May 3, 2011

"Have you heard the one about Hitler and Göring standing on top of the Berlin radio tower?"


Or how about the one the starts “Trotsky, Lenin, and Litvinov are walking through a small Russian town…”

For the punch lines of these Nazi-era jokes, you’ll have to read the LA WEEKLY and Flavorwire interviews with Rudolph Herzog, author of Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany. Herzog’s book, which came out today, is a remarkable and unexpected new perspective on Nazi-era Germany as seen through the whispered jokes, political cartoons, and underground cabarets that mocked Hitler and the Nazis. Still, as Herzog’s research discovered, a history of political comedy hardly equals true political resistance. “”We have to see an inconvenient truth here,” he tells the LA WEEKLY, “these jokes did not cause an uprising.”

Indeed, the jokes Herzog uncovers are as varied as the layers of a culture, and help delve into the mysteries of an evil age, “a mystery,” Herzog tells Flavorwire, “I needed to get to the bottom to.”

In addition to its lucid insights into the German culture, history, and psychology, Dead Funny abounds with bizarre details and fascinating human stories. For example: the beloved children’s cartoonist E.O. Plauen who was persecuted and driven to suicide for his political cartoons; Werner Finck, a cabaret performer who managed to make fun of the Nazis in such ambiguous fashion and subtle meaning that when he was brought to trial (for “maliciousness”) and forced to repeat his jokes, he could make them seems completely innocent; and Robert Lukas, an Austrian Jew who fled to England and began broadcasting ingenious anti-Nazi radio German-language shows on the BBC, shows that were picked up and listened to by German citizens.

One of Lukas’s popular shows (so popular that Goebbels created films warning German citizens not to listen) consisted of the “letters” a German soldier, “Adolf Hirnnschal,” wrote back to his beloved wife. Though innocent and loyal, Hirnschal’s letters, as read on the air, showed the utter madness of the Nazi plan. Such sly, unsettling, and sharp-edged comedy could only arise from the wickedness of war, and shares qualities with the dark comedy of Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Here is a portion of the BBC broadcast from after a failed assassination of Hitler:

Dear Amalia, my beloved wife,

You can’t imagine the commotion among our ranks on

account of the attack against our beloved Führer. Hans-

Joachim Blitz said you can’t believe how suddenly a twist of

fate can happen. If the assassin had put his briefcase a foot-

step to the right or the left, we’d perhaps be enjoying peace

right now. But thankfully Divine Providence intervened…

For the rest of radio routine, and for the rest of the story, you’ll have to read Herzog’s book.