“Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes
I’m not often drawn to a book based off of its cover (that’s what I tell myself at any rate) but when a cover showcases a certain mustache and a notorious comb-over, my curiosity (and my blood pressure) clicked up a few notches. McNally Jackson evidently thought the cover was startling too, as it was the first book you saw in their European section.
One glance at Look Who’s Back and you know what it’s all about: Hitler. If you’re quicker than I am you can deduce the plot before you event read the jacket copy: Hitler, for some reason, is back
It’s 2011 and Hitler has been resurrected near his former bunker. As promised by the lighthearted cover, Hitler’s reemergence is on the surface rather funny. His rhetoric and behavior and views haven’t changed, and neither has society’s structure to support a man like him. Quickly he finds himself on a TV show, then he becomes a YouTube star, then he gets a reality show of his own. Political groups eventually approach him to ask for his sponsorship.
The premise of a born-again Hitler is inherently comical. German journalist Timur Vermes brilliantly contrasts Hitler’s paranoid temperament with the appearances of modern life.
Vermes shows born-again Hitler suspicious toward the true identity of Herr Starbuck. He is scandalized that women at a beer festival are wearing scanty dirndls meant for “The League of German Girls,” and for several pages he is outraged that his preferred email, “adolf dot hitler,” is already taken. (He settles for “NewReichChancellery”). One of my favorites is his opinion on razor blades:
Hitherto I had engaged in minimal contact with everyday life; Fraulein Kromeier had relieved me of any minor chores. It was only when I decided to run a few errands myself that I discovered the extent to which many things had changed. Of late I had been missing my good old safety razor. Until now I’d had to familiarize myself with a makeshift plastic apparatus, the purported virtue of which was that it combined several inadequate blades that scraped the skin simultaneously but unpleasantly. As I was able to discern from the packaging, this was regarded as major progress, especially in relation to the former version, which contained one fewer blade. But I could see no advantage vis-a-vis a single blade. I attempted to describe to Fraulein Kromeier what one of these looked like and how it functioned, in vain. And so I was forced to make the trip myself.
And there you have Hitler’s fanatical voice perfectly encapsulated by Vermes’s satire. Much of the book’s humor comes from seeing Hitler constantly applying this militaristic attitude toward small objects, like razor blades and Starbucks.
As entertaining as the plot is, what kept me flipping pages was the cadence of the voice. Anyone who’s caught a few paragraphs of Mein Kampf knows the self-righteous, rambling, vaguely intelligent but ultimately unctuous rhetoric of Hitler.
Vermes perfectly emulates Hitler’s rhetoric. How he reacts to seeing a “clearly deranged woman” pick up her dog’s feces was pure gold. Throughout Look Who’s Back, Vermes captures the lunacy of Hitler’s absolutism–and more damaging–society’s penchant to forget, forgive and tolerate ineffable atrocities. Even a grandmother whose entire family was murdered in the Holocaust forgives born-again Hitler after he heavily praises her granddaughter’s professional abilities,
Vermes’s Hitler says enough practical things that one understands he is not mad. Some of the creepy moments occurred when I found myself agreeing with this fictional Hitler. Yes, the world would be better if we were all vegetarians. Perhaps NATO should never have interfered in Afghanistan. Yes, politicians are too often incapacitated from doing real work for fear of public opinion.
I imagine that during Hitler’s ascension to power, many people didn’t agree with some of his major points–quarantine all Jews for instance–but they did agree with him on enough issues to feel no stab of consciousness in voting for him. The parallel to Trump voters is uncanny. About a month ago I was visiting a South Jersey beach, and I was amiably talking to the building’s manager about the weather when he somehow managed to insert his support of Trump into the discussion. “He’s a little nuts,” this guy said, “but I agree with him on most things, and he’s a helluva a lot better than her.”
Look Who’s Back shows that while we don’t have fictional Hitler running through our world, our social structures and temperaments still allow people with a fascist POV to become a Chancellor or a President. Hitler isn’t with us, but the societal elements that gave him power still are.
“I could see the brutal, unsophisticated masses still existed,” Hitler says, “All I had to do was awaken them…To all intents and purposes it was like the beginning of the Twenties all over again. With the difference that back then I took possession of a party. This time it was a television program.”
Looks Who’s Back is a cutting look into western culture’s vulnerability to charlatans. It’s an honest spoof on the self-righteous and malleability of the press, a media concerned solely with ratings, and an vicious condemnation of cultural amnesia.