On a day like any other, a uniformed man finds himself face-down in a puddle in a vacant lot in Berlin. Dazed, he quickly discovers himself alone and searches his thoughts for an explanation. Nothing comes to mind. Only his previous military training and time in the public eye allow him to remain calm. He instinctively checks the condition of his uniform: it is disheveled, but still in acceptable shape. In an attempt to get his bearings, he scans the cityscape, taking in both the familiar and unfamiliar aspects of the metropolis that has seemingly materialized around him. His head is still in a fog, unable to access any memory of his life past 1945. On a day unlike any other, Adolf Hitler finds himself alive in Berlin. The year is 2011.
I suspect that my experience with the demonizing persona of Adolf Hitler was very much the same as that of any North American high school student. Beginning in the classroom with our obsolete, coffee-stained textbooks, the Führer was painted as a masochistic dictator set on world domination and the destruction of the Jews. Our teachers focused our attention firmly on the battles, the undeniably numerous abominations of the Holocaust, and on his final defeat by the Allies in April 1945. By the end of my school days, I had no doubt that he was the absolute epitome of all that is evil; a man meticulous in his planning and merciless in his execution. Even so, a myriad of fact and speculation have surrounded Hitler from the very moment of his rise to power, mesmerizing generations with his great talent for oration and the extent to which he carried his cause. A symbol of the horrors humanity is capable of, Adolf served as a cautionary tale of what happens when the lessons of history go unheeded.
Look Who’s Back does nothing to begrudge the black and white images that haunt the documentaries and biographies of the Second World War, but rather fortifies their chilling tales, through a comprehensive inner monologue. The author of Look Who’s Back, Timur Vermes, was born in Nuremberg to a German mother and Hungarian father. After studying history and politics, he began his literary career as a journalist writing for the Abendzeitung and the Cologne Express as well as various magazines. If it seems hard to believe that Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) is his first novel, it is likely because Vermes has been the ghostwriter for several books since 2007. The novel was well-received in Germany, where it sold 1.4 million copies within 2 years of being published, and has since been translated into 41 languages. Look Who’s Back was also long-listed for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, as well as for the 2016 IMPAC award, and has also inspired a feature film of the same name.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
Confronting and confirming what we know of Hitler, Vermes brings him to life in a realistic, new light. Here, we are forced to face Hitler not as the untouchable historical figure, but as a twisted man of flesh and blood. As strong a symbol for the Nazi party as the swastika, Vermes presents us with a Führer who has by no means abandoned his cause, having merely adjusted it to the situation at hand, in service to the German people. Not pausing to mourn the loss of Eva Braun or any of his underlings, Hitler’s convictions quickly align themselves with the modern world as, after living (quite comically) in a kiosk, he is “discovered” and given a segment on a comedy television show, where he uses his skills as a public speaker to his advantage. Slowly but surely, he wins the attention of the German people, some naturally believing him to be the greatest method actor and comedian of all time, with skeptics questioning the political and moral correctness of such comedy.
Later on, videos of his newly-performed rants consequently make their way to YouTube and are immensely popular, elevating Adolf to the status of a modern celebrity. It is in this way that Vermes captures a darker side to our contemporary world. Despite showing no remorse for his actions, Hitler’s popularity skyrockets, displaying the power of celebrity over reason and the indiscernible power of disbelief. Even when offered the possibility of redemption through his fondness for his part-Jewish secretary, Hitler fails us with what he likely sees as a compliment, “If the rest of the genetic material is of sufficiently high quality, the body can sustain a certain portion of Jewish blood without its having an effect on the person’s character and racial features.”
However painful his assertions, there are many light moments in Vermes’ work that balance the unending Hitlerisms infiltrating the plot, such as his frustration in attempting to use a mobile phone and computer. The reactions of the people around him are both amusing and telling, as they can easily see the cracks in the Führer’s apparent lack of knowledge of the age. His trademark arrogance and (at the very least) mildly delusional mind are portrayed most memorably through his recollections, including that of his rejection from art school which, he stresses, was due to jealously on the part of the examiners over his remarkable talent.
Look Who’s Back succeeds in challenging not only our perception of Hitler, but also of modern forms of entertainment. Despite not functioning as an avenue to his actual thoughts and motivations, it brings its readers close enough to reach the man behind the monster and leave us pondering what our complacence says of us.