It’s quite a gamble to make your debut as a writer by making fun of Hitler. Especially in Germany. Yet that’s exactly what Timur Vermes did in 2012, when he published his absurdist story of Adolf Hitler being revived. Now it’s time for the English speaking world to discover this extraordinary tale.
Look Who’s Back is a daringly satirical narrative in which the German Führer miraculously wakes in some small corner in the middle of modern-day Berlin. At first, Hitler does recognise where he is, though he is confused about the strange way people respond to him. Is the war still going on for the good of his German Volk? And why is his uniform smelling of petrol?
After the horrifying shock of discovering that he has ended up in 2011, Adolf Hitler resumes his plans to ‘save’ Germany and create Lebensraum for his Aryan Volk. He hasn’t changed a bit. Yet, without realising it, people believe he is a comedian. Eventually, he is given his own TV show to spread his fascist ideas as a form of light entertainment.
Unsurprisingly, this book has hit some nerves – especially in Germany and the European mainland. Is it appropriate to laugh about Hitler? Or worse, is it alright to feel sympathy for the man portrayed in this book, whose real-life counterpart caused so much suffering?
Actually, the way in which the Führer tries to get accustomed to our modern ways is quite funny. Internet, mobile phones and YouTube; any modern invention is a source of comedy. On top of that, there are many cases of miscommunication preventing people around Hitler from understanding who he really is and what his true intentions are. For example, both Hitler and his agent think they agree that the subject of the Jewish people is no laughing matter – but for entirely different reasons. These continuing misunderstandings are quite cleverly done, and are the structure on which the plotline stands.
As the story continues, it does get pretty awkward. The Führer’s perceived ‘jokes’ are getting worse, and a growing number of people start to think that this comedian-Hitler actually has a point. Slowly but steadily, the Führer’s ideas spread and become accepted amongst the people and leading politicians. Interestingly, the only party who are truly appalled by his appearance are the right-wing extremist party, who believe that this comedian-Hitler mocks their hero.
It’s pretty obvious why this novel causes so much tension. Firstly, it’s about Hitler, and even as a fictional character he doesn’t mince words. The author succeeds in faithfully recreating his signature style and his ranting, megalomaniacal monologues. Secondly, the novel illustrates that – even when many Europeans have made themselves believe that they would never fall for another Hitler again – it actually is possible not to recognise slow polarisation. It compels us to realise that if we’re not careful, fascist ideas can find their foothold again.
This novel wants to address this naivety and in that respect is a very useful addition to the more serious debates about fighting fascism, racism and violence. Still, the book clearly confuses people, as shows the example of one bookstore putting the novel in their non-fiction section. Also, I fear that uninformed – especially young – readers could warm up to the idea that Hitler did have some sympathetic plans, like a better living standard for the working classes. Therefore I would say that an open discussion about this novel is recommended.
In one of their memorable sketches, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie once asked the question: “Is English capable […] of sustaining Hitlerian styles?” Now is the chance to take a look at ourselves and find out.