The German writers reworking Hitler

How two new Berlin books approach their city's darkest hour

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Under Travel Books, writer, critic and translator Sophie Hughes talks about her favourite radical literature from all over the world.

“Every German is obliged to ensure that the Holocaust is not forgotten” a pokerfaced Uwe Boll said, around the same time he was crowned The World’s Worst Filmmaker in the wake of his 2011 film, “Auschwitz”. His own contribution to the collective memory of the Shoah was memorable for all the wrong reasons; an upshot of the fact that Boll had already made a name for himself as the mastermind behind such video game film adaptations as, BloodRayne, House of the Dead (HoTD) and Alone in the Dark.

But subtler minds than Boll have shared his sentiment about speaking the unspeakable through art. This month, on a romp through the European lit scene, I happened upon two.

German writer, Timur Vermes, is a professional ghostwriter who has harnessed his ventriloquistic skills in his first novel to tackle one of the most brutal subjects imaginable –Adolf Hitler. The title– He’s Back – says something about the novel’s jocular tone, and something, too, about how the passing of time loosens tongues on even “unmentionable” topics. It’s 2011, and Hitler’s woken up with a raw headache having spent the night in the bunker with Eva Braun. He stumbles through Berlin, scratching his heavy head over where all the Russian soldiers went, like someone crawling home at 6am who swore they took their denim jacket to the party. Hitler paranoid as hell; he’s sure people are staring and laughing at him. They are, of course, because they think he’s a regular guy doing a Prince Harry – only funny. Hitler turns into a YouTube phenomenon. He’s filmed on a visit to the headquarters of a German fascist party, where he’s appalled by the lack of commitment to the cause that he sees amongst the young neo-Nazis. When they realise Hitler’s won a prestigious journalism award for exposing them, they jump him. Yes, Hitler gets jumped by Neo-Nazis. It’s Ali G meets Heil Honey I'm Home meets Fawlty Towers. (Or, in fact, just Fawlty Towers.)

The other German tackling the subject of Nazi Germany is graphic novelist, Reinhard Kleist. Since the publication of Cash and Castro, Kleist’s been steadily building a name for himself as the fore figure of a new wave of German author-illustrators. He has a studio with three other artists in Prenzlauer Berg. Der Boxer tells the life story of Hertzko Haft, who survives the Holocaust through a combination of physical resilience and devotion his sweetheart, Leah. Having been introduced to boxing for the amusement of the Nazi officers, after he escapes Hertzko decides to fight for a living in America, where he hopes he might also track down his girl. Kleist’s novel is a modern-day Maus in the most obvious sense. Kleist pays deference to the game-changing novel, but also explains his own deviations from Spiegleman’s Pulitzer prize-winner. As he explained over email: “Maus is still a very important book... I am not a fan of his idea to use animals as persons in the story. But this is part of the thinking process he did at that time … dealing with the thought “Can I do this?” Now we are able to deal with the subject more openly, which is not always good. I hate books (or movies) where the victims of the Holocaust are just sad looking puppets. They are human beings and … sometimes they are not good ones. That is something I want to provoke in the reader: Do I still identify with Hertzko after he … knowingly beat people to death?” Kleist cuts to the chase in that his characters are humans –pain is pain in this novel and some of the boxing scenes are beyond graphic; they’re brutal. Offsetting this are the text-less pages where images cross the frontier that language, according to Kleist, can’t. “My favourite scene from Der Boxer is when Hertzko has to work in a factory and comes home. There are no words, nothing much happens, but for him a whole world collapses.”

For me, the text never destroys the impact of Kleist’s drawings; he has a gift as deft as a fine short-story writer for delivering a line like a slap in the face (see, “I have no fear” and you’ll know what I mean). Luckily for the non-German readers, you can still relish the still movie that is Der Boxer. But this graphic novel is crying out for an English translation. For Boll’s sake, at least, somebody translate these silences.

Cover Image: Roger Wollstadt

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