How funny is Adolf Hitler? From a British perspective, I presume, hilarious — much of the famous British sense of humour wouldn’t work were it not for the Germans und seir äksents.
For Germans, however, the Führer is no laughing matter —at least, so one would think. It’s not so much an active ban, but rather an underlying taboo —he just doesn’t play that big a role in our everyday lives, even though the fact that Germans were responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War will never cease to have an impact on our national psyche, one way or another.
Certain relics from the Third Reich are still illegal, as if to shelter ourselves from secretly indulging in this dark past. For example, doing the Nazi salute in public or displaying the swastika are against the law.
Now, this silence has been disturbed. Er Ist Wieder Da, a satirical novel by the German author Timur Vermes, makes a statement before it is even opened. The cover features a block of neatly parted hair, the title is squeezed into the shape of a square moustache and the price-tag is €19.33, a reference to the year in which the Nazis came to power.
The book, largely ignored by the arts pages of Germany’s serious press, quickly became a bestseller, shifting 1.5 million copies. Er Ist Wieder Da has been translated into English (plus many other languages) and was published as Look Who’s Back (MacLehose Press, £12) last month. Are Germans still obsessed with this man, I wondered when I opened the book.
Hitler awakes in present-day Berlin, on a beautiful summer morning, having fallen asleep in 1945. He is surprised by the way the modern city looks: no Russian soldiers, only bearded cyclists with ridiculous helmets. Stumbling across the streets, he looks for his favourite newspaper, the Nazi organ Völkischer Beobachter, and gets chatting with the shop owner:
“Don’t steal anything, okay?”
“Do I look like a criminal?”
“You look like Hitler.”
As the story unfolds, he eventually becomes a media darling on a show hosted by a German of Turkish background and finally goes into politics where he campaigns against speeding and dog mess.
So far, not so bad, but also not particularly funny. In fact, the book would be a safe comedy, a buffoonery, were Hitler not its main protagonist. Some images are quite hilarious, though, because they seem so fitting: Hitler’s mobile ringtone is The Ride of the Valkyries; he sets up a website, on what he insists on calling the “Internetz”, to advise his subscribers on what breed of dog is the master-race; his arch-enemies are neo-Nazis, who think he is ridiculing their cause.
Is this a satire, a polemical story, pitch-black humour, or just the mirror-image of Germany’s fixation with its dark past?
Timur Vermes has claimed he wanted to show that Hitler would have had a chance to succeed nowadays, as he did in the past, but just in another way.
“We have too much of a stereotype of Hitler,” he said, adding: “He’s always the monster and we can be comforted by the fact that we’re different from him. But in reality he continues to spark real fascination in people, just as he did back then when people liked him enough to help him commit crimes.”
Of course there have been previous attempts to ridicule the most evil figure of German history. The most prominent of these was Adolf, The Nazi Pig, a Nineties graphic novel by Walter Moers, one of Germany’s best-known cartoonists, which, like Look Who’s Back, placed Hitler in the present. Moers’s work is an absurd interpretation in which Hitler is basically bonkers, a freak.
Look Who’s Back, by contrast, poses a different, more difficult question because in it he appears as a believable human being. This surely makes many Germans uneasy. Are we laughing at Hitler or with him?
The German psyche has long been a troubled one. In the late Sixties, Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich coined the term “the inability to mourn”, discussing why the Holocaust and the sentiment of guilt and grief were not adequately dealt with in post-war German culture.
Now, almost 70 years after the war, there seems to be a certain weariness of endless commemoration. Most Germans would agree that this particularly terrible part of their collective past should never be forgotten, but is now long over.
I’m not quite comfortable writing this sentence, but Look Who’s Back has been on Germany’s bestseller list for nearly two years (and is now selling well in Britain too). Perhaps this means that the inability to mourn has turned into the ability to laugh.