The German best-seller gets an English translation and Hitler gets to rear his head once more.
Hitler suddenly appears in Berlin near his old bunker – which is now a car park – and stumbles, dishevelled uniform and all, into 2011. A fish out of water is entertaining and Hitler out of 1945 is definitely that. Vermes combines Hitler’s dogmatic determination for power, convinced that he’ll rise up again as he did after WWI, with some disquieting moments of addressing the nature of culpability and German guilt. The ‘don’t mention the war’ awkward comedy is a staple of British culture and this novel wouldn’t be half as interesting if it was by an English writer, but it is intriguing to imagine how a German reader would approach the text. Vermes manages to provoke a lot more than laughs about funny walks and salutes while never losing sight of Hitler as a figure of absurdity.
Hitler is a funny sort of dictator: maybe it’s the campness of the uniforms, his dramatic gestures and Chaplin’s genius in lampooning them that all culminated to make Hitler have, seemingly endless, comic mileage where Stalin and Mao would fall flat. We’ve had space Nazis coming back for us in the Finnish B-movie Iron Sky and Hitler certainly gets a lot of hits with the much-loved Downfall viral videos. Vermes blends our contemporary sentiments towards Hitler with Hitler’s own conviction in stomach-churning policies, such as racial ‘purity’ and dictatorship: Hitler is picked up by a comedy show that starts attracting big hits on YouTube due to his incendiary speeches. Are they ironic? Can we laugh at the figure who ordered the death of six million Jews and solemnly says ‘the Jews are no laughing matter’? Those around Hitler toy with this question, while some quite like his ideas or find his prejudice a way of identifying their own thought crimes towards multi-culturalism or German identity.
And, sometimes, Vermes’ Hitler has a point. He rallies against the use of fossil fuels and wants to align himself, much to their horror, with the Green Party. Hitler points out the weakness of the press and embraces the power of the internet in a way that stops the reader from seeing him as ignorant. At one point, when a character blames Hitler for the holocaust, Hitler points out he had support from the Germans and that history can’t hold him solely accountable: the comedy has bite and, like all good satire, does have a compelling message. Along with the central character, Look Who’s Back has a lot to say about modern life. Modern Germany is bland, bored and people-pleasing politically while newspapers are far too busy digging up dirt to engage directly with their subjects.
When Hitler harasses a Right Wing party for not being assertive, it’s with relief that Hitler doesn’t stir up an uprising. It’s the media types enjoying Hitler’s success that set him up with a platform to air his views and break out the ‘Heil’ in meetings. And perhaps that’s really what Vermes, a journalist himself, sets out to address: the media class. It is a newspaper that has the most conflict with Hitler and producers that pluck him from obscurity. In the studios, execs admire Hitler’s media training and debate over which font the Fuhrer would like on his website. Vermes’ indignation is perfectly channelled into Germany’s looming bogeyman and clown to make a novel that is rigorously entertaining, imaginative and a scarily realistic portrayal of what would happen if Hitler did appear in Berlin.