Look Who’s Back

lookwhosbackPublished: 2014
Author: Timur Vermes

A biting satire – but where’s the challenge to Nazism?


When I’m reading a book for review or watching a film I usually have a good idea at about the midway point what my rating will be. Sometimes that changes – when I was watching Dark Shadows for example my patience got thinner as the film progressed and I started knocking points off its rating because it was becoming increasingly annoying. Usually though my gut reaction wins out in the end. Problems come when I can’t settle on a score, when I’m pulled in various directions at one time. I’ve found this to be the case with Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back. A hit in Germany, this satirical novel is published in the UK on 3rd April 2014.

One summer day in 2011 Adolf Hitler (yes, THAT Adolf Hitler) wakes up on the ground in Berlin, apparently well and healthy despite the 65 years that have passed since his last public appearance. Progress over the decades does not suit the Fuhrer and he sets about trying to convince the people of Germany that he has returned to them and that the Reich will be built again. Despite his seriousness he is regarded as a satirical comedian and becomes a media hit.
The intention of Look Who’s Back is to satirise today’s media culture where people can become celebrities despite their apparent lack of talent or their objectionable views. To that extent the book works brilliantly well, the media as a whole – particularly television – is roundly mocked and the absurdity of the situation is made clear. Vermes certainly hits his target straight on in an amusing way.

So far so good, it should be easy enough for me to score as an excellently drawn satire on the ridiculous nature of celebrity and media. Yet, it wasn’t. I struggled throughout the book – while I appreciated the brilliance of the writing and the intention of the satire I felt incredibly uncomfortable with Look Who’s Back. I wouldn’t ever say Hitler is beyond satire or that the Nazis don’t offer the opportunity for comedy but this didn’t work for me. Hitler justifies his actions throughout the book and is very rarely challenged, indeed he’s thought of as a funny, lovable man. It takes until three-quarters through the book before any character tells Hitler how despicable the Holocaust was but even then he justifies his actions and it is swept under the carpet very quickly. I couldn’t accept this at all. I understand the satire, I know that the story serves as a warning that fascists can gain a foothold by appealing to very real concerns, I realise that we are supposed to feel uncomfortable but this was just too uncomfortable. Why isn’t more prominence given to those who oppose the Hitler “character”? Why does the Holocaust get treated as though it was little more than a minor traffic accident? Why are very few anti-Nazi voices allowed to speak?

This has been a huge hit in Germany and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also finds critical acclaim here in the UK but I also see it being thoroughly divisive. One side will find the satire biting and the concept intriguing, the other will be appalled by its cavalier treatment of one of the worst times in human history and think it’s just a little bit too clever for its own good. I’ve got one foot firmly in both camps and that has left me confused, uncomfortable and completely unsure of my opinion on the book.

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