March 17, 2011

A desert without sand: comedy from Communist East Germany


Laura Turner Garrison‘s delightfully illuminating “Comedy Tourism” series at Splitsider explores comedy from around the world. British comedy we know. Mexican comedy we think we know. But jokes from Libya and Israel?

Her latest article tackles the comedy of East Germany under Communist rule:

Almost every East German joke seems implicitly political. Whether slyly poking fun at the Stasi always listening like the example above, or indirectly referencing the socialist state by lampooning its diminishing resources, or calling the police stupid — the humor was entirely a product of its immediate circumstances. DDR citizens coined the more explicitly political jokes “five-year-jokes”: three years in jail for the person telling the joke and two years for anyone who laughed at it.

And here are a some of the jokes:

“What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage.”

“How can you tell that the Stasi has bugged your apartment? There’s a new cabinet in it.”

“Christmas has been cancelled. Mary didn’t find any diapers for the baby Jesus, Joseph was called up to the army and the three kings didn’t get a travel permit.”

Often the joke was not what was said, but what wasn’t said. For example, the following example is a non-joke about the leader of the DDR, Erich Honecker.

I know a joke: “Erich took a tether and went into the woods.” “Then what happened?” “I’m not allowed to say, but it starts off good!”

But, you ask, how about Nazi Germany? What kind of political jokes did people tell there? Well, in May you can find out when Melville House publishes Rudolph Herzog‘s Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany. Here’s a particularly grim joke from near the end of the war:

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!”