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The joke is that while Hitler is being deadly serious, his fans think he is being ironic. No amount of evidence convinces the German public otherwise. Journalists try to get Hitler to divulge his “real” name and to explain why he never breaks character. No one wants to consider the possibility that his racist rants are genuine and not those of an avant-garde comedian.
The consequences of this tendency, the novel goes on to show, are ominous. By sustaining the public’s desire to laugh at Hitler, the German media boosts his popularity. Soon enough, he gets his own TV show and a book contract. His colleagues congratulate him by ironically referring to him as the “Führer” and giving him mock Hitler salutes.
Yet, these gestures proceed in a disquieting direction, for as the novel concludes, posters prepared for his upcoming show display the slogan “Not everything was bad.” Laughing at Hitler, the novel suggests, paves the way toward rehabilitating him.
In arriving at this cautionary conclusion, “Er Ist Wieder Da” tempers its slapstick style with a moralistic message. Vermes has been quoted as saying that his comic depiction of Hitler is meant to counteract the traditional portrait of him as a monster. That view, he contends, has long impeded any understanding of how Hitler appealed to millions of Germans. Further, it has provided them with an easy alibi with which to avert blame for their country’s descent into evil. Laughing at Hitler, by contrast, humanizes him and lays bare his historic (and potentially enduring) appeal.
This moral message notwithstanding, “Er Ist Wieder Da” runs a risk common to many narratives that have explored the roots of Hitler’s appeal — namely, the risk of glamorizing what it means to condemn, giving voice to racist ideas in the process of making fun of them.
To be sure, “Er Ist Wieder Da” protects itself from the charge of being “soft” on Nazism by showing Hitler receiving his comeuppance at the novel’s end, when he ironically gets beaten up by neo-Nazis who think he’s a Jew trying to discredit Nazism with his “comedy act.” The novel’s opposition to right-wing ideas is further visible in its many darkly ironic references to Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.