Laughing at Hitler.
That, it seems is the latest trend in Germany, where a bevy of recent books, plays, TV shows, and more portray the 20th-century Nazi leader not as a demon to be feared but as a fool to be mocked.
And one of the most eyebrow-raising among them, a German novel that re-imagines Hitler waking from a 66-year slumber and finding himself in modern-day Berlin, is about to be translated into English, introducing scores of English-speaking writers to an entirely new caricature of the Nazi dictator.
“Er Ist Wieder Da,” or “Look Who’s Back,” by Timur Vermes, will hit British bookshelves this April. The 400-page book is expected to do well. It sold more than a million copies in Germany, where it also fueled a ferocious debate.
As we reported in an earlier post, the book imagines Adolf Hitler finding himself in 21st-century Berlin, where he “is bewildered to find himself in a modern Germany ruled by a woman and populated by millions of Turks.” Gamely, however, a bemused Hitler “enters politics, discovers jeans and email, and becomes a modern-day celebrity complete with a role on a popular Turkish-German TV show.”
In the book, Germans think Hitler is an extra from a World War II film who stubbornly stays in character and begin attending comedy shows to see the “lookalike” perform. He gets more and more attention for his extreme views on such issues as abortion, German Muslims, and the female leader of his country until he becomes a YouTube sensation known as “loony YouTube Hitler.”
The point, of course, is that in modern Germany, Hitler is a laughingstock, an idiot.
German audiences, it turns out, have already been introduced to the idea of laughing at Hitler. When the English translation hits shelves April 3, it will, as NPR put it, “test how comfortable English-speaking audiences are with laughing about Hitler.”
Not surprisingly, the novel has its critics, including those who say it trivializes Hitler’s crimes by cracking jokes. Others call it tasteless or say it didn’t go far enough: “A mediocre joke that suddenly got successful,” author Daniel Erk said.
But its defenders insist the book forces readers to see Hitler in a different light.
“For decades, we learned to see him not as a human being but as a demon," Klaus Cäsar Zehrer, a German satirist and historian, told the Guardian. "Now that's changing, and he's tilting over into caricature: he used to be the ultimate villain, now he is the ultimate idiot."
Author Vermes says his book doesn’t necessarily set out to transform views – simply encourage readers to question their beliefs.
"Books don't have to educate or turn people into better human beings – they can also just ask questions. If mine makes some readers realize that dictators aren't necessarily instantly recognizable as such, then I consider it a success."
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.