The Nazi and the Barber (Der Nazi Und Der Friseur)
THE NAZI AND THE BARBER (Der Nazi und der Friseur)
Novel by Edgar Hilsenrath, 1971
One can scarcely imagine a tale more twisted, more deeply sarcastic, and more humorous than the story of Max Schulz, the "illegitimate, yet pure-blooded Aryan" hero of Edgar Hilsenrath's Der Nazi und der Friseur (1977; The Nazi and the Barber, 1971). From his birth in 1907 in a small German town to his death in Israel more than 60 years later, Max Schulz takes part in some of the most important events of the twentieth century, including the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, the defeat of Germany, and the founding of the Jewish state. Max's story is so unusual because in each of these historical periods he changes or re-forms himself in order to take advantage of the situation. He begins as a small-town barber's apprentice and becomes in turn a member of the Nazi Party, a concentration camp guard, and an executioner, and then, slipping into the identity of one of his victims, he becomes a black marketeer, a fighter for Israeli independence, and finally a respected citizen of Tel Aviv. Each of his identities is laden with stereotypes and clichés, demanding that the reader reexamine accepted notions of identity, guilt, and atonement.
A few examples of these stereotypes from just the opening pages of the novel are as follows: As a child Max Schulz, with his very German-sounding name, grows up in a lower-class home at the crossroads of Goethe and Schiller Streets, names that signify the height of classical German culture. His best friend is Itzig Finkelstein, whose name resembles something invented by an anti-Semitic propagandist. (In fact, Itzig during the Nazi period was a derogatory name for any Jewish man.) The Finkelsteins, while practicing Jews, are highly assimilated members of the local community. The list of groups to which Itzig's father belongs is a ridiculous overexaggeration of the stereotypical German tendency to join and organize: a bowling club, the animal protection society, the garden club, the barbers guild, the love-your-neighbor league. This stereotype of German Jewish assimilation and coexistence is, however, turned on its head by the descriptions of the two boys. Max is dark, has a hooked nose and flat feet, and generally fits the historical stereotype of Jews established by anti-Semitic tracts. Itzig, on the other hand, is blond, fair, and blue-eyed—the ideal of stereotypical Aryan masculinity. Later in the text, when Max needs to escape prosecution as a war criminal and takes the identity of his murdered friend, Itzig, his name and his dark complexion are so convincingly Jewish that his identity as a Jewish concentration camp survivor is never questioned.
The novel begins as a first-person narration and is told through the eyes of the perpetrator, Max Schulz, in stark contrast to Hilsenrath's novel Nacht (1964; Night, 1966), in which the victim's perspective is dominant. There are, however, some slight shifts in narrative voice. The second of the novel's six books has a third-person narrator, and the fourth book consists of a letter written by Max Schulz (now posing as Itzig Finkelstein) to his murdered friend Itzig. Despite these slight shifts on the narrative level, each part of the novel has a clear role in the story as a whole, and the text is held together by the presence of the main character, Max Schulz.
Critics have noted various influences on The Nazi and the Barber. Hilsenrath's use of short and often repetitive sentences as well as themes like transformation, characters like witches, and settings like forests are obvious references to the romantic German fairy tale tradition. More modern influences may include works by Günter Grass or Evelyn Waugh and comic films by Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and the Marx Brothers. While some (including many German publishers who originally balked at publishing the novel) may take issue with viewing the Holocaust through a humorous lens, Hilsenrath, like the authors, directors, and performers just mentioned, is able to use comedy and exaggeration to raise important issues and reveal the triviality of valued ideals without providing simple answers.
Throughout the text, with its storybook-like use of repetition, stereotypes are constantly recalled and turned on their heads as Hilsenrath unmasks the clichés associated both with the victims of the Holocaust and with its German perpetrators. In so doing he reveals psychological, cultural, and personal barriers that have prevented us from closely examining the dynamics by which one group victimizes another, both during the Holocaust and since.