The Short Version: In 2011, Adolf Hitler wakes up in a vacant lot in Berlin. People assume he’s a satirist; he’s just doing his thing. Then he gets on TV – and hijinks ensue.
The Review: While idly reading recent book reviews on The New York Times website, I saw a cover (that one just there) that made me burst out laughing. And by the end of the review, I had already decided that I had to read this book, a book about Hitler that the freaking New York Times described as desperately funny.
The cover sets up exactly the right expectations for the novel – and will probably tell you if you’re going to enjoy it or not. If you think the humor of the cover (sly, smart, a little shocking) is funny, give the first few pages a read. I guarantee that you’ll giggle almost immediately. And I have to say, it’s a pretty impressive feat for a book about anything (saving those writ by the late great Sir Terry) to make me giggle not only immediately but relatively constantly throughout. It’s not a smile-and-occasionally-laugh kind of book – it really is one that makes you straight-up giggle throughout at least the first 3/4s.
Some examples, from the text. First, when Hitler faints at a newsstand upon discovering that he’s wound up in the year 2011, the stand owner takes pity on him and offers to help him out. When he asks about his living situation, Hitler demurs and the owner believes it to be because of a breakup. This inspires this exchange:
“With your girlfriend, I mean. Who was to blame?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Ultimately Churchill, I expect.”
There are plenty of these moments of cognitive dissonance, with Hitler just speaking and people seeming to misunderstand him – because could he POSSIBLY have said THAT? There are also, not surprisingly, a bunch of moments where Hitler Interacts With The Modern World – the sort of thing that could easily come off as a subpar 90s SNL sketch but, at the hands of Mr. Vermes, end up being hilarious every time. Hitler’s increasing rage at reality television, a laugh-out-loud sequence involving trying to answer his phone, and the scene where, after discovering the computer and “Vikipedia”, he ends up spending “three and a half hours engaged in a naval exercise by the name of “Minesweeper.””
The question, of course, is whether or not we are “allowed” to laugh at Hitler. There are plenty of readers out there who’ll say no – and I don’t begrudge them their intransigence. But to write this book off simply because of the protagonist is to miss one of the most insightful and terrifying satires of the modern era. Other than the handful of ridiculous neo-Nazi/fascist types out there (many of whom I’m assuming aren’t reading too much popular fiction anyway, although maybe I’m wrong about that), it’s impossible for a reader to take this seriously. How can you do anything but laugh when Hitler says that the Jew of the dog world is the dachshund and then lists, in descending order, the most German of dog breeds? There’s a difference between laughing at something funny (see: Hitler Interacts With The Modern World) and laughing at something utterly ridiculous – but it’s okay to laugh, either way. I don’t mean to take away anyone’s right to be offended, but I’m also a big believer in folks toughing up a little bit: Vermes is not advocating Hitler’s policies or supporting the idea of his comeback.
Instead, he’s showing just how easy it would be for it all to start over again. And that’s the scary thing about this book as well as its profound success as satire: Vermes isn’t painting an imagined world or a hypothetical one here, just ours. A charismatic leader can and will always capture the people – and think of how many more ways there are for a person to do that now. It is not that unbelievable that the populace would see a comedian (or someone they perceive to be a comedian/performer) and suddenly feel taken in by their ideas. The Hitler of this book ends up on TV, eventually getting his own show – which he points out is pretty much exactly like the path he was on when he started speaking at tiny party meetings then moved up to bigger halls and so on. But is there all that much difference between the people who start saying he ought to stand for election and folks wanting Martin Sheen to run for President? Both ideas are ridiculous and yet we are drawn to these magnetic figures, these (apparent) creations that embody what we perceive to be a more-perfect ideal than the options we have before us. The populace in Vermes’ book sees Hitler as a straight-talker, a real one – and that appeals to them after years of wobbly politicians. Doesn’t it appeal, at least a little, to you?
We like to believe that we’re smarter, that we’ve learned from the past – but just because there might never be another Hitler doesn’t mean that we haven’t already seen recurring examples of that sort of person in the world. Perhaps they haven’t tried to take over the whole world – but world domination isn’t quite as in vogue these days. Vermes’ Hitler gets off a great crack at Vladimir Putin in this book (I won’t ruin it, as it got one of the biggest laughs out of me) but Putin is a strangely charismatic leader. So is Rand Paul, so is Elizabeth Warren. And I’m just looking at major players in the political scene right now, not even the folks out on the fringe who could slide into the mainstream at any time. At a time when apoplectic commentators & ideologues on the right in this country have brought the machine of governance to a halt over… what, exactly? Barely veiled racism? A disbelief that a populist, socialist agenda might actually be what the people want? The only thing that seems all that different about the Hitler of this book and Rush Limbaugh is that Hitler at least makes an attempt to appeal to the rational core of his audience – and he advocates some progressive policies.
Of course, that’s exactly the point. The novel’s end sees Hitler poised to make the next leap, from TV personality to actual political figure. The political machine is gearing up and the slogan his people have come up with? “It wasn’t all bad.”
“I think we can work with that” is Hitler’s response.
What Vermes shows so well, like a freshly sharpened knife cutting through the book’s laughter, is that – even today – he probably could.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The book, in its final third, does threaten to collapse under the weight of the satire – after all, this exercise can only go so far, right? But Vermes notices this and wraps things up, not letting that lull last too long. Plus, it’s not the lull that you’ll be thinking about when you finish the book but rather the simultaneous sensations of delight at a good humorous read and the chill down your spine of something hitting a little too close to home. Page for page, the book delivers giggles like people interacting with Hitler on the street or Hitler on the computer… but Vermes never takes his eye off the prize, the prize being a stark assessment of just how gullible we (humanity) are. Just how primed we could be for a charismatic leader whose policies – most of them anyway – sound pretty darn good. All it takes is to fall under that spell… and once you realized what had happened, it would probably be too late.
Vermes knows, humor aside, is that it could happen today. Just because he makes you laugh first doesn’t mean he takes it any less seriously.