When’s the last time you’ve laughed out loud reading a book? I don’t mean smiled, smirked or chuckled, but had to put it down because you’re really, seriously, audibly cracking up. When you read as I do, which often involves sitting in public spaces, this is as embarrassing as it is exciting. And then finished that very book not laughing but feeling deeply unsettled? Timur Vermes’ novel, Look Who’s Back, is that book.
The “who” is Adolf Hitler, the former Fuhrer, leader of Germany from 1933-1945. And he is back. Herr Hitler killed himself, then was doused in gasoline. Up until that point, the history’s the same one we recognize. But then he woke up. In uniform, soaked through and stinking of petroleum. He’s still where he was, when he was about to be cremated: in Berlin. But not when he was. It’s 2011. Dusting himself off, the Fuhrer begins investigating, trying to make sense of this reawakening.
He has no memory of any suicide. Just fuzziness from the last few hours in his bunker, then nothingness until 2011. He’s stunned to find himself in a Turkish neighborhood, and makes sense of events through the only lenses he has: His own.
“Myriad colorful papers hung on the outside wall—in Turkish. I must have been unconscious for a significant period of time, during which waves of Turks had descended on Berlin. Remarkable! After all, the Turk, essentially a loyal ally of the German Volk, had persisted in remaining neutral… But now it seemed as if during my absence someone—Dönits, I imagine—had convinced the Turk to lend us his support. Moreover, the comparatively peaceful atmosphere on the streets suggested that the deployment of Turkish forces had brought about a decisive turning point in the war.”
The Fuhrer begins to believe Fate has given him a second chance to conquer the world and build a thousand-year Reich, this one lasting the remaining 988 years. But, of course, the last time he knew anything about Europe, it was 1945; the world has changed. Drastically. Consider Herr Hitler, continuing to try to understand why there are so many Turks in Germany:
“Yes, I had always harbored respect for the Turk, but would never have imagined him capable of such an achievement. On the other hand, a lack of time had precluded my having followed the development of that country in any great detail. Kemal Atatürk’s reforms must have given the nation a sensational boost. … Full of confidence, my heart was now pounding. My refusal to abandon faith in ultimate victory, even in the deepest, darkest hour of the Reich, had paid off. Four or five Turkish-language publications, all printed in bright colors, were unmistakable proof of a new, triumphant Berlin-Ankara axis.”
When Hitler does discover that it is, in fact, the early 21st century, he is dismayed, confused, but not depressed: Merely planning another run. Which will be hard.
The Nazi Party is long since forgotten. Everything he stands for has been rebuked. Everyone he meets presumes he is some kind of fantastic artist who never leaves, abandons or steps out of character; method acting taken to its national socialist extreme. The resulting encounters are, unfortunately, delicious, whether because of Hitler’s attempt to impose a genocidal worldview on a planet that was formed in reaction to and repudiation of him, or others’ failure to understand his furious indignation, or even consternation about his views.
After all, what would you think—Hitler’s actually alive? That this isn’t some comic performance of wonderfully perfect caricature, but the actual dictator himself? (Early on, he learns not to talk about the Jews—though, for him, this is no change of heart, merely of tactic.) Hitler becomes a minor celebrity; in the meanwhile, he probes Germany for its weak points, tries to imagine how he might find some ins, some strategies by which he can transform a television show and a robust online persona into a launchpad for the next World War.
Can it be done? Have we come too far? Vermes’ book is an achievement not only for its sophisticated comedy, dark satire and well-researched wit, but also because he’s done something we should not—humanize Hitler—to do something we must—that which happened before can happen again. If we claim we cannot understand where evil comes from, then we must assume there is no way we can stop it from happening again. It just happens. It recurs, eternally, as Nietzsche felt history did. Maybe the new Jews are the “immigrants.”
Maybe his bluster and forceful language (remind you of anyone?) will conquer as it did before.
We talk about Nazism a lot, but did we learn the right lessons?
Yes, a point was reached when the Nazis could only ever be opposed by force. But had it not been for the way Germany had been treated after the First World War, that Second World War may not have been necessary. Societies that are attacked, beaten down and brutalized develop evil. It is not the essence of a religion or culture so much as the right confluence of perceptions and conditions that enable a strongman to rise.
Yes, the Nazis were evil, and struck first. But maybe Chamberlain was not a coward, but a hero, for letting them. A preemptive strike might have backfired spectacularly. Had the Western allies attacked Hitler first, perhaps he would have never turned on Stalin and, indeed, Stalin, fearing he would be the next target after Germany, would have done whatever he could to have prevented Hitler from falling. Hitler could have concentrated full force on Western Europe. Without the Russians, could we have won? Had we attacked first, would the German people have been able to repudiate Nazism, or nursed another unclosing wound, as they did after Versailles?
That which has happened before can happen again.
Will it happen again?
Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is the author of “The Order of Light” and “My First Police State.” His memoir, “How to be Muslim”, is due in 2016. He’s a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, formerly a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, and a member of the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Connect with Haroon on twitter @hsmoghul. The views expressed here are his own.