Er ist wieder da – Look Who’s Back

Hitler. He’s back. One day he wakes up in Berlin and decides to continue his quest to bring National Socialism to a world that thinks him a comedian. This is the plot of Timur Vermes’ book titled Er ist wieder da.

Adolf Hitler is a bit of a strange topic in Germany. The basic rules when dealing with the Führer appear to be the following:

  • Everything he ever did or said was wrong
  • If you find a redeeming quality about Hitler keep it to yourself
  • If you speak out in defense of anything Hitler has done, you’re a Nazi and you deserve to be shunned

That has, however, not kept the Germans from making fun of Hitler because there’s quite the comedic potential in the man. I suppose it’s a way of coping with something the nation should have coped with decades ago. But then again, they had other worries, such as the re-unification and the mess that preceded it. Also Hitler’s fault.

Until 2011, the only comedy that did not cleverly disguise Hitler as someone like Butler Hatler in Der Wixxer or something similar was Walter Moers and his comic books titled Adolf.

In 2011, a book by Timur Vermes came out, titled Er ist wieder da which translates to He is back again literally. The book is known as Look Who’s Back Again in English, though. It pits Hitler against the modern world, which is not the most original premise, but it works and makes for amazingly scathing satire.

Er ist wieder da

Props for the minimalistic but very expressive cover

A Series of Misunderstandings

The plot of Er ist wieder da goes as follows. One day, in Berlin, Adolf Hitler wakes up, smelling like gasoline and not knowing how he got where he is. He also seems to be missing part of his memory as he can’t remember the last few hours at the end of the war.

For those whose last history lesson has been a while ago, here’s what happened, according to historians.

After midnight on 29 April, Hitler married Eva Braun in a small civil ceremony in the Führerbunker. After a modest wedding breakfast with his new wife, Hitler took secretary Traudl Junge to another room and dictated his will. The event was witnessed and documents signed by Krebs, Burgdorf, Goebbels, and Bormann. Later that afternoon, Hitler was informed of the execution of Mussolini, which presumably increased his determination to avoid capture.
On 30 April 1945, after intense street-to-street combat, when Soviet troops were within a block or two of the Reich Chancellery, Hitler shot himself and Braun bit into a cyanide capsule. Their bodies were carried up the stairs and through the bunker’s emergency exit to the bombed-out garden behind the Reich Chancellery, where they were placed in a bomb crater and doused with petrol. The corpses were set on fire as the Red Army shelling continued. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz and Joseph Goebbels assumed Hitler’s roles as head of state and chancellor respectively.

Der Führer himself has no explanation as to why he is suddenly back from wherever it is that he was and how he got where he is. He has a headache, though. So he walks off into modern day Berlin and finds that all of his good work that was – last he heard – still supported by the majority of Germans has been undone. There also appears to be a lot of Turkish people in the city.

Hitler does not comprehend multiculture.

A newspaper vendor takes pity on him, thinking of him as some kind of actor who has a stroke of bad luck. Because, let’s be honest, would you expect Hitler to turn up at your workplace?

Er ist wieder da

Adolf Hitler (Oliver Masucci) discovers that he’s been gone for 70 years

One thing leads to another and Hitler finds himself introduced to two producers for TV named Sawatski and Sensenbrink. They offer him a spot on a sketch comedy show that is hosted by Ali Wizgür who I – being not particularly versed in German comedy – think is a thinly veiled caricature of real-life comedian Kaya Yanar. Hitler’s first speech concerns the Freedom of Speech as he sees it. It’s apparently a good thing to make jokes about foreigners, according to him.

People are smitten with Der Führer, thinking him an actor, and they want more of him.

Bitter Satire

From there on out, the plot of the book is rather trivial and shallow. Author Timur Vermes plays on the aspect that Hitler is a Man out of Time with a very strong set of ideals and a clear vision. He uses this aspect of his lead character to point out all kinds of ridiculous absurdities about the modern existence and things that we all should be right about.

Early on in the book, Hitler watches television and happens upon a reality TV show that has basically no content. A woman cooks and her chain smoking, school dropout daughter refuses to eat. It’s one of those slice of life shows that focus on the lives and times of people on welfare. Basically, what German satirist Harald Schmidt described as Unterschichtenfernsehen (translation: TV for degenerates).

It is these passages that make up for the book’s biggest strengths as they unveil the complete and utter idiocy that we’re served under the pretense of television entertainment.

Who would choose to watch rubbish like this? Untermenschen, perhaps, who can barely read and write, but besides them? Practically deadened, I switched back to the rotund woman. Since my last visit her adventure-filled life had been interrupted by a programme of advertisements, the end of which I just caught. Then the narrator insisted on explaining to me for the umpteenth time that this wretched bint had lost all control over her bastard halfwit excuse for a daughter, and all she had managed to accomplish in the last half-hour was to prattle on to a chain-smoking neighbour about throwing the little cretin out. “This entire coterie of hopeless cases belongs in a labour camp,” I declared vociferously to the television set. “The apartment should be renovated or, even better, demolished along with the rest of the house, and a parade ground built in its stead, so as to expunge for good these calamitous goings-on from the wholesome minds of the German Volk. Exasperated, I hurled the control box into the waste-paper basket.

With scenes such as these, the book more often than not seems to be Vermes’ rants about the world, phrased as if Hitler would have written them. And that’s funny. Very, very funny.

It is a feeling shared by many that Germany is currently experiencing an age of intellectual darkness. Much like the United Kingdom has their concept of Broken Britain, people who would fancy themselves smarter than their peers in Germany worry about the future. It’s easy pickings as the lowest common denominator seems to be rather low in the country of Poets and Thinkers. The scenario of the TV show that Hitler watches is plausible to accurate.

Over the course of the book, Der Führer rails against most things that people these days might have grown tired of or just flat-out ignore. Politicians, people working in supermarkets, women with dogs, office space, the loss of glory in Germany and the fear of Germans to admit that they like their country. You see, that’s another thing, after World War II, being proud of Germany has become kind of a taboo. There still are people proud of the country, but those are usually Neo Nazis or very, very quiet. Hitler meanwhile is very proud of his ideal Germany where everything is under his rule, orderly and civilized.

Not Without Its Enemies

Timur Vermes must have known that he will publish a very provocative book. Because he doesn’t do the one thing that Germans like to do do when talking about Der Führer: He makes him human.

Er ist wieder da

Adolf Hitler (Oliver Masucci) and his secretary Vera Krömeier (Franziska Wulf) are working on a computer

The so-called Other is the distinct setting apart of people who have done things that society at large doesn’t approve of in any way, shape or form. You see this all the time. Look at the media coverage of spree killings. It takes about ten minutes for the media to find something that sets the shooter apart: Metal music, video games, horror films, clothing, mental illness et cetera. They’re all welcome scapegoats with one goal in mind: They paint the perpetrator as not One of Us, whereas Us is the wholesome society that would never do any of the horrible things that the perpetrator has done. This we do so we can sleep at night. So that we remain assured of our values and that we did what we could and some people elect to be different, to be evil. Othering is not an evil thing, even though it skews perception. It’s a coping mechanism that lets us sleep at night.

According to the German consensus, Hitler and the Germans have nothing in common. Not a single thing. They never had. Everyone just went along with it because they feared for their lives if they didn’t. This view, while maybe a bit hyperbolic on my part and a bit hypocritical on the parts of the Germans is absolutely okay, though. It’s a natural thing to do and even though, I personally don’t agree with the practise of creating a distinct Us vs. Them narrative so that we feel superior and confirmed in our beliefs, it’s just what it is at this point in time. Because there aren’t many more, other than Walter Moers and Timur Vermes who dare to tackle Der Führer in a way that doesn’t make him the butt of every joke. They make him somewhat human, with redeeming qualities as well as flaws, like a good character in a book should be.

Now, this view should not take away from the fact that under Hitler, Germans and their allies have done horrible things, so reviews like the one by Goodreads user Lilo are understandably passionate:

I read an excerpt of this book and I talked at length with someone who has read half of it before tossing it with disgust.

This book may read “funny”, but to make a somewhat likable comic figure of the most cruel mass murderer the 20th century has seen is not only tasteless but dangerous.

Shame on anyone who writes a positive review on this book. Shame on anyone who buys this book or asks for this book at the library. Shame on anyone who supports the author and the publisher of this book with a single dime.

I am asking anyone who has a single brain cell left: Are 70 million dead in WWII (6 million of them Jews who died in the Holocaust) reason to make fun of? (And I am not even talking about those who have lost loved ones, their health, and/or all they ever owned.) The murderer of all these people is not a comic figure.

Learning that this book has become a bestseller in Germany makes me ashamed of being German.

The thing is this: in Vermes’ book, Hitler doesn’t actually make fun of Jews and the Holocaust nor do I think that the subject is treated lightly. In fact, Vermes goes to great lengths to avoid touching upon the non-philosophical parts of the Third Reich. He mentions battlefields here and there, but never in a way that is tied to historical reality or in a mocking tone.

This does not mean that the book doesn’t have any teeth. In fact, the fictional Hitler rails against anything, anyone and everything that has ever annoyed any one of us in the modern world.

Morning People

What irritates me most of all about these morning people is their horribly good temper, as if they had been up for three hours and already conquered France. Particularly since the vast majority of them, in spite of rising so appallingly early, have performed anything but great deeds.

Women pretending to be jolly and wearing a Dirndl at Oktoberfest:

This was one of the most frightful regional customs I had ever had the misfortune to experience. Not only the editor and this young woman, but every last damsel in the locality had felt obliged to squeeze herself into dresses which were zealously styled on those worn by country wenches, but which even at first glance revealed themselves to be hideous imitations. We had gone down the same path in the League of German Girls, I admit, but there, as the name implies, we were dealing with girls. Assembled here, by contrast, were predominantly women whose girlhood lay at least a decade in the past, if not several.

Character Flaws Obvious

The problem with Timur Vermes’ premise and his method of painting Der Führer more human than most would dare becomes apparent quickly: His fictional Hitler can’t evolve. Usually, in a book, a main character is on some kind of journey. They find themselves in a spot in the beginning, make a physical and emotional journey and end up a better or different person in the end. For obvious reasons Vermes couldn’t do that. So the book starts in Berlin and ends in Berlin. And from beginning to end, everyone’s the same. Adolf Hitler is a hardass with a fixed set of morals that seem comical to most and everyone else is a somewhat naïve person who falls for the excuse that he’s an actor, despite Hitler never confirming that it is just an act.

Er ist wieder da

Having become a comedy sensation, Adolf Hitler (Oliver Masucci) is invited into other talkshows

The book also has its dull parts. When not railing on various aspects of modern life, the seeming depravity and loss of morals that we ourselves can’t help but notice sometimes and whatever else Hitler encounters, Der Führer spends his time monologuing. This ranges from a grand overestimation of his own awesomeness that is in an of itself supposed to be comical to these weird para-political diatribes that can’t be political as Hitler’s ideology is banned by law in Germany. So these diatribes are unpolitical political drivel, aligning Der Führer with the Green Party at some point and with nobody else for the remainder of the book.

One of the best passages of Er ist wieder da is somewhat political in nature. It’s when Adolf Hitler goes to visit the regional headquarters of the NPD, Germany’s most right-wing party that is mostly accepted within the regular political circus and even – mysteriously – sports some elected officials. Obviously, Hitler is very displeased with them and over the course of maybe five pages tears into them relentlessly. And it’s glorious.

Right, time to wrap this up, because at this point I’m convinced that it took me longer to write this than to read the book. Er ist wieder da is a book that is either funny or boring, depending on which page you just so happen to be on. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s dull, it’s really dull. It’s somewhat in bad taste, but manages to walk the thin line between being risqué and bad taste. The fictional Hitler never goes overboard, but is as politically incorrect as it gets. It’s a quick read and if you’ve got nothing better to do, or you’re curious about the whole scenario, go for it.

Oh, and they also made a movie of it, which is currently in Swiss Cinemas. Here’s a trailer.

About Dom

Possessing nigh-encyclopaedic knowledge when it comes to comic books and movies, Dom is one of the co-founders of the Uncanny Book-Club. He also enjoys movies, and going to the cinema.

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