The Exception (originally published as The Kaiser’s Last Kiss), is a “crisp, adroit, and subtle tale of great personal power” (The New York Times), which follows the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm, the young Nazi officer assigned to guard him, and the Jewish maid who unwittingly comes between them.
It is 1940 and the exiled monarch Kaiser Wilhelm is living in his Dutch chateau, Huis Doorn. The old German king spends his days chopping logs and musing on what might have been.
When the Nazis invade Holland, the Kaiser’s staff is replaced by SS guards, led by young and recently commissioned SS officer Martin Krebbs, and an unlikely relationship develops between the king and his keeper. While they agree on the rightfulness of German expansion and on holding the nation’s Jewish population accountable for all ills, they disagree on the solutions.
But when Krebbs becomes attracted to Akki, a Jewish maid in the house, he begins to question his belief in Nazism. As the threads of history conspire with the recklessness of the heart, The Kaiser, Untersturmfuhrer Krebbs, and the mysterious Akki find themselves increasingly conflicted and gravely at risk…
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The Kaiser was chopping logs. In the summer air his strokes echoed through the trees, across the park and gardens and into Huis Doorn itself, where those of the household would be listening. So long as they could hear him, they would know that all was well with their Kaiser that morning. They could relax, he thought, and be happy, or busy about their work, which was to his mind the same thing.
His strokes were regular but the pauses were longer now. At eighty, it was an achievement to split a log at all—to see it, even—let alone do it daily. Nearly every day since his exile in 1918 he had chopped or sawn. At first he had imagined the logs his enemies, the poltroons who had betrayed him and urged him to flee so that they could grab power for themselves. Gradually, he had ceased to care about that bunch of pigs but had continued felling because it made him feel better, restoring his sense of achievement. Twenty thousand trees felled in the first eleven years of exile; that was something. Since then another twelve years during which he had not kept such meticulous records; not quite another twenty thousand, perhaps, but still a good number. His best was 2,590 in one week—Christmas week—after he had moved here to Doorn after Amerongen, the other Dutch place. What would the Englishman, Gladstone, another elderly tree feller, have said to that? It might have silenced him, and his tribe. Tree feller, tree fella, it punned in English. He would entertain people with it.
Bismarck would have had something to say to it, of course. He was a tree lover who used to try to plant a tree for every one that Gladstone felled and then write to him about it, to boast. Well now, he, Wilhelm II, had bested them both, because he had felled more and planted more than either.
Bismarck had something to say to everything; that was his trouble. That was why it was right to get rid of him all those years ago, to drop the pilot, as someone put it. It was right then, anyway. Perhaps he might not have made the same decision now. But that was then, when everything was different. When you are young you do not understand how different then and now are because you have lived only in now and it feels as if that is where you will always live. You do not realize that your now—and you—are becoming then. And when you realize how completely now has become then, how different it is, it is like the fall of the ax. It splits you off from all these younger people who, however much they think they know or understand, cannot feel life as it was then. The pulse of it; that was the thing, always, with everything, and that is what cannot be conveyed.
The Kaiser swung the ax again but this time it bounced violently, jarring his arm as if the log—oak, it looked like—were stone. It was a knotted old log, cross-grained, compacted, irreducible. He blamed Bismarck because he had been thinking of rum. Even from his grave that cross-grained old man with the soul of a Pomeranian tenant farmer still had the power to interpose himself wherever you looked, to make everything awkward, to turn things into problems which only he could solve. They were barely more than peasants, those Bismarcks, all of them. Their servants pulled wine corks with the bottles between their knees in front of you and there were always dogs around the table. The old man fed the dogs from his dinner plate, holding it while they licked it. Perhaps it was the very plate that he himself, the Kaiser, might have eaten from next time. That was a metaphor: Bismarck really cared more for his dog than for his Kaiser.
The Kaiser lowered his ax to the ground and, using the shaft as a prop, carefully lifted one foot. With the hard toe of his boot he nudged the knotted log off the chopping block, a massive section of beech trunk. Then he let go of the ax and stooped to pick up another log. It was hard with one hand because the log was too wide to grip and he had to roll it up the side of the beech trunk. When he was younger he might have exercised his left arm by trying to ease the log into a central position on the block, but he didn’t bother much with that arm now. A withered, blighted thing, from birth three inches shorter than its mate, he could hold with it but not lift or push much. God and he alone knew the youthful effort it cost him to learn to ride and to shoot, to learn above all not to be handicapped by this handicap. God had given it to him to make him tough, he had long ago decided. Years of solitary practice, holding oars out straight, had made his good right arm stronger than most men’s two arms, with a grip that had been compared to that of John Sullivan, the boxing champion. But even John Sullivan was then. Who spoke of him now?
The ax split the new log clean, with a crack that echoed through the trees around the woodshed. Most men could not swing an ax with two arms as he still swung with one. There were plenty of trees ready for felling, more than he had days.
“Your Highness! Your Royal Highness!”
The Kaiser leant on his ax, turning slowly. The new Dutch maid was running through the rough grass bordering the park and the trees, clutching her white apron in one hand and waving with the other. When she called again he realized he had heard her before swinging at that last log but had not registered it. That happened, nowadays. He waited. He had heard and uttered many urgent summonses in life but now, robbed of their temporary urgency, it was clear that the things that would happen, happened, whether or not you buzzed about like a demented bluebottle. These days, he felt, there was nothing left to be urgent about. What would come would come soon enough, in its own time, and until then one chopped wood and shrugged one’s shoulders at the world. He would not be hurried.
She almost stumbled in the last few yards. She was called Akki, his wife had told him. Breathlessness made her prettier than ever. A wisp of dark hair had come adrift from her bun and her smooth cheeks were colored. Such beautiful skin, almost olive; he always wanted to touch it. Her gray eyes were quiet and thoughtful, cold as a March wind. Yet it was her hands above all that he looked for, slender, white, quick, full of energy but composed and controlled. With him it had always been the hands. First his mother’s, then those of her friends and then—well, as many as he could get, in his youth. Beloved Dona, his first wife, she had good hands, but she knew what hands meant to him and throughout their marriage had ensured that all female servants had hands either like chicken claws or overgrown potatoes. She would never have permitted Akki to join the household. But Hermo, his new wife, did not know about this thing of his.
“—Highness!” The girl stood panting before him, her gray eyes widened, one hand still clutching her apron. “Highness, they have come. The Germans. They are here. Princess Hermine begs you to receive them. They are at the gate lodge.”
The Kaiser nodded. So the German Army was reunited with its Kaiser. The sky was not rent asunder, no fiery angels appeared, the voice of God remained silent. No longer the Kaiser’s army, of course, but that fellow Hitler’s, a corporal’s army now. They would more likely view him as their prisoner than their king, unless—but it was useless to speculate. It had come to something when it was hard to take any interest in one’s future. He was more interested in this girl’s accent. She came from Friesland, Hermo had said, so Fries was presumably her first language, Dutch her second, German evidently her third. There was something odd about her German, not an accent—she had none—but more her speech rhythm, her way of saying things. It reminded him of his grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose German was similarly fluent and unaccented but with something of the same difference. Not that pretty little Akki, with her hypnotic hands, was in any way like Grandmama.
“Where are you from?” he asked. Her surprise was gratifying. It was always good to surprise them a little.
“From Leeuwarden, Your Highness.” She went on, evidently thinking he had not understood her. “The Princess begs you to come to the house because German soldiers have arrived. They have invaded Holland, as Your Highness knows, and now they have come to see you. There is an officer with them. They are talking to our soldiers—your Dutch guard—at the gate lodge. The officer is from Schutzstaffel—SS.”
She used the term familiarly. Perhaps, like him, the Dutch people had studied Corporal Hitler’s armed forces. But he was Kaiser still, even if unrecognized in his own land. The Kaiser did not dance attendance upon people; they came to him, whether they called themselves SS or Wehrmacht or the Pink Lederhosen. “Tell the Empress I shall join her when I have finished here,” he said. “And beg her to invite the Dutch guard commander, Major van Houten, for lunch.” He bent slowly and scooped up another log with his right hand. The girl bobbed a curtsey, backed a few steps, then turned and walked composedly through the rough grass towards the house. The morning dew lingered in the shade of the trees and she again clutched her apron. A pretty thing, he thought. Without doubt, were he a young man again, he would have sought to know her better, servant or no servant.
This log, too, he split with gratifying ease, plumb down the middle. It fell open like the book of life before God, a perfect symmetry. He would sign the two halves and give them to visitors or deserving Dutch locals. They seemed to appreciate signed logs as much as his books. Perhaps the logs stood for books he had never written.
He looked up at the barking of a dog. Arno, Hermo’s bad-tempered German shepherd, was bounding across the lawn towards the Dutch girl as if she were a stranger. She stopped and faced the dog. Her admonitions were firm, but taut and nervous. The dog had taken against her from the day of her arrival, and she obviously feared him. Mind you, Arno disliked most people, and sometimes he bit them. That could be quite funny. A green woodpecker laughed raucously in the trees. The Kaiser resumed his chopping. After four more logs he lay down his ax. He had stayed long enough to show that he was in no hurry but not so long as seriously to upset Hermo, who would be excited and nervous. He strolled back along the track through the trees, contemplating his fine brick house as it came into view. It was a modest establishment compared with all his others, of course, but it was regularly and properly built, handsome in its own way. They had made many improvements so that it was now quite comfortable, even for the servants, and he had opened part of the park to the people of Doorn. From the day he arrived they had treated him with proper respect. Perhaps they had heard of his generosity to the people of Amerongen, the castle and village a few kilometers away where he had stayed when first in exile. He had built them a hospital, and signed many logs. With the Wehrmacht occupying Holland, however, it was possible that the people would turn against him, though perhaps not now that he was under the protection—presumably—of Herr Hitler. He had never met the fellow and had no idea what he planned but, for himself, he would die at Huis Doorn. Either way, they would have to carry him out.
Neither Arno nor the girl was any longer to be seen as he approached the house but his own three dachshunds were yapping on the terrace. The gate lodge was some distance away but the sounds of army lorries and shouted orders carried across the park, exciting the dogs. His long-range vision was still good and he glimpsed the field gray of the Wehrmacht as soldiers milled around the lodge. It was an arrow in his eye, a stab of familiarity, love, resentment and bitterness. Even the sound of boots on gravel was wrenchingly familiar. He turned his head and slowly mounted the steps. He was hot in his blue serge suit, loden cape and hunting hat with feather, but did not wish to show it by removing anything. It was important that he should appear imperturbable, unhurried, his mind upon purposes invisible to others, higher purposes that rendered all else trivial. That was how emperors should appear.
In the cool of the house he removed cape and hat and, with more effort, his heavy leather boots, then changed into a lighter gray suit which he wore with gold tie pin and the miniature pour le meritein in the buttonhole. Next, instead of going to Princess Hermine, he went to his study and sat for a while at his high desk with the saddle seat. It was always comforting to see his own things around him and to look upon the portrait of dear Dona. Normally he had just a sandwich and a glass of port after sawing or chopping but now that he had invited Major van Houten they would be hurrying to prepare something more elaborate, although still essentially simple. That was how he liked his food. Unless, that was, the Wehrmacht had already arrested or dismissed the Dutchman, though an invitation from the Kaiser should give them pause. It would be an early sign of their attitude towards him.
When eventually he proceeded to the small dining room he found lunch already laid, an informal affair of cold meats and cheeses with cherries, apples, strawberries, peaches and oranges. Hermo was waiting, wearing a voluminous light green dress that covered her like a bell tent and filled out when she moved so that her progress through the house reminded him of those East Indiamen you used to see in the English Channel during the days of sail. It suited her; she was a stately, sometimes a superbly stately, woman. There were difficulties, of course, things she did not always understand, but it was far better to have a new empress than none. She was a handsome woman, and young, relatively speaking. Many people, he thought, must surely be jealous.
“His name is SS Untersturmführer Krebbs,” she said, with the Kaiser not yet through the door. “And his first name is Martin.”
The Kaiser stared expressionlessly, as always when affronted by the unexpected.
“The officer in charge of the soldiers, the one from Schutzstaffel,” she explained impatiently. Nervousness, or anxiety, had colored her plump cheeks.
“So?” The Kaiser spoke quietly. It often intimidated people. “What have I to do with an SS Untersturmführer? That is the same as a Wehrmacht leutnant. A lieutenant, in other words. I have been a commissioned officer for seventy years. I was commissioned on my tenth birthday. Probably I was a leutnant before this puppy’s grandfather was born.” He took a glass of his favorite sparkling red wine from the tray proffered by a servant. It was Assmushausen, a good German wine that he cut with water. “Why should I wish to know his name, especially his first name? What is it to me? You are surely not suggesting I should run to see him?”
The Princess smiled. “Of course not, my dear, that would be unthinkable. Forgive me if I gave that impression. The shock of seeing our German soldiers here, of seeing our own dear uniforms again, has unsettled me. I lack your experience.”
The Kaiser pinched her cheek. “That is natural, my pet. You must not worry yourself. All in good time. Now, where is Major van Houten? It is unlike him to be unpunctual, especially for the Kaiser.”
“He is on his way, he is coming. He has to negotiate something with Untersturmführer Krebbs.” Princess Hermine slipped her hand through her husband’s docile left arm, steering him carefully towards the window. He had aged several years in the past one. “Such a beautiful day. Perhaps it is a good omen, perhaps Herr Hitler is right to occupy Holland.”
“It is necessary if he is to defeat Juda-England. We should have done so last time.”
“Of course. The High Command was criminally stupid not to let you run the war as you wished. But now our soldiers are here we must use their presence for maximum benefit for ourselves. Herr Hitler has done surprisingly well so far and as you know I think the Nazis have much to be said for them, but I am sure he will find he cannot manage it alone. He will need a respected figure who can unite the country, particularly the army, behind him. He can achieve nothing without the army, no matter what the strength of the Nazi Party, and the army will not be content to be ruled by a corporal. It is bound to need its Kaiser again and they will have to invite you back. That is why it is important to show now that you do not spurn the Fatherland, no matter what errors were made in the past. The first report that Berlin receives of your reactions will be from Untersturmführer Krebbs, humble as he is. That is why, my dear, I think we should have invited him for lunch with us, not the Dutchman. The Dutch count for nothing now.”
The Kaiser moistened his lips with his wine, put down his glass and patted her hand. “My dear, I have been working for that day since 1918 but I have less confidence than you that it will come. If Herr Hitler wished to know the Kaiser’s views, he would surely not have sent so junior an officer. Your Untersturmführer is a mere guard commander, SS or no SS. Though he could be worse than that; he could be our jailer. But you are right; we should not disregard what he represents. I shall receive him, in good time. Meanwhile, I wish to say farewell to our Dutchman. He has done his job with propriety and has even been a good companion, according to his lights, as the English say.”
Droplets of wine clung to the Kaiser’s mustache, sparkling like tiny diamonds in the sunlight that came through the window. Though still substantial, the mustache was trimmed and turned conventionally down now, no longer the pointed, startled, upright growth known as “Es ist erreicht!” The court barber, Haly, had made a fortune from the fashion that followed the Kaiser’s adoption of his creation. He should have patented it himself, the Kaiser thought, and often said.
Towards the end of the drive, near the lodge, a Dutch Army lorry was now parked and some Dutch soldiers were loading equipment into it. The German soldiers were watching them. All appeared calm. They could make out the tall figure of Major van Houten talking to the young German officer, who was fondling the unusually quiescent Arno. Major van Houten broke off without saluting and strode up the drive towards the house. His long, lugubrious face and droll, unsmiling humor had often pleased the Kaiser. He would miss the gallant major. He patted the Princess’s hand again.
“Invite your young man for dinner. Let us see how these people behave.”
“You are always right, dearest. You are so intelligent and wise.”
“But you must not invite him yourself. Send someone lowly.”
Lunch was a disappointment. The Kaiser had anticipated a pleasant and nostalgic farewell enlivened by the appreciative major’s quiet irony. Instead, the major displayed neither amusement nor gratitude and allowed himself to appear visibly upset. Flushed with what the Kaiser had at first assumed merely to be heat and hurry, he claimed he had been detained by what he called the enemy. They were sending his soldiers back to the barracks, which they now controlled, and had delayed sending him with them only because of the Kaiser’s invitation.
That, at least, was gratifying to the Kaiser as an indication of respect, but he thought the use of the word “enemy” gratuitous, if not offensive. However, he did not riposte as he might have but remarked only that he had not yet had an opportunity to address the new Wehrmacht guard.
“The officer is not Wehrmacht,” said Major van Houten. “He is Schutzstaffel.”
The Kaiser’s shrug was intended to suggest how little such distinction mattered to him. “And merely a leutnant, I understand, though these SS people call themselves something different. Where, I wonder, is his commanding officer?”
“In our barracks. He is in charge there.”
“I daresay I shall have to receive him one day. There is no hurry.” The Kaiser took his place at the table and began eating immediately. “I trust that, as a military man, he will prove to have better manners than the Nazis.”
“Herr Hitler is said to be almost a perfect gentleman, and Herr Himmler is reportedly charming,” said the Princess, smiling at both men.
“My dear, one has to consider who it is that is making such judgments.” The Kaiser looked across at van Houten. It was then that he realized the man was weeping. He was eating and made no sound, but tears stood in his eyes. The Kaiser felt this was uncalled for, a gross overindulgence, until it occurred to him that the major might have suffered a private grief. Something to do with his family, perhaps. He assumed the major had a family; he had never asked.
“Is everything all right, Major van Houten? Is all well with you?”
The major was still chewing, an action that made his face even sadder and funnier than usual. The Kaiser would tell Hermo about it later.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” the major replied in his careful German. “All is well with me. It is an emotional time, that is all. I apologize.” He inclined his head.
“My dear fellow, I understand. It is an emotional time for everyone, this new war. Where will it end? Wars are more easily started than stopped and my fear is that the machinery of warfare will run away with Herr Hitler, as it ran away with me. But he has done well so far, I grant him that. Tactically, he has done the correct things and has evidently learned the lessons of the High Command’s failure last time.”
The major’s spaniel eyes stared at the Kaiser’s. “Do you believe he has done the correct thing in invading us, Your Highness?”
“Correct from his point of view, yes. Necessary. He has done the necessary thing. You see, Major, this war is not with The Netherlands. It is important that you and your people understand that.” The Kaiser dabbed his lips with his napkin. “No, this war is with France. It is the unfinished business that was prevented last time by England. Since then the French have behaved so badly in the territories they occupied after the armistice that a resumption of our war has become inevitable. They have been brutal to the German population, including children, and they wished to continue to starve them. They even tried to stop the English from lifting the blockade after the war. Did you know that more than three hundred and fifty thousand German people died as a result of the blockade—after the war, not during it? My own private secretary, von Ilsemann, lost four aunts because of it. Four aunts!”
The Kaiser stared across the table. There was something ridiculous in the notion of four aunts. How many aunts did a normal man need, for goodness sake? Were they fat before the blockade? Four fat aunts fading away. It was a laughable thought, the sort of thing the major might normally remark upon, but he appeared to have lost his humor. The Kaiser felt he ought to demonstrate his own seriousness. “People fear that because I have lived in Holland for over twenty years I do not know what the German people are thinking. But I do. I know very well what the German people think because people tell me and because I understand them here.” He thumped his chest with his right hand. “It is not war itself they seek, but they hunger for justice and war is the only way. So for this new war, they have, since 1918, been ready to march at once, to strangle the French. Well, now they are doing that but they cannot finish the job properly until they have driven Juda out of England, as they are driving them from the continent. The Jews and Anglo-American commercialism and materialism make it impossible for European peoples to live in decent peace and spiritual harmony. This war will be a divine judgment on Juda-England, you will see. That is why the soldiers of the Wehrmacht are here in Holland, Major van Houten. It is not against you or your country, and when the business is complete they will go. I promise you that.”
The Princess nodded. “I do not believe the Nazis have anything against The Netherlands. Occupation is a regrettable necessity. It will pass; I am sure of that. It will become as water under the bridge.”
The major looked at her. “No doubt it will pass, Princess. I too am sure of that. But not before much blood has sweetened the water beneath our bridges.”
The major’s words hung in the air and rather soured luncheon, the Kaiser felt. The Dutchman was making more of the business than circumstances warranted. After all, it was not as if the Wehrmacht had done anything seriously unpleasant.
The Kaiser took his coffee standing, obliging Major van Houten to do the same. The Princess withdrew. They gazed out over the lawns, where the gardeners were tending the rhododendrons; the Kaiser’s three dachshunds were hunting in the bushes. He insisted the major sample a liqueur, feeling it might brighten the fellow, but declined any himself. He never touched liqueurs, nor whiskey, though he liked to see others doing it. It was almost time for his afternoon nap.
He laid his good hand upon the major’s shoulder, gripping it. Even at eighty, his grip was enough to make men wince, but the major he gripped reassuringly. “You must let me know if there is anything I can do. You have family I can help, perhaps? I provide for more than fifty relatives of my own, so one family more would make little difference. And you yourself. You must let me know what happens. I fancy I may still have influence with the German authorities, if necessary.”
Major van Houten inclined his head. “Your Highness is most kind.”
The Kaiser patted him. “Cheer up, my good fellow.”
The major continued to stare at the rhododendrons.
Tears stood in his eyes again. “Forgive me, Your Highness. It is the shame of occupation and defeat.”
“I know, I know—knew—those feelings only too well, Major.” He paused, then recollected himself. “But you must brace up, as my English family would say, and face it like a good”—he almost said “German”—“soldier.” He let go of the major, finished his coffee and dabbed his lips once more with his napkin. “And now I must have my nap.”