Nostradamus was born 14 December 1503 and published several books starting in 1555. His followers interpreted the contents of these books as prophecies of the future, but some scholars think the books were intended as a disguised criticism of past and present events of the time. Direct commentary on the politics of the time would have resulted in persecution, so the obscure poetic style was used instead. This would certainly explain why the material seems to make so little sense!
Nostradamus wrote quatrains (four line stanzas) in various languages, including Greek, Italian, Latin, and Provencal and used obscure syntax and word games to make the meaning deliberately obscure.
Assuming they were meant to be prophecies, just how accurate are they? Well we don't know because they are so open to interpretation that different translations could be seen as very accurate or total nonsense. One interesting fact remains though. That is that there has never been a significant prediction of an event before it happened based on the quatrains. For example, if one predicts the 9/11 attacks on New York, as some supporters insist, why didn't they realise this before the event? Its only afterwards, when the facts are already known that the interpretation can be warped to fit what has already happened.
This is probably the most famous quatrain (II.24) which supposedly predicts World War II...
Here's a translation by a supporter...
And this is a translation by well known skeptic James Randi...
The mention of Hitler and Germany in the first version is probably the only positive link with World War II. The rest could mean anything. Unfortunately, its debatable whether the translation is valid. The word "Hister" refers to a region in France, its not a mis-spelling of Hitler. And Germania doesn't refer to Germany, its a completely different area of Europe.
Another phenomenon which confuses the issue even more is the hoax quatrains which have circulated and been attributed to Nostradamus. For example, this one obviously refers to the attacks on New York...In the year of the new century and nine months,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror...
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city...
In the city of York there will be a great collapse,
2 twin brothers torn apart by chaos
While the fortress falls the great leader will succumb
Third big war will begin when the big city is burning.
Unfortunately for Nostradamus supporters, these are not authentic quatrains. There are lines from some genuine material and superficial similarities to others written by Nostradamus, but the most impressive stuff "new century and nine months", "2 twin brothers", etc is fake.
There's really no great mystery here at all. Nostradamus had no special abilities, and his followers have just changed their interpretation of his writings around to fit events that have already happened. Therefore I give this a high score on the crap-ometer!
Sources of Further Information
There are many web sites with information on this subject. Below I have shown some which present both skeptical and neutral information.