Mel Brooks got away with it.

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Hitler's Return Makes for Uncomfortable Comedy

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The movie "He's Back," a comedy that revolves around the return of Adolf Hitler to modern-day Germany, is a huge hit. There may be more than meets the eye to this success, however. 

The film, which opened a month ago, tops the German box office, and has been seen by more than 1.7 million people. It's based on an equally successful first novel (titled "Look Who's Back" in English translation) by the former journalist and ghostwriter Timur Vermes that became a surprise hit in 2012. The three years between the two releases have only made the subject matter more relevant.

In Vermes's first-person story, Hitler awakens in a construction site in modern Berlin, a little dirty and disoriented, but in full control of his faculties. He has slept 66 years. Wandering the streets, he is soon adopted by a newspaper salesman, who thinks the fuehrer is a down-on-his-luck actor. Hitler becomes a TV star and even starts a modest political career. Throughout, he doesn't make the slightest effort to hide who he is, which is the catalyst for dozens of comical situations: Some think he's funny, others like him, even though he spouts the same virulent rhetoric that brought him to power.

At the end of "Look Who's Back," Hitler gets a book deal. "We don't want a comedy book," the publisher tells him. "I think it's in your interest, too. The fuehrer doesn't make jokes, right?" Hitler accepts.

As it happens, Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is being reissued in Germany early next year, for the first time since World War II. Vermes said the Nazi leader's ideological treatise/autobiography provided the inspiration for Hitler's voice in the book -- stilted, pretentious and old-fashioned. Vermes couldn't have bought his copy in a German bookstore: the Bavarian government, which owns the copyright to "Mein Kampf," has not allowed it to be published. The copyright will run out on Dec. 31, 2015, though, and IFZ, the Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History, will publish an edition of the book with painstaking notes explaining where Hitler's ideas came from as well as their consequences. 

So, with the return of "Mein Kampf," the fuehrer really will be back: Anyone who wants to hear him out will be given that chance. It's far from certain, however, that all readers will be more interested by historians' commentary than by Hitler's ideas. Vermes's story of a returning fuehrer has already repeated itself as a farce this year.

A year ago, the anti-immigration group Pegida (an acronym for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West") held demonstrations in the eastern German city of Dresden to protest the influx of Muslim immigrants. At the movement's peak, 26,000 people were in the streets, scaring mainstream German politicians and giving rise to counter-demonstrations in many cities. Pegida was derailed, however, when Facebook posts by its leader, the businessman Lutz Bachmann, came to light that contained hate speech (he called immigrants "animals") as well as a picture of Bachmann decked out as Hitler. 

Bachmann's version: He'd been posing for the cover of an audiobook of "Look Who's Back," but given his politics, the explanation didn't fly and he was forced to resign as Pegida leader. "Anyone who puts on a Hitler disguise is either an idiot or a Nazi," Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said at the time. Gabriel has a cameo in Vermes's book: He has a telephone conversation with Hitler, who considers his social-democratic SPD party a successor to his own.

Bachmann was reinstated as Pegida chief after it was discovered that the mustache -- though not the hairstyle -- had been added to his photo. The headline in the German tabloid Bild said, predictably, "He's Back."

Pegida, however, has made a comeback recently, revitalized by Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to let in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. On Oct. 12, Pegida demonstrators in Dresden set up a mock gallows for Merkel and Gabriel (the incident is under investigation). A week later, 20,000 people turned out for a Pegida rally, a number the group could only dream of a few months ago.

Had Vermes, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, written the book now, he could have described a political spectrum with far more activity on the far right. Apart from Pegida, there's Alternative fuer Deutschland, founded in 2013. AfD has about 5 percent support in the polls, a strong showing for a xenophobic party in Germany, where such views have been discouraged for decades.

Germans who flock to see "He's Back" mainly want to have a laugh; the country has changed so much that the fictional Hitler's incredulity and unease are both funny and comforting. Vermes, however, didn't intend to write just a comic novel. He said he also wanted to explore how Germans had been taken in by Hitler. If Vermes were to write a sequel today, he might have some new material to work with.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net