Hitler and Goering are standing atop the radio tower in Berlin. Hitler says, “I’d like to do something for the Berliners to put a smile on their faces.” Goering says, “Why don’t you jump?” In the summer of 1943 Marianne K. was executed in Berlin for telling this joke.
The filmmaker Rudolph Herzog’s 2006 documentary Laughing with Hitler addresses the question of Hitler and humor; its European success led to Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany (Melville House, April 26).
Herzog is known for The Heist, a reality crime series on the U.K.’s Channel 4, and several documentaries including Lost on the Atlantic and Amundsen: Lost in the Arctic. He’s the son of German film director and producer Werner Herzog.
The Brooklyn Rail met with Herzog in Berlin, where he works and lives.
Karen Rester (Rail): Your book takes us on a chronological tour through the Third Reich by way of the jokes told at the time. How did you come up with this idea?
Rudoph Herzog: I’d always laughed at The Great Dictator and To Be or Not to Be. These were among my favorite films growing up, so there’s a certain affinity there. Then the idea popped up in a conversation with a broadcaster. So the film came first, then the book.
Rail: As an American who grew up watching Hogan’s Heroes it’s easy to forget that, in Germany, joking about Hitler is still fairly taboo.
Herzog: In Germany, the whole discourse about Nazism is supposed to be serious. It is true that the Holocaust is the most serious thing imaginable. So anything that seems flippant is problematic. But I don’t think the book or the film is in any way flippant.
Rail: Was there a turning point when it became permissible in Germany to laugh at Hitler?
Herzog: The decisive moment was the publication of comic strips by Walter Moers in the ’90s. He created grotesque cartoons about Hitler. This gradually shifted the goalpost because cartoons aren’t taken seriously anyway so he could pull it off and people could say, “Come on, it’s just a cartoon.”
Rail: You wrote that for German gentiles the jokes were a way of letting off anger and frustration at a ludicrous regime and for German Jews a way of finding the courage to deal with first the mounting anti-Semitism, then the horrors of Shoah.
Herzog: It’s probably not as clear-cut, but generally, yes, I would say this is true.
Rail: There’s this one, for instance: The Gestapo is about to shoot some Jews when the commanding officer walks up to one of them and growls, “You almost look Aryan, so I’ll give you a chance. I wear a glass eye, but it’s not easy to tell. If you can guess which eye it is, I’ll let you go.” Immediately, the Jew answered, “The left one!” “How did you know?” asks the Gestapo commander. “It looks so human.” [Laughter.]
Herzog: There’s another great one: Two Jews who left Nazi Germany meet in the wilderness of Sudan carrying rifles. One shoots elephants for his ivory business, the other hunts crocodiles. The first says, “Whatever happened to Simon?” “Oh, he’s a real adventurer,” says the other, “He stayed in Berlin.” I think that that’s brilliant!
Rail: What did people laugh at during the Third Reich that most surprised you?
Herzog: I was shocked to hear how many jokes were told about the concentration camps. These jokes were a mass phenomenon in Nazi Germany, which means the Germans knew the camps existed, that they were not a sanatorium where people were being moved for their betterment. They knew people were being tortured.
Rail: The jokes mention torture?
Herzog: There’s the joke where two men meet in the street and one says: “How was the camp?” The other says, “It was great. We got breakfast in bed then we did some sports, then there was a three-course meal and after they showed movies.” The first says. “Wow! The lies I’ve heard. I just ran into Meyer and he told me horror stories.” The second says, “Yeah, that’s why he got sent back.” Torture is not explicit but you can read between the lines. Meyer gets worked into submission. And some of the camps were near towns where there was the sweet smell from the crematorium in the air. If you put all this information together it becomes clear.
Rail: Who was telling these jokes—reluctant party members? Dissidents?
Herzog: In the court proceedings you see a broad mix of people were. It penetrated through all parts of society. If you want an empirical answer, well, sort of everyone was.
Rail: So the jokes give away that Germans knew what was going on in the camps. Tell me about when you first came to this conclusion. How did you feel?
Herzog: The whole topic has an emotional component because this is something we as Germans have to break down. We have to try to penetrate what happened back then. Every generation of Germans will have to go about it in some way. It’s our responsibility and something I felt very strongly about, to weave my way through something that’s basically incomprehensible. But we can try to break it down, to understand the mechanisms. I believe we have a responsibility that it doesn’t happen again.
Rail: You’ve said that the real mass phenomenon was jokes about the leadership.
Herzog: If you idealize the Aryan and make that a quasi-religion but the people who are making this determination are fat, skinny with a club foot or short stocky men, none is blond, that’s a brilliant target for humor.
Rail: There’s that joke in your book, Please God make me blind so that Goebbels looks Aryan. [Laughter.]
Rail: You also wrote that the anti-Semitic humor laid the groundwork for the brutality to come: “Audiences laughed and did not expect any political message. But the humor in question made them receptive to the campaigns that led to the persecution, ostracism, and extermination of Jews.”
Herzog: It’s a strong emotion to laugh. If you gave a paper arguing why the Jews were inhuman, people would have to treat it intellectually and that’s not as effective as emotionalizing it. That’s why Goebbels produced an anti-Semitic film comedy called “Robert and Bertram.” The idea was to get people to have this emotion and essentially not care what happened to the Jews. Of course if someone’s not human, you can butcher animals, that’s done all the time. These are the things we have to understand. Dehumanizing one’s enemy is a standard tool of war propaganda. It’s still happening. You can go on the Internet and find plenty of examples.
Rail: You wrote about how Marianne K. was executed for telling a joke. How typical was this?
Herzog: In general very few people were executed. Marianne K. was a war widow who had frequently commented on the criminality of the war and I think the joke was used as a pretext to get rid of her. There are documents showing how certain people who told Nazi jokes were let off because they’re a good party member, then the same joke is told by a Catholic priest. Well we don’t like those and we don’t like what he’s been saying in church about the Nazis. So they go and snatch him and execute him. Is he being killed for the joke? No, I think he’s being killed for who he is. Another misconception is that these jokes were subversive. That can be disproved at least for the Germans. Political jokes were a mass phenomenon up to the end of the war, but the Germans, the same people who were joking, fought literally to the last bullet. So they weren’t subversive in the sense that they were an attempt to destabilize the system.
Rail: In fact, you wrote that the jokes probably helped stabilize it.
Herzog: Yes, there are theories that say this was true. That initial question you asked, What surprised me? That the jokes weren’t subversive. The collections of jokes published after the war claimed that it was dangerous, even deadly. As I said this is an oversimplification because people weren’t killed for telling the jokes but for who they were. To some extent I’d bought into this idea that you could be killed for telling a joke.
I think it’s fair to say the jokes could get you killed but you’d have to put in brackets “if you were someone they were trying to get rid of anyway.” And it’s interesting that these people who published the collections after the war were implying the jokes showed you were a resistance fighter, ready to sacrifice your life for a joke, so they were basically white-washing a bit. For me the Germans fighting to the last bullet is the proof: political humor is not as subversive as we’d like to think.