Sometimes, in the worst of situations, all you can do is laugh. Humor and laughter are two things that are central to being human.
Even in the most inhuman of places, where darkness reigns supreme and the world seems to have been turned upside down (places like Nazi Germany during WWII, for example), people didn’t lose their capacity to appreciate laughter and jokes.
Indeed, sometimes laughter was the only thing that allowed people to cope with the reality of living through such a time in history.
Despite long-standing stereotypes about Germans being serious, humorless people, humor has occupied an important position in German culture for centuries.
The Nazi Party coming to power in 1933 may have darkened the national mood, but it didn’t stop people making jokes and laughing. It did, however, change what they joked and laughed about – or, put another way, what they were and weren’t allowed to joke about.
Because of the severely authoritarian and strict nature of the Nazi Party, it’s easy to assume that all forms of mockery or caricatures of Nazis and prominent Nazi Party members were immediately banned in Nazi-era Germany.
This wasn’t the case – not initially, anyway – and in the early part of the 1930s, a number of German publications openly mocked Hitler and the Nazis.
In fact, weirdly enough, in 1933, Hitler’s personal secretary, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, published a book of Hitler caricatures consisting of mocking images of Hitler taken from various publications around the world.
The purpose of this book of Hitler caricatures was, however, to show how “wrong” the rest of the world was in their mockery of the Führer.
Various jokes about Hitler and the Nazis did the rounds among the German populace in the first half of the 1930s too, often portraying Hitler and his Nazis as thick-headed goons and loudmouth buffoons.
In 1934, however, a year after Hitler took power, his regime started to crack down on mockery of the Nazi Party and its leaders. This was the case in published formats, at least; verbal jokes still circulated among the general populace about the party members.
One which was quite popular described Hitler visiting a lunatic asylum, in which each patient salutes him with a “Heil Hitler!” except for one, who refuses to do so. Hitler asks him why, and the man replies, “I’m the doctor here, I’m the only one who isn’t crazy!”
In another case, a circus owner in the city of Paderborn trained his chimpanzees to do the Nazi salute every time they saw someone in a military uniform. While many people found this hilarious, when the Nazis found out they ordered him to make the chimps stop at once or they would be dispatched.
Even though openly mocking the Nazi Party and its leaders was banned after 1934, many people continued to do so.
One of them, German comedian Werner Finck, would go so far as calling out Gestapo informers in his audience and asking them if he was speaking slowly enough for them to write down everything he said.
As a consequence, in 1935, Finck was interned in Esterwegen concentration camp for six weeks as punishment for continually mocking the Nazi regime. But that didn’t stop him.
Even at the camp, he continued to tell jokes, telling his fellow camp members not to be afraid of laughing – after all, they were already in the camp, what else could be done to them?
Finck was freed after a couple of weeks, but he continued to joke about the Nazis. When he was arrested again, he was given the choice of joining the Wehrmacht or going to prison. He chose to join the army, and ended up being awarded an Iron Cross for his actions on the Eastern Front.
As the war dragged on, the Nazis themselves tried to use humor to lift the mood of the public. The regime sponsored a number of comedy shows, humorous films, and comedy cabarets to try to keep people’s spirits up.
Many people though, found little to laugh about in Nazi Germany, and some of those who made a profession out of laughter ended up paying the ultimate price for crossing lines that the Nazi Party decreed could not be crossed.
German artist Erich Ohser got into a lot of trouble over his anti-Nazi drawings. After being banned from working, he began (on the surface, at least) to toe the party line by drawing caricatures that mocked the British and the Soviets. But in his private life, he continued to mock the Nazis.
Unfortunately, a neighbor overheard one of his anti-Nazi conversations with a friend and reported him to the Gestapo. Ohser took his own life before the trial started, and his friend was executed in 1944.
Humor and jokes were in short supply during the last, terrible years of the war. After it was finally over, laughter returned … slowly.
After a few years, though, comedy and jokes had found their place in German society once again, and people were once more able to laugh and joke openly, despite the darkness of the recent past.