Book Review: Dead Funny

Dead Funny: Humor In Hitler’s Germany, by Rudolf Herzog

This is a book that is a rewarding read for those who take humor seriously [1]. What this book provides that is different from any of the many books I have read about World War II is the way that it uses the humor of Hitler’s Germany before and during World War II as an entrance into critiquing the anti-Semitism and essentially complicit nature of Germany with Hitler’s regime. This is a book about humor that comes with a sting, in that it shows the various responses of humor representing a crass acceptance of dangerous buffoonery on the part of political leaders, a sense of fatalism about one’s fate and the desire to let off steam without making a moral choice to oppose evil, and as a way that people got wholly undeserved credibility in the postwar period as opponents of Hitler when in reality they knew what was going on and deliberately shut their eyes to the evil. Although this is a book about humor, and about comedians, it is not a funny book, but rather a deeply tragic one especially since our own political system in the United States is under similar threat from both the right and the left in the form of people like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump who are equally easy to lampoon for their all too easily seen flaws and also equally dangerous to the health of our own vulnerable republic.

The book’s contents are organized in a way that is both thematic and chronological, for the most part, examining political humor in the Third Reich, the rise and development of political humor, the Nazi seizure of power, humor and persecution, humor and war, humor and annihilation, and laughing at Auschwitz in the postwar period. The author defends the humor of To Be Or Not To Be and Brooks’ The Producers, as well as the daring of Life Is Beautiful, and also defends the humor of Jews during Hitler’s regime, which was often laced with a deeply poignant melancholy [2]. The author is particularly skilled in pointing out the various nuanced meanings of humor in Hitler’s Germany, pointing out that most humor was meant to humanize and point out the ridiculousness of many Nazi leaders, who were vain and worthy of ridicule, without in any way criticizing the Nazi regime itself, while other types of humor were in fact pro-Nazi or ambiguous, even if many comedians sought to distance themselves from the Nazi regime after its defeat, while others ran afoul because they were judged to be defeatist or for their political leanings or identity rather than merely for their humor.

What is perhaps most notable is that there was a massive double standard when it came to how humor was judged. Many who made tasteless jokes in their cups were given a slap on the wrist and a warning, even during the darkest days of German defeat, while other comedians were placed in concentration camps and exterminated or driven into exile, or even in some cases driven to volunteer for the army or be placed in a suicide squad as a result of their reputations. Hitler’s regime sought to co-opt humorists to produce escapist comedies that distracted people from social problems, but showed themselves remarkably thin-skinned to the humor and satire that was directed at them as well, and showed some serious inconsistencies in how they dealt with comedy. The author makes a point to avoid demonizing Hitler or allowing him to serve as a scapegoat for the sins of the German people, who come off particularly poorly in this exhaustive account of humor in the Third Reich that looks at puns, caberet skits, comedy movies, as well as crude bar humor in a masterful work that points out the fact that while humor may not necessarily be funny, it does often reveal a lot about the people who are making as well as repeating and recycling the jokes that exist. The author does not let Germans off the hook for their lack of compassion and empathy for Jews and other political and cultural outsiders who were savagely dehumanized during the Third Reich, and neither should it. This book provides a great deal of evidence for the complicit nature of the German populace for the horrors of the Final Solution in the content of jokes and in their knowledge of Hitler’s actions long before the war began, and ought to prompt a soul-searching in the hearts of many, in the knowledge that should similar horrors happen, most of us would no sooner speak out against evil than the Germans of that dark time.

[1] See, for example:

[2] Witness, for example, the following jokes, extant in Hitler’s Germany:

“Julian Streicher, the spokesman for the anti-Jewish boycott, received a telegram from a small town in northern Germany. It read: “Send Jews immediately–stop–otherwise boycott impossible (83).”

“A school inspector visits a classroom and sees a blond girl sitting all alone on a bench. The inspector takes pity on her and asks, “Why are [you] sitting all by yourself, my child?” The girl answers, “Ask grandma (84).”

“A Jewish child forced to listen to his teacher’s anti-Semitic tirades in school goes home and asks his parents, “Mama, Papa, can’t you exchange me for some other kid? (84)”

“The Nazis take over Austria, and a Viennese Jew goes to a travel agency to inquire about the possibility of emigrating. The agent takes out a globe and points at various countries. “Emigration to Palestine is forbidden, the American quota is already used up, it’s hard to get a visa for England, you need financial guarantees for China, Paraguay, and Brazil, and Poland won’t even let Polish Jews back in.” So the Jew says, “Don’t you have another globe? (211)”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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