It all looked very surreal. In a town in northern Germany, in a region known to be one of the strongholds of the neo-Nazi movement, several dozen right-wing extremists could be seen marching down one of the main streets while the figure of Adolf Hitler stood on the balcony of a nearby hotel and waved to the demonstrators and other passers-by.
Hitler, in fact, has been popping up in Germany in various expected and unexpected locations all over the place of late.
The man responsible is actor Oliver Masucci, who has been dressing up as the Fuehrer for the filming of a new movie, "He's Back," which is scheduled to premiere next fall. The film is based on the bestseller of the same name that has sold more than two million copies since its release some three years ago. The cover of the book is adorned with Hitler's most distinctive features – his hairstyle and small mustache; and even the price is symbolic – 19.33 euros (Hitler rose to power in 1933).
So what's all the fuss about?
"He's Back" revives Hitler after a prolonged coma. He wakes up in Berlin in 2011, not far from the bunker in which he spent the final weeks of the war and where he also committed suicide. According to the plot of the bestseller, Hitler simply loses consciousness while fooling around with his personal weapon, and he doesn't recognize anything around him when he comes to. The owner of a newspaper kiosk comes to Hitler's assistance after discovering his unique ability: Hitler sounds just like Hitler, speaks just like Hitler, and thinks all the time like Hitler.
The kiosk owner gets Hitler a gig as a stand-up comic on a television show presented by a Turkish entertainer; and Hitler, for his part, tries to get to know the Germany that has evolved in his absence and is very different to what he had in mind – a woman is leading the country; the reichsmark has been abolished and replaced by an all-European currency, and there are Turks all over the place. Only one thing pleases Hitler – Germany remains relatively "clean" of Jews.
Thanks to his gig on television, Hitler is also exposed to technological innovations such as computers, the Internet and mobile phones (and is sure they have all been invented by Aryan scientists); and instead of being deterred by the changes, he uses them to return to power, with dizzying success. He speaks of issues that concern the public at large, video clips of his television appearances get millions of views; and Hitler, who insists that is his original name and that he was born sometime in the late 19th century, becomes a superstar, starts working on his own TV show, and moves closer than ever to realizing his old-new vision – the political takeover of Germany.
Could it happen today?
Ostensibly, "He's Back" is a comic novel, but readers quickly find themselves trapped and exposed to a rather alarming message. Hitler's tackling of certain issues reveals how things really have not changed much since his days in power, including the general public's attitude towards the positions he presents – for example, the fact that the current political system is unable to cope with the everyday problems that plague the population.
"Despite the overwhelming success of the book, it has yet to prompt a serious debate in Germany that tries to analyze the significance of this success and the needs it fulfills in German society," says the author of "He's Back," journalist Timur Vermes. "What does the fact that they are enjoying the book say about the Germans? What does it say about our handling of the past?"
And do you have an answer?
"I think we need a more authentic Hitler. Most people are familiar with his story, but they don't know what motivated him, how he acted. People are looking for a more mature way of dealing with the figure of Hitler that is not immediately influenced by a sense of guilt."
Were you concerned that the book would be misunderstood?
"I wondered what would happen if the Nazis loved the book. Ultimately, if someone agrees with what Hitler said, he's a Nazi, and I cannot help him because he was one even before reading the book. As far as I'm concerned, it's not a book designed to educate the Nazis, but to examine how Hitler's mind worked, how we are dealing with our past, and if the things described in the book could happen today.
"The book causes us to develop an affinity with someone we never thought we could be close to, and then we discover that he intends to do it all over again. He doesn't hide it, and we continue to read because the book is amusing, because it offers a few moments of laughter together with sides of Hitler that we never knew about; and that's the process I wanted people to undergo. People could drop the book at any moment, but they continue to read and there are even those who are asking about a sequel. So what does that say about us?"
Vermes, 47, came up with the idea for "He's Back," his first book, while on holiday in Turkey. He was browsing through the shelves in a used book store and came across a copy of "Hitler's second book," a sequel to Mein Kampf that Hitler wrote in 1928 following the Nazi Party's failure in the general elections. The book was never published, but copies can still be found here and there.
"What a strange book, I thought to myself," Vermes recalls, "It seemed so absurd that I said to myself: 'If there's a second book, then I can write a third one.' And right there and then, I thought of writing a book in the first person, and to do something funny too, something that even if it's never published will at least amuse me. The surprise find made me want to step into Hitler's shoes, to unravel his character and explain his worldview. It wasn't very difficult; fanatics after all are already very close to being parodies, and his worldview is not very complex to begin with."
Sympathy for Hitler
Vermes' Hitler often surprises the reader. He scolds his young secretary when she starts screaming "Heil Hitler" whenever he arrives at the office, and he asks her to address him quietly. He's very taken by the principles of the Green Party and sees many similarities between them and the ideas of his party. Sympathy for Hitler creeps in, and that's exactly what Vermes wanted to achieve – to shake our automatic way of thinking.
"I admit: It's not a fair text," he says. "After all, the easiest solution would have been to present Hitler as a monster, but people who are drawn into reading the book discover that Hitler was a normal person, sympathetic at times, and are surprised to reveal that he also had normal sides to him; and it was convenient for us to cover up these normal sides after the war and highlight only the atrocities he committed, to turn him into the absolute evil. And herein, I believe, lies the big story; and the question we all have to ask ourselves is why everyone cooperated."
And the answer?
"By laying the blame solely on him, the Germans absolved themselves and managed to get along better with the Allies. And the Allies, for their part, explained that cooperation with the Germans is possible because Hitler is no longer in the picture.
"But holding onto this old monster story means giving up on the effort to understand how Hitler thought and operated. And therein lies the danger… Our (German) society is still traumatized and unable to deal with unraveling Hitler's character."