Is it ok to laugh about Hitler? This seems to be the one big question critics have been asking themselves about Timor Vermes’s Look Who’s Back – a novel about Adolf Hitler waking up in 21st-century Berlin seeing a confusingly modern world through a Nazi lense.
Some teenage boys playing football on a field must be the Hitler Youth training, the large number of Turks in Berlin an indicator that they did support Germany in World War II after all. But Hitler is also impressed by the clever demagogy of the German Bild newspaper with its many pictures and extra large type, regretting that ‘the zealous Goebbels’ did not have that idea first, or the Nazis would have found ‘much more enthusiasm’ for their ‘cause’ amongst the elderly population.
The sight of what they take to be a Hitler lookalike shocks many Germans in the book. Yet, none of them take him seriously. They all think he must be a method actor and comedian out to challenge and provoke the German public, testing the limits of freedom of speech. Instead of arresting him for war crimes, Hitler is thus given his own TV show, where he is allowed to do and say whatever he wants as long as he agrees that ‘the Jews are no laughing matter’.
While he is publicly ranting against mainstream politics, unemployment, foreigners and ‘inferior races’ Hitler slowly gathers a growing number of admirers, and it is only a matter of time before the people around him start greeting with a raised arm.
The scary part about the book is that it depicts Hitler as a misguided but likeable character, who, like many of us, at times struggles with the modern ‘mouse apparatus’ and marvels at the ‘Internetwork’. Despite his racist and inhuman views, the reader feels at times inclined to agree with him about some of the absurdities of the modern world, such as ‘befuddled women’ picking up their dog’s poo in the park with little plastic bags which Hitler in unfailing Nazi logic interprets as the result of their mental derangement caused by childlessness.
Even more scarily, as the reader is made to empathise with the fictional Hitler, we get a sense of how easily Germans in the 1930s might have been taken in by his charms and dangerous logic. There is a moment at the end of the book when the reader is made to wake up and think about what he has just been reading.
So is it ok then to laugh about Hitler? It’s the only way. But make sure you don’t choke.