Hitler is back, as Germans have never seen him

A photographer and writer have been accused of glorifying Nazism in their attempts to explore the attraction and repulsion of the Third Reich


The sign contained just three words, but spoke volumes about Germany’s agonised relationship with its past. It was last May and I was on holidays in Berchtesgaden, the beautiful region in Bavaria’s southernmost tip where Adolf Hitler and his inner circle once had their mountain retreat.

Outside a bookshop, above a rack of colourful volumes about the Nazi takeover of the Obersalzberg peak, a handwritten sign read: “Not Glorification! History!”

The accusation of Nazi glorification has lately been levelled at two very different, daring German efforts to explore the ongoing attraction and repulsion of the Third Reich. Both ask pointed questions about the future of Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the “never forget” process of coming to terms with the past.

The first is Obersalzberg , a photo series and book by Berliner Andreas Mühe. The 33-year-old photographer, a favourite of Chancellor Angela Merkel, spent four years visiting Berchtesgaden to explore his fascination with the dynamics and visual cues of power. Of particular fascination were thousands of images taken on Obersalzberg by Hitler’s personal photographer Walter Frentz. His propaganda images showed Hitler enjoying quiet evenings by the fire, chatting with SS officers or strolling with his dog, Blondi. Since they were funnelled into the mass media and the world’s consciousness 70 years ago, they have remained largely unchallenged – until Andreas Mühe came along.

Visual grenades
His Obersalzberg images are visual grenades, exploding and undermining Frentz’s careful manipulation of nature and emotion. Mühe’s Hitler poses on the terrace – taking a selfie; his SS officer stares out at the landscape – while pissing off the mountain. “The whole aesthetic fascinated me for years and really got under my skin,” he said. “How did these images influence the masses?”

His Obersalzberg cycle uses the same cues as Frentz – but this time to break the Nazi spell the earlier photographer cast. There are majestic landscapes as untouched now as in Hitler’s day; women’s plaited hairdos and stark, spotlit shots of young men dressed – and undressed – as Nazi officers in stilted poses, of power and servility, drawn from the Frentz images.

Unsurprisingly, the project generated a huge fuss, with some accusing Mühe of fetishising and co-opting the Nazi aesthetic for his own artistic ends.

“The [images] celebrate the despicable, blatantly mimic the authenticity of the images we know,” writes Luc Tuymans in an essay published in the book. “It’s as if they’re breathing down our necks.”

But Mühe’s images are no slavish tribute. Instead he restages the narcissistic Nazi gaze using nostalgic Agfacolor tones. Then he updates the original images for the modern viewer: here a mobile phone, there a well-known German actor. Finally, after discreetly reducing the historical distance between the “historical” image and the viewer, he gently heats things up until, like a frog in a saucepan of water, his audience is caught.

As menacing as his full-size images are, it is his Obersalzberg hardback book, which adopts a 1930s publishing aesthetic, that appeals and appals. For anyone who feels jaded by the retreating, ever-present Nazi legacy, Obersalzberg is a brilliantly daring palate refresher that demystifies and deconsecrates problematic images left unquestioned for seven decades.

And, although he works carefully and consciously, Mühe says he is anxious viewers make up their own minds about his images’ intentions. “A lot of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the last years has been very pedagogical and very steered, where you’re expected to feel a certain way at the end – like you should apologise,” he says.

For Mühe, his targeted provocation is a means to an end: the risks he takes in Obersalzberg are an attempt to make Hitler relevant for his contemporaries, the grandchildren of the perpetrator generation. “This project is successful if I can shock people into staying alert,” he says.

This is also the ambition, using a very different approach, of author Timur Vermes and his bestselling novel Look Who’s Back . The central conceit of his book, published this week in English, is that Hitler wakes up in 2011 Berlin. He quickly gets to grips with modern Germany – from its political system to digital media – so he can pick up where he left off.

Vermes hit on the idea when he stumbled across an English-language volume titled Hitler’s Second Book . Vermes says he never realised Hitler’s political tract, Mein Kampf , had a second volume. He joked to himself that, “with a title like that, you might as well write a third”.

With Hitler indisposed, Vermes – a ghostwriter by trade – decided to have a go himself. Writing as Hitler in the first person is a daring decision and, for many of its jokes to work, assumes readers are well- informed about the Nazi era. Vermes mimics Hitler’s turgid prose from Mein Kampf but, reading the German original and English edition in parallel, it soon becomes clear that much of the satirical ambition is lost in translation.

English readers are left, instead, with more direct attempts at humour such as Hitler’s distress at seeing Germany run by a “chunky woman with all the confidence and charisma of a weeping willow”.

Writing as Hitler means Vermes stays in character to express his “gratification” at the continued “decimation” of German Jewry. His Hitler argues that West Germany’s post-war economic miracle “went hand-in-hand with the disappearance of the Jewish parasites”.

“If you still refuse to believe this,” adds Hitler, “you need only take a look at the eastern half of the country, where for decades they specifically imported Bolshevism and its Jewish teachings.”

There’s an unintentional irony in how, like the two volumes of Mein Kampf that preceded it, Look Who’s Back has sparked highly divergent critical and commercial reception.

Nearly three-quarters of readers on Amazon gave it four or five stars and glowing recommendations, but most German media outlets only took notice when it topped the bestseller charts – with 1.5 million copies sold to date – and it could be ignored no longer.

Divided critical opinion
The critical reaction to Look Who’s Back has been divided. One camp, hoping for a homegrown version of The Producers , feel the book’s jokes are weak and too far apart. Others, such as the influential Süddeutsche Zeitung daily, say the Hitler humour often “sticks in the throat”. The left-wing Tageszeitung daily has accused Vermes of tapping a current German trend to strip Hitler’s dictatorship of its complexity, contradictions and menace for easy laughs and quick profits.

Vermes denies this is his motivation. Instead, like Andreas Mühe, he argues that Germany urgently needs to find fresh ways of dealing with its Third Reich past. Highlighting the regime’s absurdity through humour, he says, is a more effective way of reaching younger generations of Germans, who, he says, are increasingly turned off by the solemn “never again” memorialising. Refusing to change its approach to the past, Vermes argues, could see Germany ill-equipped for the future.

“We aren’t insured against far-right thinking as many think,” he said. “The far-right can’t get beyond its 2-3 per cent ghetto in Germany because the economy is going well and people are well off. If that changes, I suspect we would be as prone to populism as any other country.”

Although their approaches – and audiences – are very different, Vermes and Mühe are asking a similar question: 75 years after Germany triggered the second World War, how does it plan to remember that terrible burden for the next 75 years?

“I think it’s important to keep this issue on the boil,” said Mühe. “When the last war criminals and victims are gone, we need to know what will happen next. I want a discussion about where we’re going with our history.”

Obersalzberg by Andreas Mühe is published by Distanz . Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes is published by Mac Lehose Press

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