“I REMEMBER waking up,” Adolf Hitler says. “I was lying on an area of undeveloped land, surrounded by terraces of houses.” The year is 2011, somewhere in Berlin, and Hitler, uniformed as he was when he committed suicide, cannot account for how he got where he is. That’s OK with him, because he can’t really account for how he, impoverished and undereducated, became the absolute ruler of Germany, either. Fate has always looked out for him.
“Look Who’s Back,” the Timur Vermes book on which this is based, was a huge best-seller in Germany and now, in America, it has been politely if not extravagantly reviewed. Here and there a grumpy critic has wondered about the propriety of writing a book in which Hitler speaks in the first person and we get into the mind of a man whose name is synonymous with evil. Hitler, however, does not think; he spouts and erupts — a walking placard. He’s a bore.
I can’t say there has been a taboo about writing in Hitler’s own voice — George Steiner’s “The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.” comes to mind and he has been depicted in movies — but the attempt is rare and marks something of an event. The New York Times responded this year by reviewing the book twice — once favorably in the daily paper, once more cautiously in the Sunday Book Review, and the British papers have been all over it. The Guardian called it “thrillingly transgressive,” whatever that might mean, and The Sunday Times pronounced it “darkly entertaining,” which it is only sporadically.
To cut to the chase, Vermes’ book is a one-trick pony. His Hitler gets accepted as a performance artist. He recites Nazi boilerplate and it is received as just part of his act or, sometimes, a trenchant commentary on the cultural and political corruption of contemporary Germany. This is Hitler as the gardener Chance, the slim-witted protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, “Being There” — later a movie with Peter Sellers. Sometimes Hitler makes some sense and, as der Fuerher himself comes to see, his chances for a genuine comeback rest on an appreciation that not everything he did was bad. Shall we start with the Volkswagen?
A book such as this risks being accused of trivializing Hitler. After all, the fictional Hitler is something of a buffoon and at times is oddly empathetic to some of his colleagues. No doubt, he is being trivialized, as has been Auschwitz, where tourists now take selfies with the famous “Arbeit macht frei” sign in the background. Rock concerts are held nearby. In this way, the present thoughtlessly insults the past.
But where Vermes goes wrong is in his focus. It’s entirely on Hitler and the Germany that accepts him in his reincarnated state. Missing are Hitler’s victims — their deaths by the millions, their suffering. I understand what Vermes set out to do and I happen to think that humor is its own justification. But by bringing the camera in so tight we cannot see over Hitler’s shoulder. Behind him is a Holocaust that for some people consumed faith itself.
For some, the prosecution of the former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening at the age of 93 must have seemed ludicrous. What is to be gained from a trial at this very late date? But for Holocaust survivors, not enough time has passed — nor will it ever. They testified at Groening’s recent trial, recounting families incinerated, cruelty beyond comprehension, and belied the facile formulation of what’s often called industrial murder. These people were not ingots and, besides, most Holocaust victims were shot, not gassed.
As I read “Look Who’s Back,” I wanted this Hitler to acknowledge how he made others suffer. He observes the absence of Jews and mouths his contempt for them, but they are all out there somewhere, faceless, emotionless. Nor does he have anything to say about how he starved Russian POWs to death by the millions and murdered gypsies and homosexuals and Poles and … It is a very long list.
Russia can’t seem to make up its mind about Joseph Stalin, a mass murderer. China still venerates Mao Zedong, a brutal despoiler of young women and whole populations, and Andy Warhol portraits of him sell for the many millions of dollars to people who see only pop colors and not millions of victims. Warhol bleached the content out of everyone — Liz Taylor or Mao Zedong, celebrities all. Will this happen to Hitler?
It has already begun.
© 2015, THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP