April 30, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReadingRemembrances

Hitler. Toklas.

Hitler took his last foul breath on this date, seventy years ago. He doubled down on his leave-taking: cyanide capsule, bullet. I think we can all agree he was a terrible person. And that’s all I really want to say about his death.

But now, in Germany (and next week, in America), he’s back! Or so Timur Vermes’s new comic novel imagines. I haven’t read the book (the English translation will be released on May 5), but Janet Maslin reviewed it several days ago in the Times. She called Look Who’s Back “desperately funny”—though her examples didn’t exactly support her judgment. Still: a time-traveling Hitler! Expect Heils and hijinks.


The actual Hitler was, I imagine, desperately unfunny. (My favorite Nazi anecdote, pulled from John Morreall’s Taking Laughter Seriously: Hitler set up “joke courts” designed to punish people for giving the name “Adolf” to horses and dogs.) But what a subject for mockery he made! Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (released, unbelievably, in 1940) still holds up as a kind of gold standard for Hitler satire. Ach, the sauerkraut! Ach, the world!

This fall I’ll be teaching a class once again on American comic fiction. We’ll read, among other works, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and DeLillo’s White Noise. Pynchon’s Dr. Hilarius, you might remember, interned in Buchenwald, where he worked on “experimentally-induced insanity”: he tried to drive Jews crazy by making weird faces. (Hilarius ends up paranoid himself. Everyone in the novel starts off or ends up nuts, including Winthrop Tremaine, proprietor of Tremaine’s Swastika Shoppe.)

DeLillo’s Jack Gladney chairs the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. He “invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a cold bright day with intermittent winds out of the east.” He reads Mein Kampf for relaxation. Asked by an ex-wife how Hitler is, he replies, “Fine, solid, dependable.”

What I’m trying to say, in this hop-and-skip way, is that Hitler is funny. Except that he’s not. Except that he is. As one of Gladney’s colleagues puts it, “You’ve established a wonderful thing here with Hitler.”

(Bonus track: Zev Borow’s “A Graceland for Adolf.” Borow’s imagined audiotape accompanying the walking tour of “Berchtesgaden: Hitler’s Summer Retreat” includes this selection: “Sure, Hitler loved human suffering, but he also liked music—for marching, for dancing, for making one feel less sexually inferior.”)


In non-Nazi news, it’s Alice B. Toklas’s birthday! We love you, Alice B. Toklas . . .