What if Adolf Hitler came back to life in contemporary Germany? This is the simple and promising premise of German writer Timur Vermes’s first novel. Hitler’s first-person perspective visits the simmering discontents, bureaucratic frustrations, and media capitalism of contemporary Berlin as Hitler tries to reestablish power. Vermes captures Hitler’s didactic, analytical voice with both affection and irony, and pinpoints conditions in contemporary Germany that Hitler might exploit for his resurrection. However, given the novel’s extensive and often exhausting references to Hitler’s deeds and views in the past, its odd pace, the lack of developed secondary characters, the curiously academic and impersonal language (however faithful to Hitler’s tone), and the lack of resolution – Look Who’s Back is entertaining primarily, not as fiction, but as well-timed warning against mass participation in extremist ideology.
Hitler awakens at the site of his former Reich Chancellery, where he committed suicide as the Red Army closed on Berlin in 1945. He doesn’t know what’s happened; his time-travel is never explained – wisely, since this isn’t a science-fiction novel. Hitler is in good health – the time travel has reversed more than his death – and he immediately sets about gathering information. Over some weeks he learns about the events of the last 65 years; he remains determined to gain a platform to lead Germany to greatness again. The fire-breathing orator finds the perfect propaganda platform for 2012. Television. He begins building his audience.
It’s Hitler who narrates Look Who’s Back. Vermes’s Hitler is a plausible, if limited, version of the historical figure. This Hitler is the fantastically single-minded, analytical, reasonable, pep-talking, personable, and unintentionally funny leader of men. He endears himself to hotel receptionists, and his own secretary, who with very little coaxing call him ‘Mein Fuhrer’ and give him the Nazi salute when nobody’s watching. Despite his own protestations, everybody takes him for a Hitler impersonator – albeit a particularly well-costumed, well-researched, and relentlessly method-acting impersonator. What this impersonator’s motives might be they don’t question: but they assume that it is at best educational, at worst harmless.
Just as the real Hitler bored his associates with endless rants on any subject under the sun, so does this Hitler. He spends all of one long chapter watching television, feeling disgusted that this powerful tool, instead of being rightfully employed for propaganda, is being frittered on cooking and reality shows. He seizes any opportunity to launch a volley of rhetorical questions at his opponents.
But he shows the razor insight into men and things that allowed him to rise in the first place:
Of the politicians who have led Germany since WW2 he says: “…The other characters running this republic were to my mind equally unworthy of mention; they were the usual windbags of sham parliamentary politics, the most nauseating representatives of which – as after the Great War – were appointed Chancellor with the greatest urgency. Surely it was one of Destiny’s special ‘jokes’ to have selected the most boorish and doughy of these intellectual dwarves, and tossed the socalled reunification of Germany into his expansive lap.”
Similarly astute is Hitler’s analysis of popular sentiment. With mechanisation in every industry from manufacturing to retail, millions are unemployed. Mass immigration has split public opinion. Young people speak in a text-message gibberish that forbids the communication of complex ideas, and thus political action. Hitler senses “a silent anger in the population, a dissatisfaction with the prevailing circumstances which reminded me of 1930.” Meanwhile, many young people (despite Germany’s culture of remembrance) don’t recognise Hitler at all, mistaking him for Herr Stromberg, the fictitious star of a German sitcom (2004-2012). Volatile conditions, and an obliviousness to history, are conducive to Hitler taking power again. And he knows it. He concludes: “Conditions were absolutely perfect for me.”
History enthusiasts will appreciate the felicity with which Hitler’s voice, and the means her seeks to his unvarying end, have been transposed. But most of Hitler’s views on various subjects are played for laughs, and don’t directly contribute to the narrative. The main points are that (a) most television programmes are dull; and (b) most politicians are incompetent and disconnected from the people – it is these two factors that create the platform for the 21st-century Hitler’s rise as a television personality and aspiring politician. But these two points might have been made more succinctly, and also dramatised better. As it is, much of the book is Hitler sarcastically commenting on things, mostly to himself.
Look Who’s Back tackles a challenging figure with laudable deftness. Setting out to write a satire – one often filled with gentle humour, as when Hitler’s analyses fall flat – Vermes acknowledges his narrator’s misdeeds head-on. When Hitler awakens from his Rip van Winkle sleep, his first feeling is astonishment that, in spite of his socalled Nero decree, Berlin is still standing. The real Hitler could not outlive defeat; nor would he let Germany do so. The fictitious Hitler’s concerns about Germany in 2012, however sincere, read as ironical against this historical backdrop. Hitler’s media bosses at Flashlight Production Company warn him: “The Jews are no joking matter.” Hitler agrees wholeheartedly, and the book manages to sidestep this landmine to examine its key topic: What role do the media and masses play in creating a platform for a demagogue?
The book’s real villain is the media industry. At Flashlight, Sensenbrink and Bellini will air almost anything (see caveat above) as long as it draws viewers. Hitler reads his audience, and delivers powerful (and uncharacteristically brief) speeches that voice their disenfranchisement without crossing the line (which has moved a mile since his day). Flashlight expand Hitler’s budget, guest him on an array of their programmes, and give him a website and every other tool to widen his reach. Like everybody else, Hitler’s media bosses assume that he’s just an impersonator. They assume this not only because the other possibility is implausible, but also because it suits their bottom-line to exploit this wolf of content goldmine under the sheep’s clothing of satire.
The film version of Look Who’s Back (2015) does a better job of dramatising Hitler’s present-day career, as well as his appeal to sections of contemporary Germany. The film also develops the friendship between Hitler and Sawatzki, and the romance between Sawatzki and Fraulein Kromeier – both relationships hinted at in the book, but there left undeveloped, or developed offpage. The first third of the film has Hitler and Sawatzki touring through Germany, taking the pulse of the people. In the film, both Kromeier’s grandmother, and Sawatzki himself, realise that this really is Hitler (as he himself has been insisting, in vain, all along); their responses of righteous wrath raise the book’s motivating question more lucidly than the book itself did: If someone articulates noxious views, does it matter whether he is Hitler or a comedian impersonating Hitler? Should we not rather judge the effects he produces? The film also answers this question with a proper, satisfying resolution to the plot – which the book fails to do.
Look Who’s Back narrates a plausible, mildly entertaining, what-if narrative. With right-wing nationalism rising in Germany and around the world, this book, with all its literary shortcomings, is best read as a warning to us to interrogate, rather than amplify, questionable politics, regardless of where they originate – and to examine our own resentments, which furnish the wood from which extremist leaders hammer together their platforms.
Read Look Who’s Back here. Read in soft copy to save paper.
Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier, my reading more critical, my books more accessible. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Try switching to soft copy today.
I’ve been reading a fair bit about Hitler and the Third Reich for a novel: which began as a fictionalised account of interwar Germany from a person on the fringes of the inner circle, but which has now become a more generalised analysis of the role of popular support, and dire material circumstances, in creating and maintaining dictatorships. I’ll be posting reviews of a few more books on this topic that I’ve read recently. Then I’ll close the Third Reich chapter and switch back to regular programming, i.e. mostly fiction.