Look Who’s Back isn’t a book on World War 2 per se; but it features two aspects that made me want to review it here – the presence of Adolf Hitler as the primary character, and the dark undertone of the book that reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same unless every person individually is willing to make a conscious choice to not repeat history but learn from it.
Originally published in 2012 (German title ‘Er ist Weider Da’) and translated to English in 2014, the book is based on this premise – what would happen if one of the most evil and hated person in history were somehow transported to the future with all their intellect and ambitions intact, and had everything the modern world offered at their disposal? Vermes takes on this challenge by transporting Hitler to 2011 at the exact moment of his death; the book is in first person, with the time travelling Hitler as the narrator as he suddenly wakes up in a deserted patch of land (purportedly the grounds around the Fuhrer Bunker where his corpse was burnt) with no memory of how he got there.
His initial attitude is that of confusion and bewilderment. The architecture, the cars, the clothing all are new and disconcerting, not to mention that there is nothing left of the Berlin or of the Germans he remembers. Indeed, his first view is of a majorly Turkish neighbourhood with shops and signs in Turkish, and he mistakes it for the Turks arriving at the last minute to help the beleaguered Germans win the War; a notion he is quickly disabused of. But, as ‘a leader chosen by Fate herself’ (his own words) he quickly adapts to and accepts the situation, even going as far as to interpret it as Fate giving him yet another chance to lead the good, kind German Volk to ultimate victory by having him work his way to the top again.
Of course, it isn’t that easy for him to simply proclaim himself to be who he is and be taken to the Chancellery. Everyone he passes on the streets thinks he is a remarkably accurate method actor portraying Hitler, and reacts to his completely serious comments with everything from mirth to admiration for the ‘method acting’. A helpful newspaper kiosk owner takes him for an actor down on his luck, and offers to put him in touch with some people he knows from the TV business while also allowing him to stay in the kiosk at night. The TV executives too, think of him as an eccentric actor refusing to break character at any time, and invite him for an audition.
Having determined that the television is going to be of immense help in his second attempt to rule the world, Hitler auditions as himself, and gets selected to appear on a comedy night show that specializes in parodies of foreigners. Everything he says and does, both on and off screen, is for him utterly natural and serious, but the people around him simply do not get that it could be anything but an act put on by one of the most accurate Hitler impersonators ever. At a time when presenting stereotypes as caricatures is the norm, he quickly rises in popularity, with his on-screen appearances and monologues being treated as a satirical yet somewhat truthful representation of society in general.
With Hitler’s rising fame come two things – a TV crew permanently allocated to film him as he goes about his day, commenting on everything from the state of the schools to the ineptitude of modern politicians, and a secretary to manage his correspondence. It is the secretary who introduces him to the most powerful weapon of today – the Internet. As he realizes the far reach and easy accessibility of the net, he receives the most perfect propaganda tool in the form of his own website (created for him by the TV studio, as a vehicle for his TV appearances) where all his videos can be viewed by anyone, and which allows him to communicate directly with anyone writing in to him. Soon, his video view count hits the low millions, and he is once again a celebrity in his own right.
Not everyone is enamored by him, though. A tabloid newspaper gets suspicious of the fact that he never drops character or that no one seems to know where he came from, and attacks him in a typically tabloid fashion, labelling him a hatemonger, bigot and racist (which surprises him, as that is exactly what he admits to being, and cannot fathom how it could be a bad thing). At first, Hitler refuses to respond to any of the allegations being levelled against him, but gets enraged when his secretary (who he counts on as one of his ‘first new loyalists’) gets caught in the cross-fire. His subsequent face to face interview with the tabloid reporter and the aftermath of a disastrous photo of the reporter paying the hotel bill catapult him to even greater heights of popularity.
The incident also gives him the support and genius of a TV executive, whose ingenuity and quick response in turning the tables on the tabloid makes Hitler remark, “This was the moment I first realized I no longer missed that genius Goebbels.” The executive quickly becomes his right-hand man, and Hitler is even more pleased when he sees his secretary get romantically involved with him.
Hitler’s success with his videos continue, with the crowning glory being his discovery of a current day Nationalist Party. In full uniform, followed by his TV crew, he storms their headquarters and absolutely loses it at the sight of the people running it and their cringe-worthy efforts at being ‘Nationalist’. In true Hitler manner, he cuts them to the quick, laying bare their empty ideology and cowardice, and denounces them as unworthy successors to the legacy of Hitler. All this is of course captured on camera, and when released for general viewing again reinforces the public’s belief that he is but an actor exposing society’s lacunae.
At this point in the story, the narrative visibly shifts from satire to the macabre. Hitler comes in one day to find his secretary submitting her resignation. After repeated enquiries, it comes out that her grandmother is Jewish, and upon realizing who she works for is disgusted and wants her to quit immediately. When she tries to mollify her by saying it is only satire, the astute grandmother comes back with, “That’s not satire. He’s just the same as Hitler always was. And people laughed then, too.” The secretary desperately wants to believe, for her grandmother’s sake, that this really is satire with the aim being “trying to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again” and beseeches Hitler to say it is so.
This causes the dark facets of Hitler to be revealed in all their twisted insanity; his steadfastness in holding the Jews responsible for all the ills that befell Germany, his (somewhat contradictory) belief that if sufficiently motivated and fanatical, one can purge the ‘Jewishness’ out of their system (he recalls Emil Maurice, one of his earliest supporters in the Nazi Party, whose great-grandfather was Jewish but he made up for it with ultra-fanatic loyalty to Hitler), and his ability to charm anyone by telling them exactly what they want to hear (while referring derisively to Helene Mayer, the only Jewish female fencer in the 1936 Olympics who was part of the German delegation). He demonstrates them by first convincing his secretary to continue working and then visiting her grandmother in person to tell her what a wonderful person her granddaughter is, thereby removing any possibility of a repeat occurrence.
Hitler status soon outgrows the TV show he is part of, with his website generating more hits than that of the actual show. Within a few months of his TV debut, he wins the prestigious Grimme-Preis (the German TV equivalent of the Emmys) for both the ‘expose’ of the Nationalist Party and emerging the winner of the conflict with the tabloid. This gets him is own TV show, aptly titled ‘The Fuhrer Speaks’. The set for the show is modelled on the conference room in the Wolf’s Lair, along with a briefcase placed next to the table’s leg and a tongue-in-cheek reference to Claus von Stauffenberg’s absence. Here, along with his stock-in-trade monologues he hosts speakers from various political parties and proceeds to shred their centrist ideologies while expounding on his own philosophy of Germany for Pure Germans. And all the while, his viewers keep growing in numbers, and the remarks of, “he isn’t entirely incorrect, you know” slowly start increasing in murmurs.
The modern Hitler seems well on his way to the top again, this time with the unstoppable power of the internet by his side. Between the shows, he fills his time with plans for rebuilding the country once again in a ‘pure, Aryan image’, but his schedule is shattered abruptly one snowy evening. On his way to a Wagnerian opera (a nod to his favourite composer), he is accosted by neo-Nazi thugs and beaten up badly. The thugs, like almost everyone else, have mistaken him for an actor impersonating Hitler and undermining the Nazi ideology by parodying them on TV, even going as far as to accuse him of being a Jew while pretending to be Hitler. The assault lands him in the hospital with several broken bones and bruises.
The assault seems to have a reverse ripple effect, with Hitler getting even more publicity for being beaten up by neo-Nazis, and every political party suddenly wants him on their side as the man who stood up to Nazism. This seems to be exactly the path that could once again see him gaining political power; but his right-hand man, the “TV Executive Goebbels” is much more far-sighted and provides a far more irresistible option – starting a political party of his own. The book ends with the planning of the party cadres and their campaign slogan – “It wasn’t all bad”.
When you begin reading, you look upon Look Who’s Back as a light, humourous, satire that makes you laugh at the initial buffoonery of Hitler as he stumbles and tries to get his bearings. By the end of it, though, you are no longer laughing. The mirth has been replaced by the memories of leaders both contemporary and in between who were initially laughed at but then did exactly what they said they would while riding on the crowds of people who, one by one, got pulled into supporting these leaders by hearing in jeweled tones exactly what they wanted to hear. What starts off as fiction quickly becomes a premonitory tale cautioning us that we are (were?) once again at the cusp of history from where we might not be able to return intact.
It is as Vermes himself has Hitler state in all seriousness on multiple occasions throughout the book, and with no one doubting him as he says it, “The Jews are no laughing matter”.