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Monday, June 6, 2011

Exploring 'Humor in Hitler's Germany'

Rudolph Herzog examines comedy in Nazi era

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Is it permissible to laugh at Adolf Hitler? The opinion of Rudolph Herzog and many others is that not only is it permissible, but it is a necessary reaction to Hitler and all tyrants.

In any event, Germans always did laugh, even during Hitler's reign—but carefully.


Immediately after the war it was suggested that jokes showed widespread disapproval of the Nazis and were a form of resistance. Herzog argues persuasively in Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany (Melville House) that this was not the case. Rather, Herzog says, they were a way to vent, a release valve for popular anger.


This helps explain why until late in the war jokes generally drew mild punishment. Position in society and attitude were everything: The average person might get away with a slap on the wrist and a warning to behave himself in the future, but a professional comic or satirist, if he persisted, could end up in a concentration camp or, in a rare case or two, executed.


Werner Finck, a particularly bold cabaret artist, continued to walk the knife's edge until it led to a concentration camp, where he was allowed to do… a cabaret act! Its theme? “Have no fear, we're already here.” Somehow he survived the war and persecution.


Jokes, especially of the “whispered” kind, were “a surrogate for, and not a manifestation of, social conscience and personal courage,” Herzog writes. Most were basically uncritical of the system, “playing on the human weaknesses of Nazi leaders rather than on the crimes they committed.”


Their tone, while mocking, was usually familial or affectionate rather than harsh. Hermann Göring's girth and pomposity were popular targets. Some were jokes revived from before the Third Reich, changing only the names, and would be recycled again for communist East Germany.


Even before Germany went to war in 1939 it was crude behavior by Nazi officials that upset joke-tellers rather than brutal pogroms. Herzog maintains that even jokes indicating hatred for and rejection of the Nazi regime served to stabilize it by expressing a fatalism that there was nothing that anyone could do about it.


The German fondness for acronyms received its share of ridicule. The Bund deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), female equivalent of the Hitler Youth, was known by its initials, BDM. Others, especially members of the Hitler Youth, said they stood for Bund deutscher Matratzen (League of German Mattresses) or Bubi, drück mich (Boy, press me [down]).


Jokes give insight into what the people were thinking and feeling and into what the leadership feared they were thinking. One major thing the jokes show is that, postwar protestations to the contrary, Germans knew.


They knew there were labor and execution camps and what happened in them. They knew Hitler had many internal enemies and what was up when on the “Night of the Long Knives” he ordered the wholesale murder of the storm trooper leadership.


“The Führer executes the appointment of ministers and, if necessary, the ministers as well,” one joke had it. Germans knew also of the homosexuality of the storm troopers' leader, Ernst Röhm, for another joke claimed that his chauffeur had applied for a widow's pension.


And when the war neared its end, they knew what end the world would demand for their leaders: Hitler, Göring and Joseph Goebbels are hanging from a gallows. Göring, minister of aviation (among other offices), turns one last time to Goebbels, minister of propaganda, and croaks: “I told you everything would be decided in the air.”


Dead Funny
covers several other areas of Nazi-era humor, including jokes about and by Jews and jokes about Germany's ally Italy and its leader, Benito Mussolini. Some of the strongest, most cutting humor came from satiric shows beamed in by the BBC, which millions of Germans listened to even though it was forbidden on penalty of death.

Herzog, son of the noted filmmaker Werner Herzog, has taken what could have become a labored academic exercise and made it an insightful, intellectually engaging and entertaining analysis. The translation, too, should be commended for making understandable to English speakers a subject consisting so much on puns and other wordplay.