He’s Back: Comic novel about Adolf Hitler tops German bestseller lists

By Toby Manhire In Books, The Internaut

7th February, 2013
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Top of the German bestseller lists is He’s Back.

And the “he” that is back is the most infamous figure in the country’s history.

Timur Vermes’s comic novel, writes Nathalie Versieux in the Swiss daily Le Temps, translated at WorldCrunch, “is causing much controversy in a country that would rather forget it has been 80 years since Hitler rose to power”.

Just in case the timing of the book’s publication isn’t clear enough, try this: it retails at €19.33.

In the novel, Hitler wakes from a long slumber in Berlin, 2013, whereupon he quickly stumbles into stardom as a television comedian.

Vermes tells Le Temps:

Often, we tell ourselves that if a new Hitler came along, it would be easy to stop him. I tried to show the opposite – that even today, Hitler might be successful. Just in a different way.

But it’s not a wholly original premise. Here’s Jefferson Chase at the Deutsche Welle website:

Germans have been debating whether it’s appropriate to poke fun at the ridiculous sides of Hitler and his henchmen for decades.

Early on, Jewish writers, including Jurek Becker, Edgar Hilsenrath and Georg Tabori, wrung laughs from the Holocaust and Hitler, and even Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum contains a comic set-piece ridiculing a Nazi Party rally.

Nor is the idea of Hitler waking up in contemporary Germany original. In 1997, graphic artist Walther Moers published a book-length comic entitled Adolf, the Nazi Swine: I’m Back” based on the premise that the Führer had survived for the past 50 years in the Berlin sewer system.

The best-selling tome chronicled the hot-headed, simple-minded dictator’s befuddled encounters with celebrities like the diminutive singer Prince and a cross-dressing Hermann Göring. Although it was controversial at the time, with Moers having to take out ads arguing that it was not only permissible, but imperative to laugh at the Führer, it’s now something of a cult classic.

And many find the novel, and its reception, troubling. The mass popularity of the fictional modern-day Hitler “is clearly grounded in the same reasons the novel has been selling so well”, writes Cornelia Fiedler in the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung.

A very strange fixation on Hitler has developed in Germany, and it has something of the manic about it … The focus on Hitler – be it as a comic figure or as the embodiment of evil – risks washing away the historical reality.

Le Temps quotes Daniel Erk, author of the We Have Never Seen So Much Hitler, a book that challenges the “mainstreaming of evil”. Says Erk:

Instead of asking why there is still such a profound anti-Semitism in German society today, we continue to say this crazy man is only person to blame. This is how Germans absolve themselves of any wrong-doing and responsibility. This Hitler is the sole person responsible for the war and genocide.

But Vermes counters:

We don’t have too much Hitler. We have too many Hitler stereotypes, which are always the same – the monster that enables us to reassure ourselves. I too, for a long time accepted this vision of Hitler. But this vision is not enough. Hitler continues to have a real fascination.

If so many people helped him commit his crimes, it is because they liked him. People don’t elect a nut job. They elect someone whom they are attracted to and that they admire. To present him as a monster is to call those voted for him idiots. And that reassures us. We tell ourselves that today we are smarter. We would never elect a monster or a clown. But at the time, people where just as smart as us – this is what is so painful.

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