“Trotsky, Lenin, and Litvinov are walking through a small Russian town, and the children on the street shout, ‘We know who you are, we know who you are.’ Trotsky turns proudly to his companions and says, ‘You see how famous we are. Even kids recognize us.’ Whereupon the children run away, shouting, ‘You’re Jews, you’re Jews.’”
Rudolph Herzog’s new book, Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany , is out now, and if you were wondering, yes, he is indeed the son of Werner, the actor/director/subject of numerous internet parodies such as this one. His father refers to himself in the second person in his own bio and describes his upbringing as such: “He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child.” As for Rudolph, he had a much more modern childhood growing up in Munich in the 1970s — though this was arguably yet another tumultuous decade for German politics all the same. The stern German author and I spoke over the phone and e-mailed about his youth, Teutonic jokes, and the hazards of writing with levity during what has been referred to as “a humorless age.”
Why were you interested in writing this book?
The reason why I was so attracted to the whole subject in the first place is that I always loved Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and [Ernst] Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be . They’re my all-time favorites. It then opened up a whole world to me when I realized that anti-Nazi humor not only existed in America and Britain, but in Nazi Germany itself. It’s a mystery I needed to get to the bottom to.
How was World War II framed when you were growing up?
In the 70s, many of the people who lived through the war were still alive. The generation of my parents dragged the murky past out into the open. What was discussed most in this context was the Holocaust, not the war. This was the backdrop of the 1968 student rebellion in West Germany. This poisoned generation conflict was still festering all through my childhood and youth.
What made you want to learn more about this period in German history?
I believe that every generation of Germans must come to terms with what happened. With our collective past comes the responsibility of not letting this or a similar catastrophe happen again, [which] means that we need to learn to understand the mechanics of evil. My most interesting and direct source is gone — my grandparents died long before I could have this conversation with them. What attracted some of them to Nazism will remain a mystery. So I needed to find another way to break it down, all on my own. I chose humor because in laughing people let down their guard [and] humor taps into an integral part of my own personality, but this is something I can’t quite describe.
In your book, you write that “political jokes were not a form of resistance. They were a release valve for pent-up popular anger.” Does this mean you’re not letting anyone off the hook?
If you’re talking about these jokes being subversive, where were all these fearless people who stood up against Hitler? A precious few did, but jokes certainly didn’t make them stand up. They realized the system was diabolical and that’s why they did what they did. But the political humor was widespread and yet [the Germans] fought to the very last bullet. I think we overestimate the subversiveness of political humor. It’s one of the inconvenient truths that came out of my research.
You mention that in the early days of the war, joke tellers were usually got off with a warning, but later on the punishments became more severe and the jokes became a lot darker.
After [the Battle of] Stalingrad, Germany radicalized in the way it lead the war, and it radicalized the interior, so anyone who was critical of the system was in much greater danger then. If you were someone who was outspoken and they wanted to get rid of you and thought you were undermining public moral, the excuse could be that you were caught telling a joke.
What’s your favorite joke from this period?
Here’s an amazing Jewish joke which may have come up in the late ’30s: “Levy and Hirsh bump into one another in the wilderness of Sudan. Each of them is carrying a heavy rifle and leading a column of bearers. ‘How’s it going,’ asks one. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I’ve got an ivory-carving shop in Alexandria, and to keep costs down, I shoot the elephants myself. And you?’ ‘Much the same. I’ve got a crocodile leather business in Port Said and am here hunting for crocs.’ And what’s the story with our friend Simon?’ ‘Oh, he’s a real adventurer. He stayed in Berlin.'”
Herzog will be talking to Ron Rosenbaum, a cultural critic at Slate, at 7pm on May 9th at BookCourt in Brooklyn. If you can’t make it, then check out his documentary of Dead Funny on the BBC.
Photo credit for the monkey: Henning Brümmer from We Have Vays of Making You Laugh.