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Culture

"Hitler Kebab": Breaking a Taboo

With his readings from Hitler's "Mein Kampf," Serdar Somuncu wants to unmask the absurdities of right-wing logic. On his new tour "Hitler Kebab. Separate Checks," the German-Turkish artist delves into his own heritage.

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Serdal Somuncu has an opinion on everything and isn't afraid to show it

When Serdar Somuncu read Adolf Hitler's disputed work "Mein Kampf" aloud on stage for the first time back in 1996, no one thought he would actually get away with it.

Here was a Turkish immigrant in Germany, daring to read and critically pick apart Hitler's writings before a German audience.

In the next five years, Somuncu gave over 1,500 performances in front of more than 250,000 viewers. He documented the necessity of artistically dealing with one of the most delicate topics in modern history. He appeared on radio and television and published several audio books.

Somuncu read Hitler up and down and all across Europe, laying bare the dictator's demagogy and racial fanaticism -- at times in front of audiences including former concentration camp prisoners, and even right-leaning youth. Sometimes he had to first don a bulletproof vest for his readings.

The irony of hollow right-wing slogans

Somuncu has made a name for himself with this sensitive material. Finally, someone dared to break the taboos of the past, present Hitler's empty words, and do it with a special brand of acerbic wit. He said he felt he could accomplish more this way than any demonstration against neo-Nazis ever could.

Serda Somuncu

Somuncu takes criticism with a grain of salt

Somuncu has meanwhile become a German citizen. But considering his Turkish heritage, why did he choose to poke at such a tender spot in Germany’s history?

"First of all, I don’t consider myself a foreigner at all, but rather as a member of this society with a large responsibility, no matter which passport I carry in my pocket," he told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

"Secondly, I think Germany has a very interesting history, which is very complex and burdened with many prejudices, fears, but also arrogance," he added. "This is an ideal domain to be active as an artist."

The actor recounts the experiences of his "Mein Kampf" tour in his book "Nachlass eines Massenmörders. Auf Lesereise mit 'Mein Kampf" or "Legacy of a Mass Murderer. A Literary Journey with 'Mein Kampf.' It can be recommended to anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of witnessing one of Somuncu's spectacular performances.

Funny, but not painless

Now, Somuncu has for the time being left this dark chapter of German history behind in order to turn his attention to his German-Turkish past and his search for identity.

In his book “Getrennte Rechnungen” or “Separate Checks,” the 36-year-old Jack-of-all-trades comes to terms with his childhood, sometimes ironically, sometimes amusingly, but above all, with a touch of melancholy.

Somuncu, who was born in Istanbul, lovingly tells of how his parents came to Germany in the 1970s as immigrant workers. But even they are not spared his cabaret wit: “My father thought for a long time that 'asshole' was a normal German conjunction,” he writes.

A Turkish childhood in Germany

Somuncu recounts the first party he threw when his parents were away (“The Coast is Clear for Delirium”), the first bicycle he bought himself, vacations spent with relatives in Turkey (“Who Owns the Sun?”) and why you can't visit your friends on Christmas (“Salamaleikum Mr. Santa Claus”).

In “My Day,” Somuncu describes from the perspective of a child why you should have your own class without Germans in grade school. These snapshots from his life brutally and, at the same time, sadly reflect why integration was a foreign concept back in the 1970s.

Serdar Somuncu, Auftritt

Serdar Somuncu's performances are full of energy

In the book's title story (“Separate Checks”), Somuncu not only looks at how Germans pay the check in a restaurant, but also how German and Turkish families actually live in separate worlds. This doesn't go unnoticed by their children. Serdar the child is not welcome to sit at the same lunch table as his best German school friends.

German-Turkish readers, who are similarly torn between the two cultures, will readily identify with many of his stories. “They recognize a familiar sense of longing and melancholy,” sais Somuncu. And German readers are usually amazed to have finally found a work that gives them first-hand insight into the German-Turkish experience.

Uniting the German-Turkish soul

Somuncu is currently touring Germany with his stage show “Hitler Kebab,” based on his latest book. But he goes even further. He unites both sides of his German-Turkish soul in an explosive mixture of political cabaret and wistful self-reflection.

Somuncu provokes his listeners, and doesn’t hesitate to take a stand on sensitive topics such as the headscarf ban, George W. Bush or terrorism. He pokes fun at all nationalities equally -- Germans, Turkish, Americans -- depending on where he happens to be performing, and even includes quips addressed to the locals.

His rhetorical finesse whisks away the stale taste of issues surrounding integration and Germany’s multi-cultural society and turns them into profoundly ironic jokes. “Damn foreigners, coming to Germany and stealing jobs from the Turks,” he quips.

First and foremost a human being

“Facing up to things is never easy,” says Somuncu, when asked about the reactions of his audiences. As a child, he was not yet fully aware of his family's living conditions and the coldness with which he was treated, sometimes as a foreigner, sometimes as a Turkish boy.

And it is this childishly naive perspective that Somuncu focuses on when telling the stories in “Separate Checks.”

In his stage performances, he is much bolder and more polemic. “I am not a Turkish actor or a Turkish cabaret artist,” he says. “I am first and foremost a human being and I have my own opinion on everything.” And he's not afraid to show it, with variations and improvisations, until the stage is rocking.

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