A New Yorker cartoon from the late 1930s shows two cowering men in an empty banquet hall, nervously regarding a third man who stands proudly oblivious, tea cup in hand. The caption reads: "The Messrs Houghton and Mifflin tender a tea to one of their authors". The man in the centre is Adolf Hitler, author of Mein Kampf, one of Hougton and Mifflin's bestsellers. That the joke's not particularly funny is no slight on The New Yorker - the magazine ran cartoons featuring Hitler throughout the 1930s and throughout the war, without notable success. The problem is actually hinted at in that original cartoon: despite his absurd mannerisms, appearance and delusions, Hitler isn't funny at all.
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This is a formidable obstacle for Rudolph Herzog (son of the famous filmmaker) in his slim and powerful book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany, a 2006 work now translated into English by Jefferson Chase.
The book's original title, Heil Hitler, Das Schwein Ist Tot! which translates to "Heil Hitler, the swine is dead!" is the punchline of one of the jokes Herzog relates in the course of his inquiry into just what kinds of humour the German people found funny in the years after 1933, when National Socialism began exerting a tighter hold on Germany society.
Herzog directly faces the stark, murderous tragedy at the heart of his subject. He has little choice but to do so: humour's two essential functions - subversion and relief - were warped out of all recognition under the stress of the Nazi years. Naturally, no group in Germany felt that stress more acutely than the Jewish community, especially since they so conspicuously filled the top ranks of comedians, actors, cabaret performers, costumiers, composers and directors who had entertained the nation during the Weimar years.
As Hitler had foreshadowed in Mein Kampf and promised in speech after speech, legislation was enacted "encouraging" Jews to emigrate and brutally rescinding their rights at home. They were forbidden to serve in municipal jobs, in courtrooms (as judges, juries or lawyers) and in show business.
"Once Jews were seen by the public as outsiders or intruders, the authorities could do with them what they wanted," Herzog writes. "In this sense, no anti-Jewish joke, however mild, was harmless. Moreover, making light of the Jews against the backdrop of their persecution, disappropriation, and forced exile was heartless and cynical, and it gave the gloss of legitimacy to those acts of injustice."
It wasn't only "the authorities" - Herzog is never apologetic on behalf of the general German populace; he's intent on understanding what made them laugh, but he doesn't allow that understanding to slop over into undue sympathy.
After all, those acts of injustice had practical ramifications that were felt by everybody, not just the Nazi leadership: "Seldom did Germans lift a finger to defend their Jewish fellow citizens," Herzog reminds us. "On the contrary, many were eager to take over jobs vacated by Jews ... On September 30, 1933, for example, when thousands of Jewish attorneys lost their right to practice, their 'Aryan' colleagues were only too glad to inherit their clients."
In all, it's a depiction of a feral world. This seems a grim backdrop for humour, and one of Herzog's underlying themes throughout is that humans seem inherently compelled to joke about their surroundings, even (or perhaps especially) when those surroundings are no joking matter.
Comedy about the Third Reich started sprouting up almost immediately in 1933, and Herzog has done an amazing job of hunting down the few and almost ephemeral samples that survived the war. Here he's faced not only with a spotty record but with the fact that incidental humour is extremely perishable.
Most of the jokes Herzog relates (always set off in italics), even when contextualised first by the author and then by his translator Chase, will seem weak to present-day readers perhaps accustomed to the unrestrained brawling political humour has become. Most are tepid enough to have aroused no anger from Hitler's followers. "The Nazi leadership who ruthlessly turned their goons on Jewish comedians and opposition cabaret performers were not at all immune to humour," Herzog points out, "as long as it toed the party line." Even so, something pushed that tolerance, as in one of the popular jokes of the day:
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 Fuhrer, I'm an orderly, not a madman!"
Some of Herzog's most interesting observations deal with this weird and precarious dividing line between what the Nazi leadership would and would not tolerate. The key, it turns out, was often not the material but the jokester: people suspected of hostility towards the regime were often arrested for making jokes or comments that would have been overlooked if made by the party faithful. "The line between harmless kidding and defamatory jokes full of resentment was blurry," Herzog says, and his pages contain many examples of Third Reich eavesdroppers fastening on innocent banter to complete a sedition case against some citizen. As Herzog explains, "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."
Those excuses came in many forms, so it's hardly surprising that much of Herzog's book doesn't deal with comedy. The focus often widens to include all victims of Nazi persecution - a structural weakness readers will readily forgive considering the author's descriptive talents. We learn of political commentators, disgruntled actors, and even the world-renowned pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, who was sentenced to death for predicting the Nazis would lose the war (and that their leadership would soon be "one head less") and was indeed executed despite international scrutiny and pleas for mercy from many of Kreiten's erstwhile colleagues, including the Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.
By far the most haunting story Herzog relates is that of popular character actor Kurt Gerron, who'd performed in the world premier of Brecht's Threepenny Opera and on film alongside Marlene Dietrich. Gerron went on to direct a string of successful comedies, but in 1933 he fell foul of the new Nazi race laws and was banned from filmmaking in Germany because he was a Jew. Gerron eventually ended up in Terezin concentration camp, where officials forced him to organise cabaret shows (sometimes with piles of corpses near the stage, and always on the eve of more prisoner departures to the death camps) and even a documentary for the benefit of foreign observers, propaganda for which Gerron found a good deal of professional help among the actors, writers, and composers who were his camp-mates. And not all this heartbreaking effort saved him: in October of 1944 Gerron was deported to Auschwitz and immediately sent to the gas chambers.
The jokes and their analyses keep coming in Dead Funny, but after the appearance of those labour and death camps, Herzog's book is almost completely hijacked, turning, as such books almost inevitably do, from a concentrated inquiry to a more general wail of anger. When discussing the establishment of the Dachau concentration camp in the wake of the Reichstag fire, Herzog makes little effort to hide his disgust. "Germans suspected the true dimensions of the crimes that were being perpetrated at Dachau," he asserts, "but seeing them, and believing their own eyes, would have required action. The public's reaction to Dachau was silence. Germans kept their mouths shut and looked the other way."
The nervous humour the average citizen of the Third Reich might have indulged is forever tainted in Herzog's judgement by the lack of widespread outrage that should have happened in the wake of abominations like Dachau. This dichotomy clearly eats at him all through the book, right up to his openly ambiguous concluding comments. "Great numbers of people back then saw through the swindles cooked up by Goebbels and his gang," he tells us, continuing, "Sadly, that did nothing to alter the fact that, in the course of a few years, Germany was thoroughly drawn into the terrible whirlpool of Nazi crimes."
A softening note at the end doesn't change the bulk of the book, however, and Herzog is to be commended for tackling so complicated and evasive a subject. He theorises that his efforts are more possible today than they were a generation ago precisely because "temporal distance has done its work". That temporal work can be dangerous as well, as Herzog likely knows.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.