I came across this book serendipitously. A few months back, there was a debate raging on GR (even now going on with reduced decibel levels) that whether anyone should be allowed to satirise Hitler. This was triggered by the publication of Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. One member, without even reading the book, effectively cursed all the people who would read this book and post a positive review about it.
I was intrigued. Being a person who finds humour in everything, I was surprised that someone could take such an extreme view. Then I found that she was not alone in her views; for many people, the Holocaust was a tragedy which cannot be compared to anything which came before and after, and Hitler was an evil beyond description, which should not be analysed or interpreted, just condemned. As far as I was concerned, this was pure poppycock. Hitler was a dictator who committed genocide to a previously unprecedented level, and I would not choose him as a dinner companion – but he was human, just like you and me.
So I embarked on a journey to discover Hitler and the Third Reich in general, and came across a reference to this book in one of the discussions. Immediately, I decided that it was a must-read. Thankfully, I could find a copy online.
This is not just a history of humour in the Reich, though it is that too. Herzog traces the evolution of political humour and satire in Germany during Hitler’s ascent, reign, decline and demise: and in the process, asks some relevant questions.
IS IT PERMISSIBLE to laugh at Hitler? This is a question that is often debated in Germany, where, seeing the magnitude of the horrors the Third Reich committed in their name, many citizens still have difficulty taking a satirical look at it. And when others dare to do precisely that, they are accused of trivializing the Holocaust. Nonetheless, German humorists are always trying to tackle this most sensitive of topics, and jokes at the expense of the Nazis are at their most powerful and revealing when they are spoken in the economical, matter-of-course tone of the satirist.
Is it legitimate to approach Auschwitz using techniques of satire, or would doing so downplay crimes so monstrous that they can hardly be put into words? Whatever one’s answer to this question, the fact is that Germans have always laughed at Hitler, even during the twelve years of his terrifying reign.
Yes, the Germans have always laughed.
Political humour existed in Germany for a long time. The first German adventure novel, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, follows the exploits of a simple shepherd in the devastated and lawless landscape of Europe after the Thirty Years’ War. The horrors that Simplicius sees, Herzog writes, is described in language that is “cheerful and disarmingly ironic”. To quote from the book:
At first glance a novel featuring a rogue hero but really about a decades long bloodbath may itself seem like a bizarre idea. Why didn’t Grimmelshausen just write a chronicle of events? The message of Simplicissimus is that fear and terror are only half as bad when one can laugh in their face.
Ironically, the tradition of the German novel begins with the sort of humor that still occasions controversy today, when people try to treat Hitler comically. Yet the truth is that terrible events seem to call for humor. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, humor often appears as the only effective antidote against lingering horror. One could cite dozens of examples of how the deepest human abysses make people laugh.
Herzog says the same black humour can be found in Jewish jokes, who may have found the strength to tolerate their unbearable situation by laughing at it.
A Swiss visiting a Jewish friend in the Third Reich asks him: “So how do you feel under the Nazis?” He answers: “Like a tapeworm. Every day, I wriggle my way through a mass of brown stuff and wait to be excreted.”
Two Jews are waiting to face a firing squad, when the news arrives that they are to be hanged instead. One turns to the other and says: “You see—they’ve run out of ammunition!”
The second joke, when Germany had its back to the wall during the war and Hitler was trying to finish off all the Jews as quickly as possible, made me laugh out loud and brought tears to my eyes at the same time.
Up until the Reichstag fire, the Nazis were not seen as the dangers to society they were, and consequently the butt of many political jokes, albeit in a good-natured way. Hitler’s over-the-top rhetoric and shameless posturing was especially suited for satire.
Some of the Hitler jokes (one of which was popular even in my schooldays) show an extremely irreverent approach:
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!”
Tünnes and Schäl are walking across a cow pasture, when Tünnes steps in a mound of cowshit and almost falls down. Immediately he raises his right arm and yells, “Heil Hitler!” “Are you crazy?” asks Schäl. “What are you doing? There’s no one else around here.” “I’m following regulations,” Tünnes answers. “Whenever you step into anywhere, you’re supposed to say ‘Heil Hitler.’ ”
A drunkard passes a vendor on the street who is crying, “Heilkräuter!”(“Medicinal herbs!”). “Heil Kräuter?” he ponders. “We must have a new government.”
It seems that the Nazi leadership did not crack down on the jokers in the initial phases of the consolidation of power. In fact, they even promoted it to a certain extent, to make a show of the liberal nature of the government. One interesting case in point is the publication of a book of anti-Hitler caricatures, edited by Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the Nazi responsible for dealing with the foreign press. Hanfstaengl published the cartoons with explanatory notes to show how the foreign press was “maligning” the beloved Fuhrer.
One has to understand there was an even more ludicrous entity to be made fun of in Germany – the ineffective Weimar democracy. Many people saw Hitler’s assumption of power as a good thing, something to bring the broken nation back to its feet. And jokes at the expense of the Weimar government were welcome to the Nazis.
There were many artists and intellectuals who were fans of the Nazi government. The Munich cabaret performer and early Nazi sympathizer Weiß Ferdl, for example, wrote a song praising Nazification and comparing it to the Nazi campaigns against jazz and other forms of “nigger music.” He wrote a song, in all seriousness, about how Hitler has brought all supposedly degenerate elements “into line”. (Sadly, we can see this attitude among many people in modern democracies too: people don’t understand how valuable freedom is until they lose it.)
Nazis also used humour to their advantage by encouraging the creation of slapstick without any satirical content, and by encouraging offensive and tasteless anti-Jew jokes which nobody would find funny today (to be frank, I find many similarities among these jokes and present-day political jokes targeting Muslims). People, in their need to vent off frustration, must have laughed at these – it must have helped satisfy their hidden anti-Semitic urges also.
However, those comedians who refused to toe the Party line soon fell out of favour. The creation of the Reich Chamber of Culture which was affiliated to Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, which required any artist, writer or actor who wanted to work in Germany to join it effectively killed all creative protest, by ensuring that they would get no work. Also, acts of active persecution like book burnings, the jailing of artists and writers etc. started in right earnest, supported by intellectuals like Ferdl.
The German cabaret, however, decided not to sit idle – and it is this entity which has the longest comic (and tragic!) history under the Reich.
The cabaret had a long history of satirical humour, and they lampooned everybody mercilessly, including the Nazis. The story of Werner Finck is a case in point. This courageous comedian kept on lampooning the Nazis under their very own noses, and was tolerated for a surprisingly long time. Herzog quotes the following verses, built on Nazi slogans but cleverly putting them on their head:
A fresh wind is blowing
We want to laugh again
We’ll give you free rein.
While the lion is crowned
And Mars rules the hour
Good cheer, which we all love,
Is slowly turning sour.
Let’s not allow the devil
Or any other powers
To rob us of the fun
That is rightfully ours.
Let the power of words
Vibrate the eardrums
And if anyone objects, he can
Kiss us on our bums.
Finck was ultimately arrested and sent to a concentration camp. However, his relative popularity helped spare him the guards’ brutality. Finck managed to keep his humour alive even within the camp, and Herzog quotes the following lines from an evening’s entertainment he managed to put up there:
Comrades, we are going to try to cheer you up, and our sense of humor will help us in this endeavor, although the phrase gallows humor has never seemed so logical and appropriate. The external circumstances are exactly in our favor. We need only to take a look at the barbed wire fences, so high and full of electricity. Just like your expectations.
And then there are the watchtowers that monitor our every move. The guards have machine guns. But machine guns won’t intimidate us, comrades. They just have barrels of guns, whereas we are going to have barrels of laughs.
You may be surprised at how upbeat and cheerful we are. Well, comrades, there are good reasons for this. It’s been a long time since we were in Berlin. But every time we appeared there, we felt very uneasy. We were afraid we’d get sent to the concentration camps. Now that fear is gone. We’re already here.
(I find this equivalent to the story of the Jester who was sentenced to be hanged for making puns. Reprieved at the last minute on the condition that he will pun no more, he cannot pass up the chance to say “No noose is good news!” and is immediately hanged. You can’t keep the wisecrackers down!)
Many of the cabaret performers migrated to Austria, among them Klaus and Erika Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. Their cabaret house, known as the “Pepper Mill”, subjected the Nazi regime to scathing criticism, using the medium of metaphors and allusions. The following lines from Erika, which are transparently about Hitler, illustrate the point:
I am the prince of the land of lies
I can lie to shake the trees
Good lord, am I a skillful liar!
No one lies so brilliantly.
I lie so inventively
That the blue falls from the sky
See lies flying through the air
That lying gale’s source am I.
Now summer is a-comin’ in
And the trees are all in bud
The field are full of violets
And war does not shed blood.
Ha, ha. You fell for it.
In your faces I can read it.
Although it was completely false,
Every one of you believed it.
Lying is nice
Lying is fine
Lying brings luck
Lying bucks you up.
Lying has lovely long legs.
Lies make you rich
Lies are well-stitched
Seem like they’re true
Wash sin from you
And follow on a leash like dogs.
Back in my home, the land of lies,
The truth must remain unspoken.
A colorful web of lying strands
Keeps our great Empire unbroken.
We have it good, we have it nice
We kill all our enemies
And award ourselves the highest device
Of honor for our false glories.
Once a liar, nevermore trusted;
Always a liar, always believed!
That he speaks anything but truth
Is an utterly intolerable idea.
Lying is easy
If you can do it,
False means to our end.
To the land of lies
Lying brings fame
Lies are colorful and elegant
While gray truth looks always the same.
In order to protect my land
I mix the poison and set the fires
If you doubt me, I’ll shut you up,
I, the prince of the land of lies.
This is only an example: there were many others who were equally vitriolic. However, as Hitler increased his geographic spread, there was nowhere for the satirists to run to, and criticism within the Reich stopped.
The most tragic fate befell the Jewish comedians, who could not even escape by toeing the Nazi line. The case of Kurt Gerron is illustrative. Gerron tried to escape the horror by emigrating; but he was ultimately captured and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic. The Nazis used to use this ghetto to fool the Danish Red Cross workers into thinking that the Jews were getting humane treatment. So, immediately ahead of a visit from them, the camp commandants would ship off large numbers of inmates to Auschwitz, set up temporary facades of coffee-shops and theatres, and the prisoners would be ordered to stage operas.
Gerron was forced to form a cabaret inside the ghetto with fellow Jewish performers waiting for deportation to the gas chambers, and perform for the benefit of fellow inmates and camp officers – not only when the Red Cross visited, but whenever the sadistic Nazis were in mood for entertainment. (He was once even forced to perform in an area in which dead corpses had been piled up. Gerron took the help of blind inmates who could not see the bodies to pass them from hand to hand and clear the area before the performance.) He was even forced to direct a propaganda film.
Ultimately, just a couple of days before Auschwitz was closed down, Kurt Gerron met his end in the gas chambers there – a tragic end to a life dedicated to laughter.
In the last chapter of the book, Herzog asks the pertinent question: are we allowed to laugh at Hitler?
In a previous chapter, he had cited the instance of two great comedies from Hollywood, one a huge hit (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) and the other a failure (To Be or Not To Be by Ernst Lubitsch). According to Herzog, Chaplin’s movie was a success because it was released before the USA entered the war: the events of Europe were still far away. In the case of To Be or Not To Be, Americans were fighting on the front when the movie came out, the scale of Nazi atrocities were more clearly understood, and people felt that it was no laughing matter –so the film was universally panned.
In a way, this informs the critique of the whole question of laughing at Hitler. American Holocaust scholar Terence Des Pres has summed up three conventions regarding representations of the Holocaust, which has been added to by cultural historians Kathy Laster and Heinz Steinert to form five rules in all:
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.
4. The province for depictions of the Holocaust is “high culture.” Popular cultural productions are automatically considered suspect and more superficial. Comedies appeal mostly to an audience that isn’t necessarily well educated. Therefore, it’s more difficult for comedies to be taken seriously as high culture.
5. The artist needs to have the correct attitude and motivation: altruism, good intentions, the proper moral and didactic aims. Even when a piece of culture is comic, the artist has to display appropriate seriousness.
However, in 1968, Mel Brooks (a Jew himself) broke all conventions with The Producers, and followed it up with his remake of To Be or Not To Be in 1983. Roberto Benigni of Italy came up with Life is Beautiful in 1997, a fairy tale story of heartbreak and survival in a concentration camp – an “almost-fantasy”. There was a British TV comedy in 1990 titled Heil, Honey, I’m Home depicting Hitler as a suburban twit which was criticised widely; and most provocatively, the German cartoonist Walter Moers’ comic series Adolf, the Nazi Sow in which Hitler has survived the war and is living in suburban Germany along with Goering, who is working as a transvestite prostitute.
And of course, the book which I mentioned in the beginning, which started me on this trail.
Clearly, taboos are melting.
I think I will end this review with a final quote from Herzog.
Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.
Yes, that is indeed the pertinent question – and one that we should be asking ourselves in the current political scenario, when xenophobia is on the rise worldwide. There may be potential Hitlers waiting in the wings, waiting to ride to power on our prejudices.