Darcy Rhyno reviews Dead Funny, a new book about joke-telling in Nazi Germany.
Nazi Germany’s two most hated figures – Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler – are standing on top of a building in Berlin. Hitler turns to his Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief and confesses how he’d like to do something to put a smile on the faces of Berliners. Göring answers his boss, “Then why don’t you jump?”
That’s a sample of World War II humour in life under the Nazi regime documented in Rudolph Herzog’s book Dead funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany. The joke is a little weak, perhaps, but surprising by its very existence. And dangerous. Particularly for a war widow identified as Marianne K. She’s the war widow who told that joke to a co-worker in the armaments factory where they both worked. The Nazi’s People’s Court had her executed by guillotine for so-called “defeatist” utterances.
It’s a fair assumption that no one living in Nazi Germany found anything funny about the regime. But throughout history, rumours of humour’s demise are always greatly exaggerated. Inside the Third Reich, it was said that Hitler’s limp salute made him look like a waiter with a tray and that Göring bathed with his medals. Through his analysis of jokes, cartoons, variety shows, songs, films, plays and cabaret, as well as the Nazi regime’s response to them, Rudolph Herzog (son of the great German filmmaker, Werner Herzog – Rudolph says the book came out of a film project) demonstrates how humour evolved from the 1930s through the war years, and even inside the concentration camps. Concerned about the power of even the weakest of public humour, the Nazi Party itself sponsored state-sanctioned comedy.
Pre-war humour often took jabs at the Nazi party for little more than nepotism. As things deteriorated, the humour grew more acerbic, though perhaps no more funny. As an example, the courts sent a priest to the guillotine in 1944 for the suggestion that a picture of Jesus should be hung on the wall between pictures of Hitler and Göring because the son of God died “nailed up between two criminals.”
The humour documented by Herzog is often instructive. By demonstrating that jokes about the concentration camps were common both inside and out, it’s clear that German citizens knew what was going on. What troubles Herzog is that they didn’t do anything to stop what would become one of the world’s most horrific attempts at genocide in the Holocaust.
Inside the camps, the situation could be cruelly ironic for the prisoners. In what the Nazi’s referred to as a model camp, Jewish entertainers were forced to perform cabaret and make films, one of them known by the unofficial, satiric title The Führer Gives the Jews a City.
Sadly, Herzog’s analysis demonstrates the ultimate ineffectiveness of a comic subculture. As Herzog himself admitted in a CBC Radio interview, “Political humour is not quite as subversive as we’d hope it would be.” Still, whether or not it functions as a political tool, humour of the kind documented here is important as an outlet of public expression even under the most ruthless of regimes.
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