A New Yorker cartoon from the late 1930s shows two cowering men in an empty banquet hall, nervously regarding a third man who stands proudly oblivious, tea cup in hand. The caption reads: "The Messrs Houghton and Mifflin tender a tea to one of their authors". The man in the centre is Adolf Hitler, author of Mein Kampf, one of Hougton and Mifflin's bestsellers. That the joke's not particularly funny is no slight on The New Yorker - the magazine ran cartoons featuring Hitler throughout the 1930s and throughout the war, without notable success. The problem is actually hinted at in that original cartoon: despite his absurd mannerisms, appearance and delusions, Hitler isn't funny at all.
This is a formidable obstacle for Rudolph Herzog (son of the famous filmmaker) in his slim and powerful book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany, a 2006 work now translated into English by Jefferson Chase.
The book's original title, Heil Hitler, Das Schwein Ist Tot! which translates to "Heil Hitler, the swine is dead!" is the punchline of one of the jokes Herzog relates in the course of his inquiry into just what kinds of humour the German people found funny in the years after 1933, when National Socialism began exerting a tighter hold on Germany society.
Herzog directly faces the stark, murderous tragedy at the heart of his subject. He has little choice but to do so: humour's two essential functions - subversion and relief - were warped out of all recognition under the stress of the Nazi years. Naturally, no group in Germany felt that stress more acutely than the Jewish community, especially since they so conspicuously filled the top ranks of comedians, actors, cabaret performers, costumiers, composers and directors who had entertained the nation during the Weimar years.
As Hitler had foreshadowed in Mein Kampf and promised in speech after speech, legislation was enacted "encouraging" Jews to emigrate and brutally rescinding their rights at home. They were forbidden to serve in municipal jobs, in courtrooms (as judges, juries or lawyers) and in show business.
"Once Jews were seen by the public as outsiders or intruders, the authorities could do with them what they wanted," Herzog writes. "In this sense, no anti-Jewish joke, however mild, was harmless. Moreover, making light of the Jews against the backdrop of their persecution, disappropriation, and forced exile was heartless and cynical, and it gave the gloss of legitimacy to those acts of injustice."
It wasn't only "the authorities" - Herzog is never apologetic on behalf of the general German populace; he's intent on understanding what made them laugh, but he doesn't allow that understanding to slop over into undue sympathy.
After all, those acts of injustice had practical ramifications that were felt by everybody, not just the Nazi leadership: "Seldom did Germans lift a finger to defend their Jewish fellow citizens," Herzog reminds us. "On the contrary, many were eager to take over jobs vacated by Jews ... On September 30, 1933, for example, when thousands of Jewish attorneys lost their right to practice, their 'Aryan' colleagues were only too glad to inherit their clients."
In all, it's a depiction of a feral world. This seems a grim backdrop for humour, and one of Herzog's underlying themes throughout is that humans seem inherently compelled to joke about their surroundings, even (or perhaps especially) when those surroundings are no joking matter.
Comedy about the Third Reich started sprouting up almost immediately in 1933, and Herzog has done an amazing job of hunting down the few and almost ephemeral samples that survived the war. Here he's faced not only with a spotty record but with the fact that incidental humour is extremely perishable.
Most of the jokes Herzog relates (always set off in italics), even when contextualised first by the author and then by his translator Chase, will seem weak to present-day readers perhaps accustomed to the unrestrained brawling political humour has become. Most are tepid enough to have aroused no anger from Hitler's followers. "The Nazi leadership who ruthlessly turned their goons on Jewish comedians and opposition cabaret performers were not at all immune to humour," Herzog points out, "as long as it toed the party line." Even so, something pushed that tolerance, as in one of the popular jokes of the day