(Note to readers: Spoilers to follow.)
“[England should have been our closest ally.] It remains a mystery to me why that last relationship never worked out. How many bombs would we have had to drop on their cities before they realized that we were friends?” — “Look Who’s Back,” by Timur Vermes, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Beneath the frequent, funny one-liners like the one just quoted, Look Who’s Back offers a disturbing look at not so much our past, but at our present. It’s the story of what happens when Adolph Hitler mysteriously appears in full military uniform, stinking of gasoline, in 2011 Germany.
Told from Hitler’s point of view, the novel reveals his fanatical character and his brutal assessment of modern Western culture — but the commentary is not as one-sided as you might think. Though Hitler is a monster, there is enough humanity in him to make him understandable and at times, even likable. And while his political views are extreme (to say the least), there is enough truth in them to make them seem at times reasonable.
For instance, Hitler has this to say about modern politicians.
“I am not often mistaken. On the contrary, I am very seldom mistaken. This is one of the advantages of not entering the political fray until one had had some proper experience of life — and let me here emphasize the word “proper.” These days there seems to be no end of the self-styled politicians who, having stood behind a shop counter for an entire fifteen minutes, or once peered through an pen door into a factory hall, now think they know what real life looks like.”
Career politicians are a clear and present danger, to be sure. Grassroots movements to implement term limits have come and gone over the years, but one can’t help but wonder if it would take a fanatic to put an end to political careerism, since elected representatives and appointed officials have a vested interest in staying in power and are ready, willing and able to do so. Does it take a monster to slay a monster? I hope not, but as Hitler verbally shreds one career politician after another, it seems evident that given the means, he could do in a few hours what the democratic process has been unable to do over the course of several decades.
If Hitler is extreme in his ideological rigidity, have we become extreme in our ideological laxity? If Hitler is extreme in his moral resoluteness, have we become extreme in our decadence? These and other uncomfortable questions crop up again and again, as they apply to one issue after another.
Taken by the public as an actor 100 percent committed to staying in character, Hitler quickly becomes a TV and YouTube superstar — although to the vast majority he is interpreted as a satirist. But, as he repeats his message over and over, we see a gradual warming, a gradual coming around to his way of thinking. It is a rather frightening development.
My father, who grew up during World War II, told me to be alert, that a Hitler could rise up here in the U.S. overnight. I used to think that was impossible, but now …
Democratic rule requires informed, engaged, and to a certain extent, disciplined citizens. And while ultimately Look Who’s Back depicts Hitler as the monster he was, the book also paints the public as generally uninformed, unengaged and undisciplined. The conditions of 2011, as Hitler instantly sees, are more favorable to his gaining power than they were in the Weimar Republic.