several weeks ago and was prevented by circumstances beyond my control from finishing or posting it at the time. Some recent events and claims about humor and its harmlessness and subversiveness have led me to return to it:
There was long a popular belief in the social sciences, if humor and other forms of “micro-resistance” were considered at all, that these worked to soften passions or divert energy and passion from serious, organized, effective rebellion against repressive conditions. People like James Scott
and Robin Kelley
took on this belief, using examples to make a convincing case that everyday forms of resistance, including jokes and pranks, can be both meaningful forms of resistance in themselves and form the foundation for wider rebellion.
Unfortunately, this latter insight has now itself become something of a default assumption, including in cases in which it hasn’t empirically been shown to apply. That is, humor, and especially political humor, is often assumed to be inherently subversive and daring. This is the view underlying the presentation of humor in Nazi Germany, both by those trying to minimize German enthusiasm for the regime in the postwar years and, oddly enough, amongst several of those responding to Rudolph Herzog’s recent book on the subject, Dead Funny. Herzog doesn’t attempt to make a general theoretical argument in engagement with academic literatures about the uses and political effects of humor, but instead addresses this particular era in response to concrete historical arguments that have been made about it.
He counters interpretations of the collections of “whispered jokes” published just after Germany’s defeat in the war:
People who laughed at Hitler within their own four walls, the authors of such compilations tried to suggest, disapproved of the Nazis and were perhaps even part of a tacit resistance. Recent research, however, has revealed that this notion, though a comforting idea, is little more than wishful thinking and historical legend–making (KL 52-55).He states very clearly his thesis that in this context “Political jokes were not a form of resistance” (KL 55-58). They served as a release valve in a way that generally worked in the interests of the Nazis. “‘Whispered jokes’,” he argues, were “a surrogate for, and not a manifestation of, social conscience and personal courage” (KL 63-64) under the regime. But what amused people does provide us with evidence of how people thought (and didn’t think); they’re valuable, as he suggests, for “the insight they give into what preoccupied and moved Hitler’s ‘racial community’” (KL 41-42). “What makes them important today,” he argues, “is the way they reflect, as all old jokes do, what truly occupied, amused, and annoyed the people of their time. They open a window on the Third Reich, giving us an inside view more authentic in its way than can be found in official historical documents" (KL 111-113).
Herzog argues that political humor under the Nazi regime was not hard-hitting or resistant. In many cases it was the contemptuous humor of people who felt themselves victors. As the regime initially consolidated its power, “[w]hat moved people in Germany, what made them split their sides laughing, was the musty old Weimar Republic and its democracy” (KL 431-432). They laughed at the dismantling of the constitution, and they laughed at the League of Nations.
People mocked the personal foibles of Nazi leaders, often recycling old jokes about previous politicians in Germany and elsewhere, and with “no detectable hatred for party bigwigs” (KL 274-275):
They belong to that genre of political humor in which the shell of an ancient jest is simply refilled with content appropriate to its time. Some patterns of human behavior are so obvious, they can survive any change of system or regime. At heart, such jokes are apolitical, even when they are aimed at a well-known political figure (KL 277-279).Ordinary Germans joked about Party social climbers and the boorish behavior of some officials. Such jokes were “largely harmless and silly” (KL 130-134). But popular humor also had a very dark, ugly side. Not only were popular jokes not subversive dark humor that thinly concealed a distaste for brutal Nazi methods, some reveled in violence. The popular responses in humor to the Night of the Long Knives are nauseatingly revealing. The public followed the Nazis’ lead and “came up with a number of extremely macabre jokes about Röhm’s bitter end” (KL 1086-1087). Röhm himself “quickly became the butt of a number of jokes. Significantly, most of the witticisms revolved around Röhm’s relatively open homosexuality rather than the violent excesses of his brownshirts” (KL 1056-1057); and “a number of stock ‘gay jokes’ were adapted to feature Röhm personally” (KL 1062).
...In general, jokes from the early years of the Third Reich amounted to little more than harmless teasing of the regime and could be told in public without fear of reprisals (KL 491-492).
There were jokes about pointless Nazi rituals, the growing web of Nazi organizations, and how participation in Nazi activities affected the daily life of families. These day-to-day inconveniences, Herzog notes, “stirred Germans far more than any concern for their Jewish fellow citizens or for members of the political opposition, even though the Nazis left no doubt that the future would be most unpleasant for both groups” (KL 448-450). And jokes about concentration camps (consolidated as jokes about Dachau) “seem to have been aimed more at accustoming Germans to this new phenomenon than articulating any real criticism of it” (KL 885-888). Furthermore, as Herzog suggests, as with other jokes about Nazi crimes, the many jokes about Dachau clearly suggest that the populace was well aware of what was happening there.
As they had mocked the League of Nations earlier, with military successes came jokes about the countries they’d defeated and even their southern European allies. More generally,
[t]he humor of the Third Reich was that of the victor and reflected the arrogance that comes from the belief that one has been proven right. The feelings of inferiority that had accrued during the Weimar period disappeared in the intoxication of Nazi military triumph. Humility was off the agenda, as more and more Germans began putting on superhuman airs and looking down with contempt at their supposed inferiors. Popular jokes celebrated the leaders of an empire that was supposed to last a thousand years and heaped scorn upon the vanquished (KL 1453-1457).And of course throughout there were jokes about Jews. These revolved around crude stereotypes - Jewish greed, lasciviousness, and Communism were standard tropes.* “There were even,” he attests,
jokes that laughed at anti-Jewish violence, and these were told not just by hardcore Nazi party supporters, but also by hordes of willing opportunists and March violets (KL 1420-1421).Existing anti-Semitism was consciously prodded by the regime, especially in comedic films. Herzog reports that “Ninety percent of all films made during the Third Reich were insignificant, superficial comedies intended to distract Germans from state terrorism and, later, the hardships of war” (KL 1513-1514). These popular films were calculated to subtly convey their political, racist messages:
…The violent fantasies of most Nazis were shared by many ‘nonpolitical’ Germans. The constant stream of anti-Semitic propaganda likely contributed to this, but ordinary Germans seemed to have come up with the majority of anti-Jewish jokes on their own—a troubling indication of a fundamental animosity toward Jews and Jewishness (KL 1423-1426).
The distorted image of Jewishness at the center of Robert and Bertram’s comic plot was not just a reflection of crude beer-tent anti-Semitism. It was part of a coolly planned, larger strategy. A seemingly harmless comedy was a far more effective means of infusing poisonous propaganda than the weekly newsreels. 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 (KL 1584-1588; my italics).One of the most important points Herzog makes is about the importance of context:
Jokes of this sort were in constant circulation and reinforced and confirmed popular anti-Jewish stereotypes. And though the readership of the Stürmer may have collected and passed them on, anti-Jewish jokes were also told by apolitical Germans. They were a symptom of the latent anti-Semitism that had survived beneath the surface of German society and long before the Nazis took power had laid the groundwork for the persecution of Jews in the Third Reich. The line between harmless kidding and defamatory jokes full of resentment was blurry, and not every joke-teller may have been aware of when he crossed the border from mere bad taste to injuriousness. Nonetheless, even naively repeated clichés helped ostracize the once completely integrated Jewish minority. Once Jews were seen by the public as outsiders or intruders, the authorities could do with them what they wanted. In this sense, no anti-Jewish joke, however mild, was harmless. Moreover, making light of Jews against the backdrop of their persecution, disappropriation, and forced exile was heartless and cyclical, and it gave a gloss of legitimacy to those acts of injustice. The difference between Nazi-era jokes about money-mad Jews and the jokes about tightwad Scotsmen that were popular after the war (many of the latter were adaptations of the former), was that the Scots were not a persecuted minority in Germany, nor was there widespread resentment against them (KL 1400-1410; my italics).It’s easy today to read about this toothless and even fawning and celebratory humor in the Nazi era and attribute at least some significant portion of it to overwhelming repression and fear. But Herzog counters this notion with a discussion of the actual consequences for critical humor, drawing on his own interviews and a quantitative study by Meike Wöhlert. Again, the idea pushed by postwar apologists and believed by many to this day is that even mildly critical humor in the Nazi regime was subversive and perilous. As Herzog says, “The compilations of jokes that circulated in Germany after the war bore titles like Deadly Laughter and When Laughter Was Dangerous, but there is not much evidence that the jokes they contained were inevitably risky for the teller” (KL 969-972). Insults to the government and leadership increased as the war turned, and laws tightened. But as Herzog points out, especially in the early years but really throughout the Nazi era,
the system never functioned as comprehensively as the Nazis would have liked. It wasn’t possible to keep all German citizens under surveillance or to watch over what happened in every house and on every street corner. And Germans going about their daily lives no doubt knew that the state was not omnipotent (KL 949-953).The majority of Herzog’s interviewees “said that they were indeed able to tell political jokes freely, openly, and without fear of punishment” (KL 960-961). Quantitative research Herzog refers to (but doesn’t discuss in as much detail as I’d wish) finds that the majority of critical joke-tellers, when they were arrested at all, were released with a warning or relatively light punishment:
The historian Meike Wöhlert has analyzed and compared the judgments rendered by courts responsible for malicious acts of treason in five cities. Although her research only deals with registered cases and not unofficial ones, the results suggest that the telling of political jokes was a mass phenomenon beyond state control. In 61 percent of official cases, joke-tellers were let off with a warning, alcohol consumption often being cited as an extenuating circumstance. (People who had had one too many in bars were considered only partially responsible for their actions, and because most of the popular jokes that made it to court had been told in bars, the verdicts were accordingly lenient.) Fines were rarely handed down, and in only 22 percent of cases were those found guilty sentenced to any time in jail. Strangely, the harshest sentences for “maliciousness” were rendered in prewar Nazi Germany, but even then the term of incarceration seldom exceeded five months (KL 962-968).In the last years of the war, there were some death sentences for joke-tellers (some of them turned in by one of “a small army of eager informers who delivered hundreds of fellow citizens critical of the regime to the gallows,” KL 2123-2125), but Herzog suggests that these were “extreme exceptions to the rule” (KL 969-972) and calls attention to the double standards by which people were judged and sentenced. Telling critical or even defeatist jokes on its own was, even in these later years, not likely to get people in real trouble; the harsh sentences were imposed upon those whom the government had deemed enemies of the regime, and jokes were rather a pretext or further evidence of the person’s hostility:
The draconian punishments handed down by the People’s Court were aimed at making examples of certain individuals and could hardly have failed to have at least part of their desired effect. As the number of death sentences increased, so did people’s feeling of being under threat when they told jokes critical of the regime. Yet this does not mean, as has been so often suggested, that laughter in the Third Reich was deadly. 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. What mattered was not the “misdemeanor” itself, but the overall picture the authorities made of a defendant’s attitude toward National Socialism (KL 2240-2246).Jewish comedians and cabaret performers of course had a high priority as targets of repression. Herzog discusses the vibrant cabaret worlds of Berlin and Austria in the Weimar era, calling these cities the “capitals of Jewish humor” in the “golden age of Jewish comedy” that would be destroyed by the Nazis. He tells the terrible stories of a few Jewish and non-Jewish performers, including some in exile and further exile (how difficult it must have been for people to translate comedy into foreign cultures and languages is hard to imagine), and briefly – too briefly! – mentions the public trial of the comedian Werner Finck and colleagues, which itself would make for great theater. He also describes the gallows humor to which people resorted in the face of marginalization, persecution, and even mass killings and death camps. The author argues that
the fundamental difference between German and German-Jewish jokes was less a matter of tone or edge than of function. Whereas “whispered jokes” among Germans served primarily as a release valve for pent-up popular frustration, jokes told by their Jewish countrymen can be interpreted as an attempt to muster courage—or, as the great compiler of Jewish-German jokes Salcia Landmann put it, as an expression of Jews’ will to survive against all odds. These jokes make fun of the terrors Jews experienced every day. As such, the blackest Jewish humor expresses defiance: I laugh, therefore I am. My back is to the wall, and I’m still laughing (KL 95-100).So there were people for whom telling political jokes made life more dangerous, and for whom humor could be a daring act of defiance or basic sanity and survival. But, as Herzog shows, this was not the case for the majority of the German population. Indeed, he notes that Hitler himself enjoyed humor that reflected Nazi ideology:
Hitler and his cohorts liked the idea of using cabaret routines to threaten dissidents. The pompous dictator who loved to pose publicly as an emperor also had his lighter side: he enjoyed popular entertainment and crude jokes…. The Nazi leadership who ruthlessly turned their goons on Jewish comedians and opposition cabaret performers were not at all immune to humor, as long as it toed the party line (KL 1469-1473).Some humor, as the book shows, was quite compatible with and even functional for violent oppression.
Herzog’s study is historically illuminating and also contributes to a body of work from which we can draw several broader insights. The most general is that humor – even bad or "innocent" humor - should be taken, well, seriously in understanding relations of inequality, oppression, and resistance. It's wrong to dismiss the potential social and political effects of jokes or stories told for a laugh. But at the same time we should be wary of generalizing unduly from some examples to the claim that all humor, or all humor that offends or pushes a line, is necessarily brave, subversive, or challenging. The people telling and targeted by the jokes or stories, their content, and the sociopolitical context – particularly the relations of power and privilege – in which humor exists are all crucial to understanding its (potential) social meaning.
*In one case, Herzog discusses a specific popular joke which conveyed the greedy stereotype:
Pinkus and a Gentile are attacked in the forest, and as the highwaymen are about to frisk them, Pinkus takes out his wallet and says to his fellow victim: “Ah, I just remembered. I owe you 500 schillings” (KL 1397-1399).Coincidentally, I’d just read the same joke in David Graeber’s Debt (p. 7). He calls it “an old vaudeville gag” and offers a telling by Steven Wright:
I was walking down the street with a friend the other day and a guy with a gun jumps out of an alley and says “stick ’em up.”I don’t know where the joke got its start, and it’s probably very old, but the characters featured and of course circumstances in which it’s told clearly shift its meanings.
As I pull out my wallet, I figure, “shouldn’t be a total loss.” So I pull out some money, turn to my friend and say, “Hey, Fred, here’s that fifty bucks I owe you.” The robber was so offended he took out a thousand dollars of his own money, forced Fred to lend it to me at gunpoint, and then took it back again.