If you’ve ever attended a History lesson in the United Kingdom, chances are there’s one name in particular at the forefront of your mind when I mention the word “Germany”.
In an effort to scrub out right-wing political extremism, successive post-war governments and school boards have consistently included studies of the Second World War in primary and secondary schools, meaning that the majority of the UK population is well aware that Hitler arranged the murder of 6 million Jews and was an Austrian sociopath bent on taking over the world.
All this is good. It’s good that every generation is taught the evil of fascist dictatorship, and it’s good that it is despised practically universally in this country. As a successor to wartime propaganda, Nazi inclinations seem to have been completely eradicated after they appeared fashionable amongst certain groups in the 1930s.
What isn’t so good is the concrete view some schoolchildren now hold not only of the subject but of Germany in general. Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, renowned expert on the Nazi period, once said in an interview that they have “never seen a German, they’ve no idea who Germans are, they just know they do terrible things to people called Jews (and don’t know in reality who they are either)”.
The heavy emphasis is wrong. It’s actually harmful*. In-depth exploration of the Nazi period is almost non-existent – it improves at GCSE, and then again at A Level, but for the majority of our population, Hitler remains a monster to be feared and despised, not studied and analysed.
Reading the dictator’s own words alleviate this issue. “Mein Kampf” is available in translation and many excellent biographies, of which the best is Sir Ian’s “Hitler” (2 volumes, “Hubris” & “Nemesis”), explore what are left of contemporary documentation and other sources to analyse how the National Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany got into power, stayed in power and misused that power. Various television programmes, such as “The Nazis: A Warning From History”, “Auschwitz” and “Hitler’s Dark Charisma” also try to make good this educational deficiency.
In Germany, the situation is different. The government is terrified of a neo-Nazi resurgence (as is natural), and the Hitler salute, the swastika and Nazi uniforms have all been illegalised, along with strict security at places such as Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial & Jewish Museum, and the non-existence of plaques marking the location of Hitler’s birth (Braunau-am-Inn in Austria) or bunker (Berlin). All sensible. However, “Mein Kampf” is also inhibited – reprinting is banned and only existing copies may be distributed – which only adds in the large part to the mystery of Hitler. Germans of a certain age cannot even name most of the prominent Nazis due to the subject being strictly off the curriculum for several years.
In 2012, Timur Vermes made his first foray into fiction. The cover is mostly plain, but includes a sweeping forelock of black hair and the book’s title arranged in a specific way on the front. Priced originally at €19.33, “Er Ist Wieder Da” (literal translation: “He’s Back) is a satirical imaginative work, documenting Hitler awakening on a patch of ground in Berlin in 2011 and re-launching himself into the political establishment through an unusual route. This Hitler is not taken seriously; everyone thinks him to be an impressionist, leading to him becoming a talk-show star and YouTube sensation.
It came out in English on 3rd April this year, titled “Look Who’s Back”, to a varied reaction from the press and critics. Some say it’s offensive to his 11 million victims, others that it’s good to poke fun at him. According to Vermes himself, it’s part of the natural progression for such a figure to be regarded. First he was shunned, then despised with secret terror, and now he must be made fun of to remove the element of mystery from his figure. Although this model is of Germany, it relates to the UK too. We need to be able to conquer him again: to remove the feeling of dark mystery currently surrounding the Nazis for the majority of people by openly laughing at him.
“Er Ist Wieder Da” is cleverly written, entertaining and thought-provoking. At points it does go too far (for example at one point when Hitler contrasts inefficiency with the efficiency of the trains deporting Jews to the extermination camps), but on the whole it is a sound idea which hopefully will herald a fresh approach to the way society presents Hitler to the younger generations.
“Look Who’s Back” is published by Maclehose Press Quercus.
*or, as Sir Ian puts it, “of very doubtful value”.