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Hitler's return: Timely satire or a joke too far?

A German novelist has brought the Führer back to life

For someone born and raised in a country where the Second World War still arouses deep feelings of horror, shame and embarrassment, Timur Vermes is an oddball. Growing up in Munich in the 1970s, he spent much of his time watching his fellow Germans being slaughtered in Hollywood war movies. He admits to having been so fascinated by war films that, even at an early age, his parents were obliged to allow him to watch a late-night screening of The Longest Day, the 1962 monochrome classic about the D-Day landings.

"One of the things in the film that intrigued me was that D-Day had to be launched so early in the morning," Vermes said. "It was the idea that the whole thing had to be well under way before Adolf Hitler woke up at around 11 in the morning. I thought this Führer person must have been a pretty strange individual."

The film was Vermes's first encounter with the Hitler phenomenon. It clearly made a lasting impression, which he has now turned to his advantage: since its publication last autumn, the 46-year-old author's controversial, and at times hilarious, satire about the Nazi leader's unexpected return to today's reunited Germany has become a runaway bestseller.

Er ist wieder da ("He's back") has sold more than 400,000 copies since its launch in September. It is currently top of Der Spiegel magazine's best-seller list, and there are plans to translate the title into 27 languages. The English version is due to appear next year. But the satire, which has achieved record popularity by focusing on a still largely taboo subject, has led critics to ask whether readers are laughing at Hitler or with him.

For many, even the book's cover is provocative: the top is framed by a silhouette of the Nazi leader's trademark haircut. The title – in thick black print – makes up his familiar toothbrush moustache. Yet Vermes, who previously worked as a journalist and professional ghost writer, says that he loved "every minute" when writing the book. "It was just great fun," he insisted.

The novel tells the story of how Hitler, who "fell asleep" in 1945, reawakens on a patch of ground somewhere in the centre of Berlin in the summer of 2011. The Führer is shocked to find his Fatherland run by a woman, is initially utterly confused by items of clothing called "Shiens" (jeans), and bewildered by the absence of Nazi propaganda. When he picks up a newspaper and sees that the date is August 2011, he faints.

Yet most of the people Hitler runs into assume that the Nazi leader is a professional comedian who has perfected a brilliant doppelgänger act. He is invited to appear on a Turkish entertainment show and soon becomes the star of a YouTube skit on the Nazi era. Hitler becomes a hit. When he gets beaten up by neo-Nazis who mistakenly assume that he is mocking their ideology, the assault wins him huge public sympathy. Politicians offer their condolences. Within weeks, he is appearing on TV shows and is back in the limelight. He talks to real-life Green Party and Social Democrat politicians who appear only mildly irritated by his views. Hitler is soon preparing his political comeback. The satire is written in the first person as if Hitler were the book's author.

Vermes read and reread the Nazi leader's semi-autobiographical, anti-Semitic diatribe Mein Kampf in order to imitate his style and language. He also spent weeks reading his "Führer" monologues, which provide further insights into the racist ideology of National Socialism.

The result is a form of black humour that has led some to accuse the author of taking tastelessness to extremes. Before one of his TV appearances, Hitler meets a young woman studio assistant who tells him she is merely working part-time and is actually a sociology student. An irritated Führer snaps back, urging the young "maiden" to stop wasting her time with such rubbish: "Get a young man and do something for the preservation of the German race," he tells her.

One of the more amusing episodes in the satire is Hitler's visit to the headquarters of Germany's present-day neo-Nazi National Democratic Party. The Führer is so ashamed by the run-down appearance of the building and the pimply youth who answers the door that he "wants to throw up on the spot". He finds the party's slogan, "Millions of foreigners cost us billions", idiotic. "Who, then, is going to make the bullets and the grenades for the troops, or dig the soldiers' bunkers?" he asks.

While some critics have praised the book as an "unsettling satire of a mass murderer and the mass media" others have not found the humour entirely funny. Germany's liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote, "We laugh, but it's a laugh that sticks in our throats" and accused Vermes of "not laughing about Hitler but with him". Der Spiegel magazine dismissed his Hitler jokes as "old hat". Some non-German reviewers were not wholly amused. "Is this funny? A chilling satire on the fascist within us all?" asked the American academic Jefferson Chase, who has written a book on German humour.

Vermes is adamant that his book is intended to be humorous, but he insists that it also carries an implicit warning. "Sometimes the reader can be seduced into agreeing with Hitler. That's the whole point," he insisted. "We often tell ourselves that if someone like him really did come back, it would be easy to stop him. I have tried to show that even today another Hitler could be successful, but just in a different way."

"It wasn't all bad" is the slogan Vermes's Hitler decides to adopt at the end of the book when he is preparing to relaunch his political career.

"One can work with that," is the Führer's pay-off remark.