Humour in Hitler's Germany

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Ostpreussen
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Humour in Hitler's Germany

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Rudolph Hertzog, Dead Funny – Humour in Hitler’s Germany. Melville House. NY, 2011. Trans. Jefferson Chase.

Something reasonably light to kick off the new year from Rudolph Herzog, the son of Werner.

He goes into some depth defining those elements which made the telling of certain jokes during the period of the Third Reich tantalisingly subversive– how the humour was at times a simple reworking of older, universal themes, through to poking a finger at the pomposity of certain individuals, and on to black or gallows humour. And he paints some nice vignettes of the leading comedy acts, their audiences and the venues which hosted them as well.

Hertzog asserts that the danger which was meant to be associated with such risk-taking behaviour as making light of the regime or its personalities, has been somewhat overstated, and that while there were (quite rare) instances of capital punishment meted out for it, the vast majority of cases which even made it to the attention of the police or the courts were dealt with by a warning, a fine or much less often, by incarceration. And the consumption of alcohol was often taken as a mitigating circumstance when considering a verdict.

The glaring exception of course were German Jews, whose numbers within the arts and entertainment industry were not inconsiderable. Rapidly denied permission to perform in film, theatre or cabaret, even fleeing to Switzerland did not provide the opportunity for further political criticism or satire. The authorities there were often fawning in their efforts to maintain good relations with their powerful neighbour, and many performers were either forced to abandon their acts, or were simply escorted back across the border. The stories of their fall from favour and subsequent fate in concentration camps is all too common.

And Jews themselves were under no illusions about what was happening: “How many types of Jews are there? Two: optimists and pessimists. All the pessimists are in exile and all the optimists are in concentration camps.”

Ultimately, this is a well-researched, and well-organised examination of the subjects, meaning and implications of humour in its various forms during the period of the Third Reich. It is certainly not a laugh-a-minute exercise. While the humour is liberally sprinkled throughout its 235 pages, it is more an investigation of the social and political context of the time in providing the canvas for specific jokes, puns and satire.

Some examples which may still raise a smile:

Hitler visits a lunatic asylum, where the patients all dutifully perform the German salute. Suddenly, Hitler sees one man whose arm is not raised. “Why don’t you greet me the same way as everyone else,” he hisses. The man answers: “My Führer, I’m an orderly, not a madman!”

On the evening of February 27, Göring’s assistant arrives out of breath at his boss’s office and yells, “State Premier Göring, the Reichstag is on fire!” Göring looks at the clock, shakes his head in surprise, and says, “What, already?”

In one of his sermons, Count von Galen (Catholic Bishop of Münster) criticised the educational programs of the Hitler Youth. A member of his congregation interrupted him: “How can a man without children dare to speak about education?” Von Galen countered, “Sir, I’m not going to tolerate any criticism of our Führer in my church!”

Since Hitler openly complained about the “perversions” that have taken hold within the SA, people understand what Chief of Staff Röhm really meant when he said “In every Hitler Youth, there’s an SA leader.”

And finally, this example is worth noting in that it neatly exemplifies Hertzog’s thesis that “The draconian punishments handed down by the People’s Courts…did not mean that laughter in the Third Reich was deadly. Merely telling a political joke did not put the joke teller’s life at risk. The real risk arose when the Nazis were looking for an excuse to remove an unwanted member of the community. What mattered was not the “misdemeanour” itself, but the overall picture the authorities made of a defendant’s attitude towards National Socialism.”

The particular teller in this instance – Pastor Joseph Müller - did in fact receive the death penalty, but it was not for the actual joke itself. While on the surface it would appear to be somewhat risky in that the punch line makes reference to the crucifixion of Jesus between two criminals, the telling of a very similar version of the joke had been classified as a misdemeanour as early as 1933. It was rather for his unreliability that the ultimate sentence was administered. Müller had put himself off side with certain “reliable” members of the community and thus needed to be made an example of.

“A mortally wounded soldier is about to die and calls a nurse. ‘I’m going to die as a soldier and I’d like to know for whom I’ve given my life.’ The nurse answers: ‘You are dying for the Führer and the German people.’ The soldier asks, ‘Can the Führer come to my bedside?’ The nurse says that, no, that is not possible, but she will bring in a picture of him instead. The soldier then tells her to put the picture on the right hand side of the bed, and then says ‘I was in the Luftwaffe,’ so the nurse brings in a picture of Göring and puts it on the left hand side of the bed. Then the soldier says ‘Now I can die like Jesus.’”

Of note, there is a BBC documentary Laughing With Hitler, also by Hertzog, which can be watched on various sites, including YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVk94Tou44s

Cheers,
Greg

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Alex
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Re: Humour in Hitler's Germany

Post by Alex »

awesome post!

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