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This fact notwithstanding, “Er Ist Wieder Da” normalizes the Nazi past by encouraging Germans to laugh at it. Ever since the films of Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Mel Brooks, Anglo-American audiences have laughed at Hitler. But only in the past decade have Germans begun to do so. Films such as Dani Levy’s “My Führer” and comic books such as Walter Moers’s “Adolf the Nazi Pig” testify to a growing German desire to become as “normal” as their Anglo-American neighbors and laugh at the Führer. “Er Ist Wieder Da” shows the dangers inherent in this desire, but the book’s best-seller status speaks to its ongoing appeal.
Moreover, the novel allows readers to laugh not merely at Hitler, but also with him. At various junctures, Hitler launches into rants against things that many of us despise: vapid television shows, soulless chain stores, noisy leaf blowers and opportunistic politicians. “Er Ist Wieder Da” turns Hitler into a mouthpiece for any number of contemporary complaints. In the process, the novel not only gets readers to identify with Hitler, but also universalizes his significance. By inserting Hitler into the present instead of the past, it shifts attention away from his real historical importance.
In the end, “Er Ist Wieder Da” may be most significant for highlighting fading fears of Nazism. Until recently, the counterfactual premise of Hitler surviving World War II and returning to power was portrayed as a nightmare, reflecting real anxieties that Nazism had not been banished from history.
In the last generation, however, Germany’s post-unification stability has diminished these fears and made the theme of Hitler’s survival the stuff of laughs. As the passing of time continues to normalize the memory of Nazism, more such portrayals of Hitler can be expected.
Should they be of concern? Laughing at historical villains like Hitler need not diminish their aura of evil. Jews mock Haman each year on Purim, and yet retain a sense of his historical criminality. Whether Hitler’s criminality will still be as vivid in memory the more he is satirized remains to be seen. The popularity of “Er Ist Wieder Da” among German readers reflects a desire to temper Nazism’s horror with humor. Whether the same holds true for Anglo-American readers will be evident the later part of next year, when the novel appears in English translation.
Gavriel Rosenfeld is a professor of history at Fairfield University and is the author of “The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism” (Cambridge University Press, 2005). book on the normalization of Nazism in contemporary culture.