A Review of “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes

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This book has been criticised severely (mostly by people who had not read it) for committing the sin of laughing at Hitler.  Since I love satire (coming from Kerala, the land of the Chakkiar Koothu, how can one not?), I found this argument ridiculous.Subsequently, I searched for similar instances of making fun of Hitler, and came across the book Dead Funny by Rudolph Herzog, where the author had posed the question of satire and the Third Reich.

One quote from that book stuck in my memory:

Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.

A very valid question (the portion I have highlighted).

Well, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes attempts to answer this question: and in my opinion, succeeds to a certain extent.  However, the answer is not at all palatable.  This may be one of the reasons why the book aroused such strong passions.

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9780857052926This book is cutting satire which pulls no punches, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift – many a time you will flinch while reading it.  This is the way I believe that satire should work: while making one laugh, it should also make one uncomfortable, and make one question the very basis of one’s fondly held beliefs.  It did this for me.  I laughed out loud in very few places – but all the while, my inner demon was seething with evil laughter.

The premise of the novel is simple to the point of silliness.  Hitler is deposited into the middle of modern-day Germany (without any explanation whatsoever).  People take him for a flawless impersonator, while he is very sincere in his motives – to set Germany “right”.  While the country sees him as a comedian par excellence on TV, Adolf is using it as a means of propaganda to re-establish his philosophy in the minds of the Volk.  As the show and the showman become a runaway hit, he is wooed by different parties and gets a book contract – and at the end of the novel we realise with a shudder that Hitler is slowly re-emerging.

The juxtaposition of a historical figure with modern society is a common trope used in many satirical plays in India: it is a useful tool to satirise modern society in the light of age-old values.  However, here we find modern society evaluated in the light of Nazi values (celebrity culture and the ethics of journalism, for example), and we sometimes find ourselves agreeing with Hitler!  This is deeply disturbing, and forces us to question the values which we have become accustomed to – which is good, IMO, but which I suspect may get a lot of people pissed off.  A mirror is sometimes very difficult to look into.

Another disturbing fact Hitler’s popularity.  In the guise of “humour” (only for the audience-the Fuhrer is in dead earnest), so much of hatred for the “other” is tolerated, nay, even encouraged.  It made me question the limits of satire itself – for example, in a joke aimed at a particular community, are we laughing at the issue or the target community?  (For example, do we see a magazine such as “Charlie Hebdo” satirising society or insulting religion?) So while applauding Hitler as a comedian, is society tacitly putting the seal of approval on his dangerously eccentric ideas – due to its own ingrained racism?  Continuing in the same vein: is this what happened originally, when a little man with a ridiculous moustache was able take centre stage in German politics, after spending a long time on the fringes (frightening thought, that).

The novel is brilliantly written, in Hitler’s unreadable prose (I could recall my experience of reading <I>Mein Kampf</I>) which shows him up for what he was – a pompous ass with murderous ideas.  (I think this is the root of the criticism that the novel makes Hitler likeable.  It doesn’t.  It makes him silly.)  Such a man could not come to power, and commit murder on such a grand scale, without the active collusion of the majority – at least sins of omission if not those of commission.  In fact, Hitler only cleverly exploited European anti-Semitism to come to power, IMO.  By the time the world realised the depths of the depravity of this madman, it was too late.  The novel warns us that it is all the more possible in modern society, with the vastly improved means of propaganda at its disposal.

Finally: does this novel trivialise the holocaust and put Hitler in a favourable light?  In my opinion, it doesn’t.  What it does is that it diminishes Hitler.  It says: “Look, guys, this kooky idiot rode to power on your shoulders and once there, tightened his grip like a vice.  Such monkeys will come in future also.  Please don’t lift them to your shoulders and allow them to put a chokehold on you.”

Which is not a bad message, when one comes to think about it.

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