiance in sheltering him in more than two decades of comfortable exile. Some accounts assert that this led him to ignore totally the Nazi troops now guarding him. And it is true that, unlike his children who courted Hitler in the hope that the Fuhrer might restore the German monarchy, he maintained a dignified distance. Who knows which version of those months in 1940-41 in Huis Doorn, his exiled home, is actually true? Mr. Judd has understandably based his novel on the more accepted version of reality and made good use of it as a canvas for embellishing and enlightening.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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