GENEVA - He’s back. Adolf Hitler is back, in a book by Timur Vermes – a comedy in which Hitler returns to Berlin in the summer of 2011. The book, which has reached the top of the German bestseller list, is causing much controversy in a country that would rather forget it has been 80 years since Hitler rose to power on Jan. 30, 1933.
August 2011. An old man wakes up in a Berlin vacant lot. Lying on the ground, he sees only the blue sky above him, and is surprised when he hears chirping birds – signaling a pause in combat. The man has a headache; he doesn’t understand where he is or how he got there. He tries to remember what he did the day before – his amnesia cannot be explained by alcohol: the Fuhrer doesn’t drink! He searches for his faithful side-kick, Martin Bormann, to no avail.
Hitler gets up with difficulty, and heads toward three Hitler Youth boys, who are probably on leave since they aren’t wearing their uniform and are playing ball. “Hey old man, take a look at this! Who is this old man?” I must look very bad, thinks the Fuhrer while noting the absence of the mandatory Nazi salute.
“Where is Bormann?” he worries again. “Who is that?” “Bormann! Martin Bormann!” “Don’t know him, what’s he looks like?” “Like a leader of the Reich, damn!” Hitler looks at the three young boys again. They are wearing colorful jerseys. “Hitler Youth Ronaldo! Where is the nearest street?” No reaction. He then turns towards the youngest of them, who points to a corner of the lot.
Hitler arrives on the street, gasping – he has never seen so many vehicles. And where are the piles of rubble that were littering the streets the day before? A cyclist, wearing a helmet with holes in it, almost runs him over and insults him. A woman with a futuristic stroller shrugs while he tells her to take shelter from the Russians, so that she can save the honor of the German race.
At the kiosk on the corner, Hitler looks for his favorite newspaper, the Völkisch Observer. He sees only Turkish newspapers… “Strange, the Turks had stayed out of the conflict until now, despite our many attempts to rally them to our cause.” As he reads the date on the paper – August 30, 2011 – he faints.
The owner of the kiosk thinks he is dealing with an actor from a television series. Hitler can stay with him for a few days. “But don’t steal anything, ok?” Hitler is outraged. “Do I look like a criminal?” “You look like Hitler,” responds the kiosk owner. “Exactly!” replies the Fuhrer.
One day, as he is selling newspapers, the dictator is “discovered” by a television production company. The producers see “enormous potential in him.” They sign him on, give him an office, a secretary, a smartphone – whose ringtone he manages to set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” He tries to create an email account but “Hitler89” is already taken… The success of the TV show is astounding. Hitler works for a company where success is measured in terms of audience and Facebook “likes.” He becomes a famous comedian: “You are worth gold, my dear! This is only the beginning, believe me!” his producer congratulates him.
“Never seen so much Hitler...”
“This book is so funny that you can’t let go,” says Peter Hetzel, a German TV book critic. In fact, the book is unexpectedly successful, despite its high price – 19.33 euros, an allusion to the year Hitler rose to power – and length – 396 pages written in the dry and dark style of “Mein Kampf,” with rambling inner monologues.
“Verme’s Hitler finds himself in a society where laughing at him is a sign of the fact that it has long faced its past. But, it is also a society that has understood that it is not necessary to get rid of the past,” writes German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
With a print run of 360,000, the book, “Er Ist Wieder Da,” (“He’s Back”) has been at the top of the bestseller list for weeks. It will be published in French, English and in 15 other languages, soon, and the German media is already talking about a movie deal.
This is not the first time that Hitler has been recycled by humorists and artists. Charles Chaplin was the first to ridicule the Fuhrer in his 1940 movie “The Dictator.”
Yet Timur Verme’s novel created much controversy in Germany. Daniel Erk, author of the “So Viel Hitler War Selten” (“We Have Never Seen So Much Hitler”), a book that criticizes what he calls “mainstreaming evil,” is worried about the multiplication of comedies about the Third Reich. “Instead of asking why there is still such a profound anti-Semitism in German society today, we continue to say this crazy man is only person to blame. This is how Germans absolve themselves of any wrong-doing and responsibility. This Hitler is the sole person responsible for the war and genocide,” he says.
Timur Vermes says this is exactly why he wrote this book. In it, he describes a Hitler who is scared, who worries when the public, who does not fear him, resists him.
“We don’t have too much Hitler,” says Vermes. “We have too many Hitler stereotypes, which are always the same – the monster that enables us to reassure ourselves. I too, for a long time accepted this vision of Hitler. But this vision is not enough. Hitler continues to have a real fascination. If so many people helped him commit his crimes, it is because they liked him. People don’t elect a nut job. They elect someone whom they are attracted to and that they admire. To present him as a monster is to call those voted for him idiots. And that reassures us. We tell ourselves that today we are smarter. We would never elect a monster or a clown. But at the time, people where just as smart as us – this is what is so painful."
Vermes concludes: "Often, we tell ourselves that if a new Hitler came along, it would be easy to stop him. I tried to show the opposite – that even today, Hitler might be successful. Just in a different way.”
Vermes’ book shows how, in 21st century Germany, a demagogue would have a chance – the ways to conquer the masses have changed, they have modernized. But the intention stays the same. One German book critic summed it up this way: “Vermes holds a mirror to German society which, despite the laughter. shows an unflattering image.”
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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