A novel about Hitler coming back from the dead in modern Berlin is a runaway German bestseller. But opinion is split as to whether the latest comic take on the Führer is politically acceptable - or even vaguely funny.
However people may feel about the book itself, the cover of Timur Vermes' "Er ist wieder da" ("He's Back") is a real eye-catcher: a dark, abstract side-parted hairdo with an abbreviated moustache printed on a plain white background. There's no mistaking the book's subject matter.
The first-person narrator is the Führer himself, and the story begins with Hitler waking up at the site of his former air-raid shelter in Berlin. The year is 2011, and in a democratic Germany, the former master race is more obsessed with technological gadgets and mass entertainment than with world domination or annihilating undesirables.
Ironically, the Führer gets a running gig on a television show, whose producers assume that his strange behavior is a performance-art routine satirizing Nazism. Hitler is a hit, but he gets beaten up by neo-Nazis who mistakenly believe he's parodying their ideology.
The attack wins him enormous public sympathy, and as leading politicians offer their condolences, Hitler begins plotting his political comeback. In the novel's final scene, Hitler's assistant begins working on political posters based on the ones the Nazis used in the latter years of the Weimar Republic: "The slogan read: 'It wasn't all bad.' That's something you can work with."
Is this funny? A chilling satire on the fascist within us all? The majority of German reviewers have given the book, the first novel by a professional ghostwriter, the thumbs-up. "A successful if unsettling satire of a mass murderer and the mass media," one critic at the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper wrote, while the WAZ newspaper praised the book's "human" depiction of Hitler.
Others found the book decidedly stale. "For all the publisher throws around inflationary adjectives like 'black-humored' and 'perfidious' to create the impression of taboos being broken, Hitler jokes are simply old hat," news magazine Der Spiegel said. "All too often the author gets pulled into depicting Hitler as a funny, congenial fellow," was the verdict at the left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Such scruples will hardly trouble either Vermes or his publisher. The hardcover edition of the book is currently up to 400,000 in sales, proving a mix of humor and Hitler is a pretty effective way to sell books.
New take on an old theme
There's very little that's new about Vermes' novel or the controversy surrounding it. 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.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Vermes' book appeared with Moers' former publisher, Eichborn. The youth-oriented house went bankrupt in 2011 and was subsequently bought up by a group best known for dime-store fiction. Although "He's Back" is often portrayed as a surprise hit, Eichborn had to win a bidding war between a number of publishers in order to acquire the rights.
But ponying up the cash for Vermes' farce has put Eichborn back on the map. Not only has the novel dominated the bestseller lists since last September, the rights to editions in 18 languages, including English, have already been sold.
The wages of satire
The translators are not to be envied. "He's Back" aims the Howitzer of Hitler at some mosquito-sized targets, including daytime TV, opportunist politicians and some C-list German celebrities.
Vermes does do a fairly decent job imitating "Mein Kampf," but Hitler's style was as pompous and dull as his ideas were stupid and contemptible. Thus the closer Vermes cleaves to his historical source, the more tedious his novel becomes - there's barely a laugh in its 400 pages.
As one not terribly amused critic pointed out, the greatest irony of "He's Back" is the fact that it's created such a stir. "Timur Vermes tries to show up the Hitler-fixated media industry," wrote one critic in Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper, "but he himself profits from this fixation to the highest degree."
Schtonk! ridiculed the public's lurid fascination with Nazism - and won over critics
The success of "He's Back" recalls the scandal surrounding a set of forged Hitler diaries that the news magazine Stern published back in 1983. The incident served as the basis for the highly regarded 1992 film "Schtonk!" which held the public's lurid, hysterical fascination with Germany's fascist past up for some well-targeted ridicule.
The film rights to "He's Back" have already been sold, but there's little chance that a movie adaptation of Vermes' novel could match the real-life comedy of how a group of top magazine editors got taken for millions by a brazen forger who assumed the role of Hitler.
For some reason, when German popular culture tackles the subject of Hitler things usually go wrong. Almost 70 years after the ignominious demise of the Third Reich, ordinary Germans have little difficulty laughing at the absurd idea of the Führer, Goebbels, Göring and the rest of the Nazi big-wigs as examples of a master race.
It's turning that humor into genuinely funny novels, movies and TV shows which seems to be the problem.
Jefferson Chase holds a doctorate in German Literature and is the author of a book of humor, Jewishness and German national identity in the 19th century.
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