Fiction and the Fuhrer: How Far is Too Far?

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So there’s this book that is being translated into English called Er Ist Wieder Da, or Look Who’s Back.  Written by German writer Timur Vermes, it’s a satirical book narrated in the voice of Hitler waking from a coma in modern day Berlin.  In Look Who’s Back, the people of Berlin assume that Hitler is a comedian who refuses to break his character.  Throughout the course of the narrative, Hitler rises in popularity, becoming a TV celebrity with his own YouTube channel.  He even creates his own political party.  Not surprisingly, Vermes’ book is causing quite the controversy.

I’ll admit it, I’m curious.  I mean, it’s a fascinating choice for a narrator.  However, I have to wonder:

When it comes to serious historical events and fiction, how far is too far?

Hitler in the Media

Hitler has been haunting our collective unconscious through media outlets for years.  Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges and even Disney have their own versions of Hitler as a buffoon.  If you’ve ever watched “The Great Dictator,” you’ll see Hitler portrayed as a moron who doesn’t seem all that dangerous. There are actually quite a few of these portrayals–especially prior to Hitler’s death.

One Disney cartoon called “Education for Death” has some particularly interesting depictions of Hitler:

Even more fascinating: after Hitler’s death, the overarching message in the media shifts from satirical figure to satanic monster.  Of course, in any media representation, we have to consider bias and context.   It is impossible to represent real historical figures with complete truth or accuracy.

This steady output of Hitler representation begs the question:

If there is already so much in the media about Hitler floating around out there, why is there such an uprising in regards to Look Who’s Back?

Nobody Wants to Root for Hitler

Vermes is quoted in The Guardian as saying that “If [Look Who’s Back] makes some readers realize that dictators aren’t necessarily instantly recognizable as such, then I consider it a success.”

This got me thinking.  It’s true, I think, that the message Vermes aims to promote is an important one to convey.  It’s also an uncomfortable notion.  This is probably why there is a lot of uproar right now about Look Who’s Back.

Reading a book that is narrated from the first person has the effect of bringing the reader close to the narrator–whether they want it or not.  When that person is the one and only Fuhrer, well…things are bound to get kind of awkward when you inexplicably find yourself trapped in the mind of a guy who committed horrifying acts.  Am I right?

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WW2 Propaganda Poster

But here’s the real kicker: while I do think that first person point of view humanizes the narrator, I doubt that Vermes is trying to make us feel any kind of sympathy for Hitler.  I just think he’s trying to remind us that Hitler was human (albeit a really evil one).

The Other Guys

If we take Vermes’ notion of the dictator a little further, this humanization of Hitler takes on a whole new meaning.  Edward Said has this literary theory about Otherness called Orientalism, or the representation of a person or group of people as different–and often evil–in literary fiction.  The reason for this Othering?  A cultural need for distancing; it is the equivalent of Us and Them and what it does is clearly show just how different that other person/group really is.

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Jan Lievens

Othering is a way of creating feelings of superiority.  It’s wrapped around that feeling of relief that we aren’t like that, so nothing so heinous as following an evil dictator could ever happen to us.

I think Look Who’s Back takes this idea of the Other and issues a challenge to this way of thinking.  The message? By humanizing someone who was so terrible, he forces the reader to face the reality that humans can do very bad things and sometimes people get duped into following them.

How Far is too Far?

I’d like to think that there is a clear answer to this question, but there isn’t.  There is the problem of translation too, being that Look Who’s Back is originally written in German.  Will the story translate well across the continents? Across all nationalities?   Vermes’ book crosses lines by portraying Hitler in both a comedic and potentially humanizing light.  At the same time, it might just be an uncomfortable enough literary experience to issue an insight that is difficult to hear: monsters are man-made.

Would you read Look Who’s Back?  Or is Vermes going too far with his comedic portrayal of Hitler?