After reunification in 1990—the formal end of the post-war era—the German public became ravenous for more research. Der Spiegel, a weekly news magazine, featured Hitler on its cover 16 times during the 1990s. A book by an American historian, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, in which he argued that ordinary Germans were “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, became a hit. A museum exhibition about the Wehrmacht, Germany’s wartime army, argued that ordinary soldiers (rather than just the SS) had participated in the Holocaust. Germans queued around the block to see it.
But there was a parallel trend towards what Germans call “Hitler porn” and “Hitler kitsch”. The Führer became a marketing tool. It started in the 1980s when Stern, a magazine, published what it alleged was Hitler’s diary, a sensation that turned out to be fake. Since the 1990s the history channel on German television has aired almost nightly documentaries on Hitler’s women, henchmen, last days, ailments, table silver or German Shepherd dog (called Blondi). Any footage of the small man with the toothbrush moustache draws an audience. In that way, Hitler has become like sex and violence: bait to sell copies or to grab attention.
But this fascination also suggests a new distance. Most of the audience, after all, now have no personal recollection of Hitler. This explains another genre: satire. During his lifetime, it was Germany’s enemies who parodied Hitler, as in Charlie Chaplin’s film of 1940, “The Great Dictator”. But in 1998 Walter Moers became the first German satirist to score a hit with a comic strip, “Adolf, die Nazi-Sau” (“Adolf, the Nazi pig”). Its producer called the character “the greatest pop star we’ve ever created”.
The latest bestseller is “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes, translated into English this year. Hitler wakes up in today’s Berlin near his old bunker. Disoriented at first, he so amuses everybody he meets, including his Turkish dry-cleaner, that he is launched on a meteoric career as a comedian. His hip colleagues are convinced that he is a consummate “messed ekta” (Berlinish-English for method actor) offering a subtle critique of modern media culture.
For young Germans the Führer has thus receded far enough into the past to seem outlandish and weird rather than potentially seductive. In “Look Who’s Back”, he regurgitates inane phrases from “Mein Kampf”, such as: “The titmouse seeks the titmouse, the finch the finch, the stork the stork, the field mouse the field mouse…” But the words and the diction, with its famously rolled “r”, have no effect other than hilarity.