Imagine, if you will, a bright late spring day in Berlin, 2011. A group of young boys play soccer. A few birds sing. Weekend traffic is light and the small park we’re in is a serene island of calm. Nearby is a large sign, stating that this was once the location of the Führerbunker, blown up by the Soviets following the end of World War II.
Enter: a man, laying on his back and staring at the sky, dressed in a WWII-era German military uniform. He looks around confused – where are the sounds of artillery? Of bombardment? He was just talking with Eva, and now nothing is familiar…
This is the opening of Timur Vermes’s 2012 novel Er ist wieder da, translated into English as Look Who’s Back. The man is, of course, the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, transposed physically sixty-five years into the future and dumped, homeless and penniless, in modern Berlin.
He’s seen as an object of ridicule, and mistaken for a comedian or method actor who never breaks character. Inevitably, in our current culture of celebrity and memes, he stumbles into fame simply by being…himself.
Beginning with an evening variety show, and eventually ending up with his own program, Hitler pinballs through society commenting on everything from the spirit of the German volk to the need for more children, echoing the same talking points made in Munich and Nuremberg in the previous century. Everyone reads his speeches as pure shtick, intended to satirize modern culture and make people question accepted social norms. While this is clearly never his intention, it leads to a great deal of celebrity, and, by the end of the books, the suggestion of possible future political power.
The book is written in the first person, so we’re always aware of Hitler’s perception of events while bringing our own 21st century reading to the table, a layering that is used deftly by Vermes throughout the novel in order to ask us to question our own sensibilities and biases.
Due to the subject matter, sensitive topics are necessarily broached, as historical events such as the Holocaust and the various invasions are brought up, often used for comedic effect. This can feel tasteless due to the tragic nature of these events and the millions of deaths they resulted in; at the same time, it is clear that this is Hitler’s perception, and it is shown in order to a) be honest about his subjectivity, and b) contrast his grotesque antisemitism against some of the racial hatred that is, again, rearing its ugly head both in Germany and around the world. In this way, it is a very timely and thought-provoking examination.
The book works as a satire, and while not making Hitler exactly sympathetic, Vermes does a good job of demonstrating character traits that may, just a little, help modern readers understand why such an apparent monster could have earned the trust – and votes – of so many people eighty-five years ago. Perhaps this a lesson people can apply to today’s chaotic world.
Steve’s Rating: (7.5 / 10)
An interesting and insightful satire of modern celebrity culture with a particular focus on early 21st century Germany.
Pages: 320 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Date: May 10, 2016