It is hard to shake off the feeling that the author of Look Who’s Back bet on shock value rather than subversive wit, beginning with its eye-catching cover, blank but for the instantly recognisable black side-parting and moustache, and its original price of €19.33, a reference to the year Hitler came to power.History reliably serves up the novel’s punchlines: “What irritates me most of all about these morning people is their horribly good temper, as if they had been up for three hours and already conquered France,” Vermes’s Hitler grumbles at one point.In another passage, he compares a man operating a leaf-blowing machine to SS men obeying their orders: “even though they could have easily complained, 'What are we to do with all these Jews?’ It makes no sense anymore; they’re being delivered faster than we can load them into the gas chambers!Germans continue to be fascinated by Hitler, eagerly gobbling up documentaries, magazine features and books with titles such as Hitler’s Janitor; but this curiosity tends to fade when it comes to our own families.
After all, during his last days in the bunker, he gave instructions for everything to be destroyed: “Not just houses, but doors, too. The plot is simple: after being mistaken for a Hitler impersonator by television executives looking for the next stand-up sensation, the Nazi leader makes a comeback thanks to his enduring populist touch.
But on the whole, Vermes is too busy manufacturing one-liners to get to the heart of modern Germany’s contradictions.
Nazi symbols are still banned to prevent a resurgence of Nazism and out of respect for its victims; yet a gang of neo-Nazi serial killers in East Germany went undetected for years because investigators blamed Turkish gangsters for their crimes.
Vermes has described this as the next logical step in our understanding of the man: “First we tried not to mention him at all, then we made him into a monster. This is the next round,” he told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten.
In the end, the Nazi commander never did blow up the town where my grandmother and mother had sought shelter.