Laughter in the dark

January 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. Rudolph Herzog, Jefferson Chase, trans.; $16.95 paper 978-1-61219-130-0, 250 pp., Melville House Publishing

Dead Funny“A guy goes to the dentist, who says, ‘Open your mouth, please.’ The guy answers, ‘No way. I don’t even know you.'”

It is difficult to imagine how dangerous it was to tell that joke – so seemingly innocuous from a 2013 perspective – to a German audience during the years the Third Reich held power. The cabaret performer responsible for the quip, Werner Finck, had every reason to be wary of the Nazis’ “cultural inspectors,” having already spent six weeks in the Esterwegen concentration camp as a result of his public performances. Following his release, the popular German comedian and actor found work at the Cabaret of Comedians in Berlin, an establishment run by a man “known for toeing the party line,” but was forced to temper his act to ensure that his political humour was not overly explicit; his audiences became adept at reading between the lines of Finck’s comedy, and the performer himself referred to working at “half throttle.”

By 1939, the relatively liberal attitude the Nazis adopted toward critical humour during their early years in power (at least prior to the Reichstag fire in February of 1933) had disappeared, and Joseph Goebbels, who headed the Ministry of Propaganda, was on the verge of cracking down hard on transgressors. As Rudolph Herzog writes in his intriguing book: “Goebbels, determined not to be flouted again by his rival Göring, was preparing a renewed attack on Finck within the General Staff. ‘Political jokes will be eradicated, ripped out by the very roots,’ Goebbels noted in his diary.”

Humour, of course, has various registers and uses: it can be harmless or cutting; it can be employed to let off steam or to underscore hypocrisy and cupidity. It did not help matters that the Nazis’ response to humour they found too critical or subversive was applied so arbitrarily: punishment ran the gamut from imprisonment in Dachau to – in extreme cases – execution. Finck was lucky as a result of his fame and the timely intercession of an actress who was also an erstwhile consort of Hermann Göring. Others did not fare so well. Erich Ohser, who was responsible for satirical political cartoons depicting, among other things, “a man out for a walk in the snow urinating in the form of a swastika,” was arrested for making seditious remarks to a friend; Ohser committed suicide, and his friend was sentenced to death.

Herzog, the son of noted documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, details the diverse ways various levels of society employed humour in the Third Reich, from professional cabaret performers to ordinary citizens to the government itself, with its officially sanctioned propaganda cinema that served, in part, to foment anti-Jewish sentiment. The Nazi campaign against the Jews, Herzog argues, was aided by the kind of anti-Semitic banter that was allowed to spread like wildfire throughout German society: “There were even jokes that laughed at anti-Jewish violence, and these were told not just by hardcore Nazi party supporters, but also by hordes of willing opportunists and March violets.”

On the other side of the coin, Herzog points out that persecuted Jewish Europeans also engaged in humour – although of an understandably darker, more mordant variety – as a coping mechanism. The author records a scathing joke about unequal food rations under the Nazis: “Our occupiers know a lot about nutrition. They’ve scientifically determined that Germans need 2,500 calories a day to survive, while Poles require only 600 and Jews just 150.”

The final section of Herzog’s book addresses what is arguably the most distressing question in the context of humour and the Nazis: is it ever permissible to laugh about the Holocaust? Guilt over Nazi atrocities is pervasive in German society even today, but Herzog points out that anti-Semitism persisted even after the war was over. He quotes the three “unwritten rules” about depictions of the Holocaust attributed to American scholar Terrence Des Pres:

  1. The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.
  2. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
  3. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.

“But by the end of the 1960s,” Herzog writes, “the American comedian-director Mel Brooks would break all the rules – written and unwritten – of historical piety.” It is possible that Brooks managed to get away with his 1968 farce, The Producers, complete with its comedic centrepiece, the fictional Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, because the director was himself Jewish. Elsewhere in his book, Herzog points to movies shot outside Germany during the Third Reich – Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be – as comedic works that successfully satirized Nazi fascism and its attendant persecution of European Jews, and he is complimentary toward the Oscar-winning 1997 Roberto Benigni film La Vita e Bella. Interestingly, he ignores any mention of the notorious unreleased Jerry Lewis vehicle The Day the Clown Cried.

In sum, Dead Funny is a fascinating examination of an aspect of German history that is often overlooked. Herzog debunks the myth that humour was absent altogether under the Third Reich, and in so doing also explodes the notion that the German people were ignorant of the crimes being committed by Hitler and his cronies. For cultural enthusiasts and students of the Second World War, the book provides a disturbing glimpse into life under the Nazi regime, and the bitter comedy that simultaneously helped foster and sabotage it.

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