Laughing at, or with, Hitler?

"Foto von den Dreharbeiten in Berlin" by Sudwambel is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikipedia)

When you ask people the meaning of learning history, the most of them will say, “so that we can learn from the mistakes we made in the past and never repeat them again.” According to this reasoning, one will also say, “if Hitler were alive today, we would never support him.”

In 2012, Timur Vermes, a German novelist published an astonishing novel: Look Who’s Back (Original Title: Er Ist Wieder Da). What distinguished this novel is the fact that it is the first fictional comedy featuring Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist Party in Germany from 1933 to 1945, and imagines what would happen if he were alive today. The book was sold for €19.33 to remind the readers of the year Hitler came to power. It soon became a bestseller with 2 million copies sold in Germany, and has since been translated to 41 languages and sold in more than 50 countries. Three years later, the novel was made into a film and is now available in different languages. In 2015, Germany submitted the film as one of eight candidates for the Oscar’s best foreign-language film award. It was also longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the same year. According to Vermes, the media was initially very reluctant to even talk about his novel, and “all reviewers could say was it’s funny, it’s not funny.”

The novel begins with Hitler time-travelling from 1945, right before he shot himself. He wakes up on the street, looks for his executive officers, and realizes he is in 2011, 66 years later. Everything he sees in Berlin surprises him – “The Turkish are somehow successful in business,” “Herr Starbuck (by looking at Starbucks coffee company) owns so many coffee shops on the street,” “The people in the stores are replaced by machines,” and the list goes on. However, the most surprising thing to him was that nobody recognized him in the way he was imagining. The people are not afraid of seeing him anymore, in fact, people are not respecting him at all. Instead, they take ‘selfies’ with him and want his autograph because they think he is a comedian on a television show. They say “he is very authentic and such a good actor” and a television production company officially hires him as a comedian. Hitler works his way up to become the most popular comedian. The people laugh at his jokes instead of becoming terrified by hearing him propagating the same message as he did in 1933. Towards the end, Hitler begins working as an adviser to politicians, and eventually becomes a politician himself.

Until a few decades ago, the Germans mostly avoided even talking about Hitler. One can only imagine that a positive portrayal of the most inhumane dictator in history had been a big taboo in Germany before Look Who’s Back came out. We must still consider if it is ethical to talk about the Adolf Hitler as a nice person, but the long heavy silence was broken with Vermes portraying Hitler as a very attractive person – intelligent, witty, gentle, eloquent, and hard-working.Vermes says he tried his best to stick to the ‘real Hitler,’ so is it ethical for us to talk about Hitler in the most negative way possible and blame him for everything? Doesn’t that blind us from the fact the majority of the German population actually supported him – some out of fear, but some, enthusiastically, out of hope? Surprisingly to the readers, the characters cannot help but adore and respect him although Hitler’s speech is full of racial, ethnic, and gendered slurs. Despite the comedic tone of the novel, the text raises concerns about the ethics of using Hitler as a comedic figure, and whether that softens the blows of his hateful rhetoric by framing it as worthy of laughter.

Gavriel Rosenfeld, a professor of History and director of the undergraduate program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University, said, “the novel allows readers to laugh not merely at Hitler, but also with him.” It requires readers to have good self-awareness as they read. Readers have to constantly remind themselves of their ideas of right and wrong, or they will end up not only laughing at Hitler but also with Hitler. You might be able to agree with what Hitler says in the novel, which, the majority of them is a quote from his actual speeches. Without realizing it, you might end up idolizing him just like the novel’s characters. Learning from our past mistakes in the history is supposed to remind us of the importance of a moral society. But have we really learned anything from the history?

Yuka graduated from DePauw University in 2017 with a Peace and Conflict Studies major and double minors in Business Administration and Asian Studies. At DePauw, she was an Honor Scholar, Presidential Ambassador, and Coquillette Peer Consultant at the Hubbard Center for student Engagement. She now works in Japan.