March 25, 2014

Unsurprisingly, a novel about a time-traveling Hitler is a source of controversy


“Summer 2011. Berlin. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of ground, alive and well.”

It’s not the setup to some juvenile joke; it’s the setup to a best-selling novel: Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, due out in English in April from MacLehose Press.Look Who's Back

Look Who’s Back opens on Adolf Hitler waking up in a park in modern Berlin, unchanged since World War Two. A local mistakes him for an actor in a World War Two film who refuses to break character and, praising his performance, sets him up at a local comedy club where he is the opening act for a Turkish-German comedian. He launches into exactly the sort of rant you would expect from Hitler. Instead of ruining him, however, his rant makes him a YouTube sensation. Newspapers start interviewing him thinking he’s a dedicated actor examining 21st century morals and eventually he gets a stint as a pundit, before making a move back into politics.

The novel sold 1.4 million copies in Germany but gathered a lot of controversy: critics claimed that the book trivializes Hitler’s crimes. In the U.S., where he was already a YouTube hit and the star of his own comic, a satirical novel about Hitler might not seem like a big deal. In Germany, where Holocaust denial and public displays of Nazi commemoration are illegal, it’s a touchier subject. Vermes has defended the book, however, telling German media:

“The fact is we have too much of a stereotype of Hitler. 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.”

Others don’t take issue with Hitler as fodder, but see the book as ineffective satire. Daniel Erk described the book as “Easily accessible, not elaborate, more like a cheap joke.”