Dictators in Speculative Fiction: Understanding Hitler
An Interview with Timur Vermes
Waking up in 2011, in a Germany he doesn’t recognise, Adolf Hitler tries to figure out what went wrong. Filled with Turkish immigrants and a woman as the head of government, Germany has changed considerably since he ‘fell asleep’ in 1945.
The change in circumstances doesn’t deter the time-travelling Adolf Hitler, who the public mistake for a character actor and a comedy persona parodying the Great Dictator, and he tries to dominate the modern world once again using YouTube and social media as his modus operandi.
Timur Vermes’ book ‘Look Who’s Back,’ has sold over 1.5 million copies in Germany alone, and that was back in May 2014, and whose book has now been translated into many other languages, including English. Hitting the best seller lists across the globe for his controversial depiction of a comedy Hitler with an ‘element’ of humanity, ‘Look Who’s Back’ has become a conversation piece in both Germany and beyond, opening up new dialogue and discussion on the person that was Adolf Hitler through the medium of speculative fiction.
‘Look Who’s Back’ might be the German author’s first novel, but his experience as a tabloid journalist and as a ghostwriter makes him a veteran when it comes to putting words on a page. The overnight success of his novel has spiralled continuously, and Vermes sold the rights to Constantin films, whose impending release is soon to propel the book into the limelight.
In 2015, the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death and with the copyright on Mein Kampf on the verge of running out, Vermes’ book, even though it’s meant as a piece of light-hearted satyr, raised numerous questions about the public discussion and perceptions of Adolf Hitler.
Hailing from Hungarian extraction on his father’s side, Timur Vermes returned to Budapest as the guest for a series of literary dinners held at Brody Studios, following hot on the footsteps of non-fiction authors like Ian Kelly and Owen Matthews in 2014, where he recounted his memory of the smell of old city courtyards and fragments of Hungarian phrases buried in the back of his memory.
During the public discourse, Vermes touches on this inspiration behind his book. Recalling the time when he saw a book called “Hitler’s Second Book” on a stand in a thrift shop, knowing full well that there was no second book by Adolf Hitler. The inspiration sent a niggling thought set in motion that just wouldn’t go away.
In a private interview with Timur Vermes, the author discusses the inspiration behind the book and what it was like to get inside the head of Adolf Hitler.
JW: At the literary dinner, you mentioned that you were inspired to write about Adolf Hitler after seeing a copy of “Hitler’s Second Book” on a stand. How did that specifically inspire you to write ‘Look Who’s Back?
Timur Vermes: I’ve never heard anything about any second book, and that sparked the thought, since it was absurd that there was any second book by Hitler, however it did inspire the idea that perhaps I could write a third one. Well, I liked the concept at the beginning, that it was the important note down some thoughts on it, because otherwise you’d forget about the idea. So, instantly I was thinking that he would have liked the German actress Veronica Ferres, do you know her?
Anyway, it’s not important, what’s more important is that I personally don’t like Ms. Ferres, there is no reason for that, she has done nothing wrong to me, I just don’t like her. So, I thought that if Hitler had liked her, it would have made her look bad. Like if you’re with a vegetarian and say “yeah Hitler was a vegetarian”, then suddenly being a vegetarian looks bad. Why? There is no reason, but this would be what I would play with. I would send him to every place I don’t like. I could send him there, and make him love the place. And quite quickly I found it worked for me, but it would only work in the context of a book if there was a reason that the real Hitler would be thinking these things and going to these place. Because otherwise each reader would be like “Ok, you’re making this up.” No one would be thinking anymore.
Actually I could have done it this way, and it would have just been a funny story where Hitler would like this or that, but I thought no, it would more fun to play by the rules, to find out what the real Hitler would have liked and then send him everywhere. I don’t know why I thought it would be more fun, since actually it was more work. But I decided to do it that way because people would have stopped thinking. So in some case, if you think about it, it’s a German way of writing the book. Because I could have thought – they will stop thinking, now they will have fun, and obviously I wanted it to have some additional value to it, maybe an educational one, I thought that’s why I’d need to do it with the real Hitler, and then that’s how the rest of the process started, finding out is there a real logic in the real Hitler and then realising that, oh there is logic, and then using that logic that would not so difficult and yeah, just playing it by the rules and not for simple entertainment by inventing a Hitler of my own.
JW: Why did you choose to take the time travel angle?
Timur Vermes: My first thought was Veronica Ferres, and I didn’t have Veronica Ferres back in 1945. The first thought was that Hitler popped up somewhere today, I don’t know why. He never popped up in any different time, not in the 70s or the 80s, maybe because I’m a lazy guy, it would have been a lot more work to put him in a different time. It either had to be today or back then and what would be the point of putting Hitler back then? Perhaps it’s just because I’m lazy.
JW: So putting Hitler into the 21st was not part of any social commentary?
Timur Vermes: Well, mostly it was so I could I have him with this contemporary actress.
But, yes of course, and it was fun, and making Hitler like things we know today would only work if Hitler were present in today’s society. If he would find, meet or see anything my readers could relate to, then I would need contemporary stuff. So, it seemed more or less natural to place him here in the 21st century.
JW: How did you get inside Hitler’s head? Was there any process to write from his point of view or did you undertake a lot of research or did you simply try to think what would Hitler do?
Timur Vermes: I had to find the educational aspect in the beginning. To keep the reader interested you needed the real Hitler, so it was a happy coincidence in some way that I always wanted to know what was ticking inside of his head, why did he do all those things he did? And we are used to get those questions, most people don’t ask those questions any more cause people have heard the story so often, how everything happened, and so on. For example, let’s take fairy tales, if you hear a story over and over and over again, you stop asking any “why” questions, let’s use the little red riding hood as an example, she meets her grandmother and the wolf comes and eats both of them – why is the grandmother living there, what does the wolf have to do with all those guys, no you don’t ask the questions anymore, but there are questions of course – why did Hitler have to do everything so fast? Why did the Holocaust have to happen, and why did he have success? Why did he think he’s a genius? I also had to think about how sick must someone be to have become like Hitler, and you do find explanations for all of his actions.
I’m not the first person to find out about all of these things Adolf Hitler thought or felt, but usually you’re not told about them, so for mainstream readers these explanations are quite new. As new as they are to me. One thing you’ll read in the book, which comes as a big surprise, one thing I found out about Hitler is that he’s not that crazy monster we’re led to believe, yes he was crazy, but in a way you could at least understand in some way, and he seemed or at least he became so normal that the more he got back to being a normal or understandable person the more horrific his actions were, because what ever happened back then it’s still happened. And it was not just the horrific actions caused by single person doing all of this, the people around him were also to blame – and we’re not talking about 20 people around him – we’re talking about Germans. The Germans. The majority which he undoubtedly had in his support.
JW: Do you think it’s a problem that people have trivialise Hitler and have turned him into a caricature? Does this run the risk of people being unable to recognise another dictator rising because they see Hitler as a comic relief character or that he’s not human: a monster or a comedy character?
Timur Vermes: It depends on which country you are speaking of, in Germany the reception of comedy Hitler seems to me like an absolutely logical thing. We had this silence about the War, and then about 20 years after the War we then had this serious discussion, and eventually we got sick of this serious discussion and then had the funny Hitler as a short cut from this discussion.
It’s the same thing, we won’t elect him, but we can have more fun with it, and we have this Hitler now where people are convinced that they wouldn’t elect him. They don’t see any danger in him. This comes close to how other countries see Hitler, of course the British, the Hungarians, they never elected Hitler, it was the Germans, so that’s where the model of explaining the behaviour becomes more and more similar, the Germans back then are very much like saying “oh it was the stupid people back then” someone different, we couldn’t do it, we laugh so much about this guy. It’s not uninteresting, but you can see what’s happening in Europe, how people are swinging right wing.
JW: I was going to say, it seems quite timely right now with the way Europe is going towards the right wing parties…
Timur Vermes: That’s not the fault of my book.
JW: No, no, I’m not blaming your book, but it is a timely time to start talking about Hitler.
Timur Vermes: But of course, it’s something completely different. Would people say? People are voting right-wing because money is running out, because they are aiming for something different, in this case it’s Europe, and a dictatorship does not necessarily have to be right-wing, it just has to get a majority behind them. They have to connect on some subjects that you can get from your small extremist niche, you have to open up to, you need the possibility to go mainstream, and if you have the possibility in Europe or not Europe, it would be working.
JW: Most authors tend to put a part of themselves in their books, so in your case this is particularly interesting due to your protagonist, so how did you feel about writing about Hitler? Do you feel that some of yourself came out in the character, was that an uncomfortable experience or did you take a step back and completely detach yourself as much as you could when you wrote ‘Look Who’s Back’?
Timur Vermes: I discovered I had this ability of being inside of Hitler and not being totally disgusted. And yes, much of the surprise was even though I learned that Hitler was a crazy monster, I also found he was an average crazy person who thinks he’s a genius. If you look at all the other geniuses around, he’s not so different to them. Being inside his head in someway is acting, but also in someway it’s now playing it for real, and there are blueprints in doing this but there are other works I admire because they did stop half the way or went all the way and I wanted to do it like that, so I was playing Hitler and finding out what I could say that would be acceptable for most people and he himself said lots of things that were not wrong, that were indeed acceptable to most people, and the disappointment of finding those things in Mein Kampf, where people gave me a the impression it would poisonous and life changing, when in fact it’s actually boring in some places. However it was also entertaining in some places, in some places it was also logical, and also you find how unprepared the German people are for a book like Mein Kampf. Actually, they’re not prepared at all, the book’s own protection is its own boredom, but nevertheless, you see how strangely Germany deals with its own past and how naïve, insufficient and sometimes plain stupid it is.
JW: Do you think there is a fear of humanising Hitler? Do you think it’s becoming more socially acceptable to not just see Hitler as a monster but rather as a flawed human being?
Timur Vermes: Superficially. It’s a fear of humanizing him, if you try to find out what the reason for that fear is, it’s on the one part comfortable to have a monster, because obviously it’s the monster’s fault. There are some people who do this with the best intention, like all the people who want to keep Mein Kampf forbidden, they believe they are doing the best, they believe they are keeping the monster in a safe, but they are also doing it because they cannot face the truth and reality, which is you would have to do a lot more to deal with the subject properly, but it’s so much more, it’s easier to just lock away the book and feel safe, in some ways it’s naive and absolutely stupid, but they still prefer doing it that way.
JW: You use social media as Hitler’s political platform in the book, is that deliberate, was there specific point to that?
Timur Vermes: It was an experiment. Where would he go? What would he be and who would stop him? Actually, if you set it right now – who could stop him? Who would stop him? Who would say this is the real Hitler – there is no such thing as time travel, so the reader has an advantage, and the only one having the advantage is the reader, everyone else has to look beyond this mask of someone who looks just like Hitler, with the false security that he cannot be Hitler.
Social media is just something where everything would happen, it’s the actual way that attention is distributed, so if you think about it there is not so much difference, and 200 years from now it wouldn’t be so different. It’s just that people are looking where it’s fun, actually in the beginning I tried sending him to TV and directly from there make him a start, but it wouldn’t work, because, TV and media are sort of restricted and controlled, where some people would say “er, not sure if that’s funny”, and it would be the end for his campaign on TV if people are not sure it’s funny. They need something to show them there is a market, so then there is the social media, which makes him into a cult figure. Then we have some additional way of finding an access to the media. But then I’m sure it would work in every other time to, because he’s delivering something different, going for it and provoking him.