What-if scenarios involving Hitler and World War II are pretty common in fiction, often involving the creation of alternate histories to account for potential plotholes or timeline problems. In Look Who’s Back, Timur Vermes keeps it simple: everything is exactly as we know it in real life, except that Hitler somehow wakes up in present-day Germany (or 2011, the year of the book’s publication in that country) having inexplicably and unintentionally traveled 66 years through time.
Vermes writes from the first-person perspective of this confused character, documenting his journey to understand the modern world and his attempts to regain influence. He finds success easier than anticipated, thanks to a population that refuses to believe he is who he claims to be but remains fascinated with Hitler’s infamy.
Vermes focuses most of his attention on the media, offering a criticism of modern celebrity and the news media’s role in maintaining it. He portrays journalistic publications as abdicating their responsibility to analyze or critique, instead prioritizing popularity and attention at the expense of all else. So we get a view of a society that is basically not paying enough proper attention to the things it is paying attention to: 2011 Hitler is able to gain momentum and esteem because no one believes something like the rise of Nazism could ever be possible again. They relax their moral and critical faculties and unknowingly begin to support the return of a perpetrator of genocide.
There is something in here worth examining, but Vermes might unfortunately be perpetuating the thing he satirizes. Look Who’s Back misses a more harrowing reality: the persistence, and recent rise, of far-right politics in Europe (and the United States, though this isn’t in the book’s purview). Vermes seems to think the substance of the political argument his Hitler makes is less important than the nature of the news cycle and a cultural obsession with celebrity, but the effect of this narrow focus is to absolve modern European populations of their continued interest in, and commitment to, white nationalist politics. Sequences in the book that incorporate actual neo-Nazis tend to depict them as weak, irrelevant, boorish, and peripheral to society. Perhaps avowed neo-Nazis are still a relative rarity in electoral politics (though Golden Dawn isn’t going anywhere), but racist, authoritarian platforms are more popular now than they were just a decade ago, and they continue to gain legitimacy through conventional political means.
In Vermes’ depiction, 2011 Hitler gains fame and potential influence because audiences are not taking his message seriously enough; he basically swindles his fans into supporting a rebirth of National Socialism. I think the more realistic and more pressing concern is that there are many millions of people in the EU and the US who take this spectrum of politics very, very seriously. Far-right populism is not growing as a result of a failure of voters to recognize the ramifications of their political choices, but because voters are knowingly and repeatedly making those choices. Nobody misunderstands the messaging of parties like UKIP, National Front, Alternative for Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria, and similar groups. While these parties may not identify as fascist or neo-Nazi, they pursue an aggressive nationalism with distressing historical precedent.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is the easy parallel here, and readers sympathetic to Vermes’ perspective will likely see Look Who’s Back as especially prescient. Trump’s celebrity fueled the news media’s initial coverage, his controversial opinions earned him notoriety and continued attention, audiences tuned in to his campaign to see what he might say next, and there was a general sense, in the liberal American consensus, that he wasn’t worth taking seriously. Now, he has the Republican nomination in hand and is a genuine contender for the presidency.
The problem with this reference point is that Trump’s supporters always took him seriously. If mainstream news outlets and beltway politicians dismissed his political viability, that was their own error. Trump’s blatant racism and appeals to strongman-style authority were appreciated as legitimate by American voters long before he became the presumptive nominee; their sincerity is exactly what made him the nominee. Trump rose to the status of flagbearer of the Republican party because he made direct appeals to xenophobic, bigoted, and violent statism that his audiences received in good faith. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand contemporary political reality.
I don’t want to argue entirely against the idea of the media’s complicity here. Our present media environment made Trump’s ascent far easier than it should have been. It’s important when making this assessment, however, not to underestimate the real popularity of the policies and beliefs Trump espouses.
This is sort of a weird position to be arguing from, because I think the news media has done a generally terrible job of dealing with Trump – their relentless, generous coverage of him is absolutely helping him, and they deserve a considerable portion of blame. But in Look Who’s Back, Vermes presents this as the primary problem, which I’m not sure it is. To place all the of blame on the media exclusively is to ignore the actuality of far-right politics.
Vermes does draw some connections to current conditions, particularly when he portrays 2011 Hitler’s audiences as being unable to distinguish his rhetoric from satire. By placing Hitler’s introduction of his platform during a show associated with “provocative” racist humor that audiences already find entertaining, Vermes suggests an unsettling and receding distinction between the two. His followers’ continued reluctance to acknowledge the intent behind his words eventually finds them saluting and sieg heiling in perceived jest, not realizing the actual exchange occurring. Over the course of the novel, though, this draws the author’s attention less than the mechanics of Hitler’s return to the national stage, or his cluelessness about modern technology and societal norms.
I think Vermes’ intended purpose with this strategy is to demystify Hitler through comedy by placing him in mundane situations, by placing the reader in the headspace of a mythically evil person and discovering his self-narrative’s structural similarities to their own. This also has the effect of revealing how views that are considered culturally repugnant can be expressed in routine fashion, which helps these views become intractable over time. I guess a reader could also get a lot of this, without the comedy, from reading Mein Kampf, but that might be a bridge too far for a lot of people. Plus, Look Who’s Back is shorter than the other one.
And so Vermes recognizes an unfortunate truth about cultural discourse concerning Hitler, which is that it has largely – not necessarily by intention – placed him outside the realm of tangible history. Hitler’s own self-mythologizing and the iconography of the Nazis assisted here, of course. But in our cultural imagination, Hitler often seems to exist as a kind of 20th century legend, as a dictator so evil as to be inhuman. Vermes attempts to counter this in an oblique way, using satire to bring readers to consider Hitler on more solid footing.
In a certain sense, this ends up being an indirect argument against making comparisons between Donald Trump and Hitler. If Hitler does occupy a mythic, unreal position in cultural history, then comparing Trump to him effectively removes Trump’s proposals from serious consideration. By placing Hitler at such a remove from the realm of political possibility, we invite a flat dismissal of any comparison that suggests any common ideological framework between the two of them. A Hitler comparison allows audiences to stop taking an argument seriously. It derails any discussion into a debate about whether or not it’s appropriate to compare anyone to Hitler, or into the specifics of whether or not Trump’s platform is similar enough to Hitler’s to warrant such a suggestion. Lost in this sort of discourse is attention to the real, concrete threat Trump’s miserable politics pose to people in the US and the rest of the world, and what can be done to oppose him.
Vermes hopes that, instead of believing history to be unrepeatable, we will see the rise of a person like Hitler (or maybe Trump) and stop them somehow, rather than allowing ourselves to be infatuated with the excitement of an entertainment marathon. This is a worthy fight, but fascism doesn’t shift from taboo to acceptable within a news cycle. If it appears to happen that way, it’s because fascism was never that taboo to begin with. Vermes is right in identifying the media’s role in assisting dangerous politics, but that complicity is a component, not the entirety, of a larger system that tolerates and even encourages a certain level of fascist inclination in its politics. That this tendency might one day boil over, as it currently threatens to do across Europe and the United States, should warrant a reckoning not just with the news media but with our entire sociopolitical structure.