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Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes: Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Germany today

Book cover of Look Who’s Back.

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I bought Timur Vermes’ book, Look Who’s Back, as an ebook just because I felt uncomfortable about the looks that I might get for reading a book that has an outline of Hitler’s famous comb-over and the title molded into his iconic moustache.

The main idea behind the book is that Hitler miraculously comes back to life in modern-day Berlin. It is a melding of old and new, past and present. The book is peppered with dark humour and satire. It is also filled with known (heavily researched and discussed) Nazi ideologies that are palmed off as comedy at its darkest.

There were four things that stood out for me in this book:

– The Führer is nothing without the Volk.

– How far are you willing to go to stand your moral ground?

– Could we recognise a Hitler-like figure in today’s world?

– Dark comedy seems to be a common coping mechanism for Germans when reflecting on WWII.

Through Vermes use of first-person narration, the reader is given the opportunity to develop an uncomfortable bond with Hitler. I feel the choice of having Hitler as the narrator was deliberate for two reasons. As previously mentioned, it fostered an awkward relationship with the reader and secondly, it allows us to see the modern world through Hitler’s 1945 eyes.

When Hitler is questioned about his involvement in the WWII and the Third Reich, he brings up an interesting statement: the Führer is nothing without the Volk. As we know, Hitler was elected democratically by the German people to serve the German people. He had written a book that outlined all of his intentions, sinister and otherwise, and when he was elected he set himself on a path that allowed him to achieve all that he had hoped for the German Volk. He was a politician who kept his word. Right down to every last Jew.

Most Germans and in fact people who experienced WWII and the Holocaust have passed away. They leave behind shattered memories of war, destruction, murder, and helplessness. On the one hand, many Jewish families have passed down the trauma of the Holocaust through their families. On the other, many Germans have passed down their guilt from WWII to their children and their children’s children. But when should it end? When does a country stop paying for the sins of its forefathers and foremothers? We only need to look at the reactions to Germany’s win against Brazil in the World Cup this year to see that Nazi rhetoric still haunts Germany.

What does Look Who’s Back suggest about Germany’s modern day Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past)? I feel that this book shows that Germany is still coming to terms with its past, and that I am not sure if it ever will.

When Hitler has his T.V. ‘comedy’ appearance, he shares the show with a comedian Gagmez. Gagmez plays the typical immigrant stereotype. After Hitler’s first performance, Gagmez is outraged by Hitler’s remarks. He complains loudly and often about Hitler taking ‘comedy’ too far. Yet, in the end Gagmez does not stand up to Hitler. In fact, in the book Hitler says that if he were Gagmez he would not have budged a single inch. He would have stood his moral ground and faced death, jail, and violence to stand up for what he fanatically believed. The scenes that make up this section of the plot had me wondering about the lengths to which I would go for my own morals.

Gagmez represents many of us. We have a passion or an ideal for our society, but we do not push the issue as much as we could. We all have moral compasses – ones that I hope all point in more or less the same direction – and yet in many instances, we are too quick to turn away, to say ‘Well it’s not happening to me.’ Which brings me to my next point about this scenario with Gagmez and Hitler; can we learn something from Hitler? I realise that I’m going into treacherous waters here, but I think that we can. Hitler fought for terrible ideologies, so much so that he started a world war. We need to fight back against these horrible forms of oppression with as much passion and unshakable will. It’s something to think about at least.

I think one of the most interesting questions that the book proposes is: could we recognise Hitler today? Would we be able to see him for what he was? The end of Vermes book suggests that we would not. Hitler slowly rises to power. Despite receiving a beating from some far-right thugs he is offered a new show with a bigger budget, a lucrative book deal, and a huge salary increase. It would not be far fetched to image that Look Who’s Back: Part II might chronicle Hitler’s rise to power, again.

Hitler is able to manipulate everyone around him in a very cold and calculating way. He does not really feel empathy in the way that others seem to, yet he knows the correct social cues for it. In the book, he is able to convince a Jewish grandmother to let her granddaughter to continue to work as his secretary.

The whole book seems to play on the idea of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. In fact, Hitler says on several occasions that people should call him Uncle Wolf. The idea of the wolf also brings me to one of Germany’s most famous fairytales; Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf is able to deceive Little Red Riding Hood almost until the end. The appearance of the Lumberjack is what saves her in the end. But is it safe to wait for a Lumberjack to save us? Or do we need to be more savvy?

Lastly, I wanted to talk about using comedy in remembering trauma. I always feel that comedy exists in the grey areas of our humanity. Some people say that comedy is pain with time. But is the war a joking matter? Several times in the book the phrase, ‘The Jews are no laughing matter,’ comes up. And indeed, there are no jokes about the Holocaust made in the book.

I feel that the Holocaust and WWII, while intertwined with one another, have their own discourses. I think that laughing about WWII is widely more acceptable than laughing about the Holocaust. Personally, I don’t think either are very funny.

Approximately 60 million people died in WWII. Germans and Austrians are told each year in school that their countries committed terrible atrocities. The schools also rarely discuss other historical events. Many younger Germans and Austrians feel frustrated by this. They are told over and over again that their country is bad. And if their country is bad, what are they? So for many, comedy is the only way they can feel any relief from the guilt being placed upon them. Whether it’s right or wrong.

I think that Vermes’ book reflects a German society struggling to come to terms with its past. But it also shows a country struggling to come to terms with how it deals with the past. I’m not sure if Vermes book could have existed before now, but I feel that its existence gives us a new way to discuss issues of remembrance, guilt, and coping with the past.

Now more than ever, we need to talk about how the past reflects the present and how we can unlearn past wrongs and move towards a better future. As always, share the reading love.

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2 thoughts on “Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes: Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Germany today

    • Hitler is shown for what he is/was. However, the people around him see him as a comedian. I think the first person narrator distorts how he is presented since the narrative is coming from Hitler’s voice.