“The making of political jokes is a useless remnant of liberalism …”
— Dr. Josef Goebbels, Völkischer Beobachter
When is it possible to joke about one of the most appalling periods in human history? According to Rudolph Herzog’s book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany (now in a translation by Jefferson Chase) the answer is all the time, and via different means and mechanisms. There was the humor of subversion after the Nazis seized power: ‘ Question: What is a reactionary? Answer: Someone who occupies a well-paying job coveted by a Nazi ’. (36) The voice of the satirist was heard in song from the cabaret stage:
‘In Nazidonia, happy land
Where the original Aryans throng,
Reich of a thousand little years
And the racially pure marriage-band
Comes a leader, big and strong,
Promising butter, blood, and cream.
Yet though he like a Wotan stand
Bellowing out his glorious songs
Ruling the land at the top of his lungs,
Cooking fat’s still an impossible dream.’
— “He’s to Blame for It All” by Walter Lesch (1938)
And the bleakest of bleak gallows humour was employed, in acts of astonishing resilience and defiance, by those rounded up in the campaigns of brutalisation, segregation, oppression and finally genocide:
“The Gestapo is about to shoot some Jews when the commanding officer walks up to one of them and growls, ‘You almost look Aryan, so I’ll give you a chance. I wear a glass eye, but it’s not easy to tell. If you can guess which eye it is, I’ll let you go.’ Immediately, the Jew answered, ‘The left one!’ ‘How did you know?’ asks the Gestapo commander. ‘It looks so human.'”
— from a compilation by Salcia Landmann, quoted in Herzog, 208)
Herzog’s book demonstrates the slow unfolding of events from the street-fighting and beer-hall rabble-rousing of ’20s Weimar to the defeat of Germany at the end of the Second World War. He shows, in unadorned language, the process of propagandising and the psychological capitulation of many Germans to the Nazis’ will. Even if individuals were not card-carrying Nazi party members, he says, there was enough to appeal to the weaknesses, greed and ambition of many to allow their rise to power.
The humor of the mid- to late ’30s suggests that ordinary people knew the dictator’s agenda but decided to turn a blind eye. The tone of the comedy, the banter of people in the workplace and the street, does not display the ignorance that many, he says, claimed after the war as a means to exonerate their behaviour. Herzog’s chilling assertions show that the presence of humor describing such events as the burning down of the Reichstag building, the Night of the Long Knives, and so on, means that these happenings were common knowledge and German citizens understood their meaning. He mentions coercion and propaganda, but is also very clear on the collusion and weaknesses of his nation.
In addition, this book is a reminder that satire has no ‘bite’ within a totalitarian regime. It undoubtedly existed and had its place, but had no strength to make any changes. Satire can only work as an influence for change when there is freedom of expression and comment on any subject goes unpunished.
A school teacher was beheaded for making the following joke: ‘Hitler and Göring are standing atop the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners’ faces. So Göring says: “Why don’t you jump?”’
When such extreme measures are taken to silence even the most innocent of remarks, it takes something incredibly robust to defeat such tyranny and to help unravel the addled minds of so many people subjected to so much propaganda. What seemed to work in people’s favour – that is, what managed to keep them sane amidst the horror and enable a spark of independent thought to be maintained – was resorting to the humor of the past and bringing folk characters into the frame. Germans of every walk of life and group utilised their traditional stories and the humor of clowns and buffoonery to place their resistance into perspective. They needed to manage the situation in their heads, and this would help them survive in 1942, when it became clear to the populace that the war was lost.
Herzog shows no mercy when describing the culpability of his nation at every level for the persecution, crimes against humanity, or remaining on the sidelines when their friends and neighbours were being transported and murdered. He is aghast at the stupidity of the people and at the audacity and crassness of the propaganda that they swallowed. But he also tracks down the brave and imaginative souls, such as Werner Finck from the Cabaret of Comedians in Berlin, who defied his conservative employers and risked his life to insert as much political comment into his act as possible. There were also the son and daughter of the writer Thomas Mann, Erica and Klaus, who operated a cabaret club and wrote satirical songs before they had to flee into exile.
Dead Funny is not a beautifully written book. It’s not overly descriptive and relies upon anecdotal history, but it has a strong impact. Herzog does not feel the need to go beyond direct quotation and pronouncements and basic contextualisation of events. If the reader is unaware of some of the details of the period, then Herzog is informative and clear. True to his roots in TV documentary and drama production (he is the son of filmmaker Werner Herzog), this work reads rather like a script for a doc, free from complexity and nuance. Indeed, his programme Laughing with Hitler was broadcast on the BBC in 2007.
Dead Funny is bleak, disturbing and well-argued book.