By Timur Vermes
Audiobook, read by Christoph Maria Herbst
Genre: satire, humour, contemporary
Berlin, Summer 2011. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground, alive and well. Things have changed – no Eva Braun, no Nazi party, no war. Hitler barely recognises his beloved Fatherland, filled with immigrants and run by a woman.
People certainly recognise him, albeit as a flawless impersonator who refuses to break character. The unthinkable, the inevitable happens, and the ranting Hitler goes viral, becomes a YouTube star, gets his own T.V. show, and people begin to listen. But the Führer has another programme with even greater ambition – to set the country he finds a shambles back to rights.
This book takes a very, very unfunny historical public figure, adds a fish-out-of-water scenario, and delivers it all with a nice pinch of subdued criticism of German society and people in general; it tackles the issues Germany fought over in politics at the time this book was published (just a few years ago, so it is very current) and makes it clear there are always enough people willing to embrace extremist views. It is a cautionary tale and a satire, so I do not think it makes light of the horror Hitler unleashed in the world. If anything, it warns us of the seductive power of truisms, simplifications, general statements, demagogy, and extreme patriotism and nationalism.
“But with superior morale, with an unwavering, fanatical spirit, everything is possible!”
Oh, it is funny as hell, making you laugh at Hitler’s inner monologue and pompousness, but you never lose sight of his dark nature. He may be without power, lost in the modern world and utterly unfamiliar with new technology, but his ideas are as dangerous and destructive as always. The book in no way sugar-coats him or his reign; no, it states many, many times just how monstrous he was and still remains. He is a man obsessed with the idea of his superiority, his brilliant intellect, and right. He is the saviour of Germany and all Aryans – not that anyone ever asked it of him. He may be seen as a caricature, a laughingstock figure for his outdated ideas, yet underneath it all, he has enough drive and cunning to exploit people’s complaints to grab power for himself once again.
“What irritates me most of all about these morning people is their horribly good temper, as if they have been up for three hours and already conquered France.”
He hates morning people, immigrants, laments the need for recycling since this indicates a lack of resources for the German people, chafes under new regulations (for example, all dogs must be on a leash), bemoans the dismantling of the Propaganda ministry, criticises journalist; in fact the list of his complaints is endless.
“We all know, of course, what to make of our newspapers. The deaf man writes down what the blind man has told him, the village idiot edits it, and their colleagues in the other press houses copy it. Each story is doused afresh with the same stagnant infusion of lies, so that the “splendid” brew can then be served up to a clueless Volk.”
He is still sore about the rejection by art critics, how his generals did not see his brilliant tactical mind and always complained, and the way his orders were not followed. I was horrified how he talked about his orders for total destruction of all factories, cities, power plants, so that the enemy would get absolutely nothing when conquering Germany… but he is very happy with his architect, and one of his bureaucrats nobody remembers nowadays.
“The Reichsmark was no longer legal tender, even though others—probably some clueless dilettantes on the side of the victorious powers—had clearly adapted my plan to turn it into a European-wide currency. At any rate, transactions were now being carried out in an artificial currency called “euro,” regarded, as one would expect, with a high level of mistrust. I could have told those responsible that this would be the case.”
Er ist Wider Da is a brilliant book, but I hoped the people would realise Hitler is not acting, but being truthful about his ideas and opinions. Of course, it is a fantastical scenario – how could a man thought dead be real? Nazis were a thing of the past, something one learns in school, so it is ok to make fun of them or use them as a comedic prop. People around the newly resurrected Hitler were amazed at the accuracy of his portrayal and they found him funny; maybe scary at times, but funny for his outdated ideas. He instead was basically exploiting their desire to make money to get on TV and get a wider public to infect with his hatred.
“And as for appearing in swimming trunks—well, that is the most preposterous thing imaginable. You couldn’t dissuade Mussolini from doing it. And more recently that suspect Russian leader has been doing it too. An interesting fellow, no question, but as far as I am concerned it is a foregone conclusion: the moment a politician removes his shirt, his policies are dead in the water. All he will say is, “Look, my dear fellow countrymen, I have made the most extraordinary discovery: my policies look better without a shirt on.”
I wish more people stood up to him in the book, but then again he learned very fast how to exploit the free speech rights of our times. I was appalled but in no way surprised. It is the same thing that’s happening nowadays, only we haven’t wised up to it. Knowing about Hitler and his crimes makes it easier to see the truth or read between the lines. You know he’s bullshitting everyone and that he doesn’t care a whiff about Germany, but his own position and power. He demands to be the Nr.1, the most brilliant, powerful man. And by the end of the book, he is getting frighteningly near to his goals once again.
“One must choose the appropriate moment to crush one’s political opponent. Not when he has nothing to say. But when he is attempting to say something,”
My German reading skills have somewhat atrophied in recent years, so I chose the audio book version. The narration by Christoph Maria Herbst is utterly brilliant. He nails the cadence of the Fuehrer’s speech, his impassionate narration and skills for public speaking. He makes you sit up and listen, just as the Nazi leader did to the masses in those times. It was frightening to experience just a small portion of the ideology and fanaticism Germany was subjected to in the 30’s. I still hated Hitler’s guts, but I could laugh at the funny parts without feeling guilty or in any way complicit with his ideas. I also think that translation would distort his voice – I wanted to experience him in German language.
It worked a bit too well; I couldn’t get the speech pattern out of my mind and my inner voice started to sound suspiciously like the Fuehrer. Even when reading English! On the other hand, the use of Hitler’s voice by the narrator made the distinction between spoken German of today and his harsh language all the more obvious. I could never understand how people describe German as a harsh language, but if all they ever heard was the soldier speak of the Nazis, well, I would say it sounds like hammering nails as well. Of course normal German sounds the opposite, but don’t let me start on the butchered version many immigrants speak. I hate that ‘dialect’, it just sounds wrong, all harsh sounds and wrong sentence intonation patterns. Herbst was one of the best narrators I’ve ever listened to, so kudos to him.
“To begin with I thought we were driving around in circles until I realised that Herr Starbuck owned dozens of coffee houses.”
There is a movie adaptation of the book currently playing in Germany. It is a rolling success with a mix of documentary, movie, and comedy. Here’s the trailer in German: