Sunday February 10, 2013
Banality of evil?
EIGHTY years after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, a novel that imagines his return to modern-day Berlin has become a bestseller in Germany, though a comedy about the Fuehrer is not to everyone’s taste.
Instead of committing suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945, in He’s Back (Er Ist Wieder Da), Hitler wakes up in 2011 without the slightest idea what has happened in the intervening 66 years.
He stumbles through Berlin, dazed by the fact that Germany is now ruled by a woman and is home to millions of Turks. In one scene, the Nazi leader asks a group of boys for directions, addressing them as “Ronaldo Hitler youth”. He has mistaken their football shirts bearing the name of the soccer star as some kind of military uniform.
“Who’s the old guy?” the boys ask each other.
In a celebrity-obsessed world where success is often gauged by follower numbers on social networks or YouTube views, Hitler soon becomes the star of an entertainment show with a Turkish host. “You’re golden my dear! This is just the beginning, believe me,” his producer says.
The story, written in the first person, is dotted with rambling inner monologues like those in Mein Kampf, the treatise Hitler wrote in 1924 that Germany plans to reprint in two years, the first re-issue since 1945.
In the book, Hitler discovers jeans, tries to create an e-mail address (“Hitler89” referring to the year of his birth is already taken) and discovers cooking shows.
Such is the tone in the nearly 400-page novel by Timur Vermes, a 45-year-old journalist.
A farce in poor taste to some, a political satire to others, He’s Back has done well in bookstores. With a print run of 360,000, the book recently made Germany’s bestseller list and is set to be published in English and more than a dozen other languages.
The book makes its impact even before it is opened, with a cover that depicts Hitler’s block-like black parted hair and the title squeezed into the shape of his trademark square moustache. The hefty 19.33 (about RM81) price tag is a none-too subtle reference to the year the Nazi party leader came to power in Germany.
Vermes, a 46-year-old ghostwriter, says the confrontational nature of the book, which has so far sold over 400,000 copies, and tens of thousands of audiobooks, is deliberate at a time when Germans appear to be obsessed by Hitler.
“The fact is we have too much of a stereotype of Hitler,” he told German media. “He’s always the monster and we can be comforted by the fact that we’re different from him. But in reality he continues to spark real fascination in people, just as he did back then, when people liked him enough to help him commit crimes.”
The book is the “latest outgrowth of a Hitler commercialisation machine that breaks all taboos to make money”, wrote the weekly news magazine Stern.
Sales of the 400-page book do seem to be riding on the wave of commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power and it has beaten novels by Paulo Coelho and Ken Follett to steal the top slot in Germany’s book charts. Seventeen foreign licences have so far been sold, as well as the film rights. It is due to be published in Britain later this year.
Unthinkable even 10 years ago, Hitler is today increasingly the subject of German comedians and artists – including a comic film directed by a Jew and a burlesque musical comedy.
But this sudden popularity has triggered a mixed response by critics. “We laugh but it’s a laugh that sticks in the throat,” wrote Die Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Germany, it adds, “has a Hitler fixation which has taken on almost manic proportions. Hitler poses in reliable frequency on magazine covers, wanders like a ghost ... through the TV channels. ... Vermes satirises this ‘Hitleritis’, but his novel draws on it as well and even lends it a new dimension, that of not laughing about Hitler, but with Hitler.”
Daniel Erk, a journalist and Hitler expert, calls the phenomenon the “banalisation of evil”. –Agencies