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Springtime for Hitler

PERHAPS IN RESPONSE to the events of September 11, and the subsequent decade of terror attacks and the media spectacles made out of them, we seem desperate now to laugh. Mainstream comedy films often demolish box office records while movies that delve into the more tenebrous realities of existence disappear quickly. Laughter is the more lucrative business. The so-called real world offers more than an abundance of opportunities for darker cosmological and philosophical musings, but we would prefer to laugh, to experience the transition from anxious restraint to giddy release. Strangely, however, our laughter is often provoked by humor that chafes against the darkness from which we are inclined to retreat.

Rudolph Herzog’s book explores this proclivity in an altogether different context: Germany at the time of the Third Reich. Jokes about Hitler, Nazis, and concentration camps were pervasive before and during World War II: the least amusing era in history produced its own quantities of humor. Its jokes were told and heard by German citizens of all walks of life, which reveals an even more distressing piece of knowledge: Germans may not have been aware of every aspect of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews and eliminate political dissenters, but they had an acute understanding of the diabolical nature of his vision, and instead of acting against it they sometimes laughed about it. Herzog’s new book uses Nazi-era German humor as a basis for exposing the ethical shortcomings not only of those directly involved in crimes against humanity, but also of those who remained silent or claimed ignorance. In many instances, Herzog suggests, even the most critical jokes told by average Germans “ultimately served to stabilize the system.”

Herzog’s book, though its primary focus is on the use of humor in Nazi Germany, remains a timely inquiry into the nature of comedy itself, particularly in the face of catastrophe. His exploration of Hitler-era humor is certainly one of the first in-depth studies of humor under the Third Reich, but the discussion of humor in relation to the events of the Holocaust is not a new one. Scholars such as Terrence Des Pres, Sander Gilman, and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi have broached the question of the appropriateness of laughing in the shadow of six million. Des Pres in particular, in 1988, suggested the existence of a kind of “Holocaust etiquette” when it comes to speaking about the allegedly unspeakable—ultimately arguing that laughter is not an appropriate response because it is “hostile to the world it depicts,” a world where suffering should be treated delicately and soberly. Yet Des Pres simultaneously conceded that the “high seriousness” with which writers have treated Holocaust material was slowly becoming exhausted, and that a serious consideration of laughter as an alternative resource of the spirit should be undertaken.

Even a cursory examination of contemporary American comedy suggests that this consideration has been undertaken, though the degree to which it is serious is debatable. Jokes about the Holocaust have become customary for nearly every stand-up comedian. Comedians have always drawn from stock comedic material—jokes about spouses and mothers-in-law, or the difference between men and women—and now the Holocaust has become similarly easy fodder for comedic impulses. I became aware of this phenomenon when (I confess!) I watched The Roast on Comedy Central in 2010. The Roast has become one of the most watched programs in the channel’s history. Between 1998 and 2002, Comedy Central produced and televised the annual roasts of the New York Friars’ Club, a private club in NYC known for its risqué celebrity roasts. After 2002, the network began to produce their own roasts, and last year the celebrity to be roasted was David Hasselhoff, who certainly seems roast-worthy.

Every roast contains many of the same elements—jokes that go for the jugular, inappropriate, and offensive references, and all manner of indecencies—but there was a new and dominant element that was part of the Hasselhoff event. Of German descent, Hasselhoff provided the well-known comedians on stage with the opportunity to declare open season on all things connected to Germany and its recent dark history. What happened was this: nearly every comedian who stood up to roast Hasselhoff referred to the Holocaust, directly or indirectly. The popular Jewish comedian Jeffrey Ross—the “roastmaster”—began his roast with the following proclamation: “Finally a Jew gets to roast a German [motions Hitler salute]. Heil Hasselhoff! The only difference between Hasselhoff and Hitler . . . at least Hitler knew when his career was over. You dumkopf! Oh . . . Why do the Germans love you so much, huh? Maybe it’s because you fill the entertainment void left by Anne Frank. [groans] Aw, too soon?”

Some of the references were much more sinister, including a remark made to Jerry Springer suggesting that Hitler should have finished the job with Springer’s family. (This was left out of the censored television version but it is visible on the transcript.) What was most interesting was that each comedian felt obligated to refer the Holocaust. And yet with each joke, the comic’s tone of voice and facial features always suggested that the speaker imagined that he or she had dropped the decisive rhetorical bomb by poking fun at what might arguably be the twentieth century’s most sensitive subject.

One might be inclined to dismiss this mainstream phenomenon of Holocaust humor as trashy and lowbrow and unworthy of serious consideration, but the fact is that it is pervasive—not unlike the ways in which humor, as Herzog describes it, was part of mainstream Germans’ lives. I happened to be teaching a Holocaust course at UCLA, and I invited Jeffrey Ross to visit the class and offer a comic’s perspective on the uses, and the ethics, of Holocaust jokes. Some of the same questions that motivated Herzog’s study of humor under the Third Reich became the basis for class discussion: Can Holocaust humor ever be funny or is it always necessarily inappropriate? To what social or cultural phenomena might we attribute this contemporary and collective comedic outburst? Who has the right to tell Holocaust jokes? What does the ubiquity of this genre of humor suggest about our society? Should we permit ourselves to laugh at jokes about unfunny subjects? And, finally, what ethical boundaries exist with regard to Holocaust humor?

There are critical discussions to be had at the intersection of ethics, humor, and trauma. When Ross visited the class, he surprised us with his deep awareness of the connection of comedy to ethics, even though he engages in joke-telling that some students considered to be an affront to affliction. (He spoke about being in New York City and witnessing the towers fall on September 11, and recalled that Dave Chappelle and his family showed up on his doorstep covered in ash, unable all of a sudden to make jokes about the situation at hand.) Such jokes defy our capacity to assess them as either right or wrong. One student whose four grandparents are Holocaust survivors, for example, was heartened by Ross’s insistence that telling jokes about Hitler allows Jews to own the trauma. A young Armenian woman who feels a connection to the Armenian genocide experienced a similar emotional response, whereas another student who works closely with Holocaust survivors was indignant, deeply offended by what felt like attempts to trivialize the seriousness of the subject.

For Ross, it was not a question of whether to tell Holocaust jokes, but rather how to tell them, when to tell them, and to whom to tell them. His tale of telling Hitler jokes in Germany and having them fall flat spoke precisely to the need to understand the delicate nature of the material—a point similarly made by Herzog, who insists that in an emotionally charged situation in which many older Germans still deny that they knew anything about Hitler’s annihilation of Jews, it is virtually impossible to laugh about Hitler. In other words, context is critical; and since contemporary Germans still deal with the shame of their recent past, jokes that elicit thunderous laughs in America are inappropriate in Germany.

Ross implied that we, and perhaps Jews in particular, might very well have an ethical responsibility to be funny about the most unfunny of subjects. When a comic ridicules Hitler he not only exposes his acts as depraved but also reminds us that Hitler was not a manifestation of demonic evil. He and those acting alongside him were humans who perpetrated heinous crimes and unleashed vast destruction. When Jews laugh at Hitler, they laugh along with a history of Jews who have laughed in the shadow of horror in a manner that both recognizes the graveness of the situation and exposes the insanity of the perpetrators.While most of Herzog’s book is dedicated to examining the nature of political humor in Nazi Germany—that is, jokes told primarily by non-Jews attempting to make light of the darkening political climate—a small portion of the book deals directly with jokes made by Jews on both sides of the barbed wire of the camps. This segment of Herzog’s study is more critically inclined, more so than the larger survey of political jokes told by non-Jewish Germans that comprises much of the book. Herzog makes an observation similar to Ross’s regarding the potential for humor to rob the most horrific catastrophes of their power to terrify. The implication is, the more horrific the situation, the more pronounced the impulse to laugh, particularly in the case of Jews either living under the threat of deportation or in concentration camps. French Jews reportedly reacted to daily insults with humor, quickly naming the star embroidered to their clothing the “pour le Semite” (“only for the Jews”), as if it were a mark of distinction.

Herzog’s study also reveals that Jews were “painfully aware” of their impending reality, as evidenced by the following joke told by German Jews:

How many types of Jews are there? Two: optimists and pessimists. All the pessimists are in exile, and the optimists are in concentration camps.

Humor did not cease even within the concentration camp. One joke told by Jewish inmates goes something like this:

The Gestapo is about to shoot some Jews when the commanding officer walks up to one of them and growls, “You almost look Aryan, so I’ll give you a chance. I wear a glass eye, but it’s not easy to tell. If you can guess which eye it is, I’ll let you go.” Immediately, the Jew answered, “The left one!” “How did you know?” asks the Gestapo commander. “It looks so human.”

Extremely black humor was not rare, and especially not among Jews. One survivor notes that in both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz prisoners were “constantly telling jokes, each more blackly humorous than the last.” Indeed, Jewish prisoners’ propensity for humor was also exploited by brutal SS men, who ordered those with former careers in cabaret, theater, and comedy to entertain them—a “grotesque dance of death in the middle of death’s way station,” but one that was emblematic of the schizophrenic effort to glean cheap but sinister laughter from infinite horror.

Herzog recounts the stories of many Jewish comedians who found themselves caught in the collision of trembling and laughing. There was Fritz Grünbaum, whose days in the Austrian cabaret made him a recognizable face, and who consequently was forced to entertain the SS men or face sadistic punishments in addition to malnourishment and other cruelties. Despite his predicament, Grünbaum refused to relinquish his sense of humor, often joking that not eating was the perfect cure for diabetes. Grünbaum died in Dachau. His remarkable capacity for gallows humor in the ultimate gallows was shared by many other theater and comedy professionals who found themselves in the least likely of comedic venues. The German-Jewish director-comedian Kurt Gerron—known for starring in the film The Blue Angel opposite Marlene Dietrich—met a fate similar to Grünbaum’s, but not before being forced to direct a propaganda project depicting the “humane” conditions of Theresienstadt.  One cannot help but think of Baudelaire’s vision of laughter and tears as “equally the children of woe.”

This returns us to the question of who has the right to tell Holocaust jokes. Herzog reminds us of Mel Brooks’ film The Producers, from 1968, of which Brooks remarked in a magazine interview: “But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.” This is perhaps too flattering: no power structures have ever been destroyed by a joke. Yet humor may become a device by which evil is exposed and delegitimized. The Producers was wildly popular among German critics, who agreed with Brooks’s assessment of his film, and not least, as Herzog points out, because Brooks was both American and Jewish. Had the film been created by a German, perhaps the critics would have been less benevolent.

Herzog also discusses Roberto Benigni’s La Vita e Bella (1997), a tragicomedy that takes place in the camps, and that violates the assumption that only Holocaust victims may rightfully engage in this form of gallows humor. Herzog’s praise for the film feels abrupt and misplaced. He states that the film received few negative reviews—which is hardly true—and praises it as a work about survival, failing to adequately explore the film’s use of comedy and its reception among German critics. Certainly the film’s focus on survival is one of its least praiseworthy attributes, particularly in a study on humor in Hitler’s Germany. Given that the stories of most World War II-era European Jews do not end with survival, one would expect at least a minor indictment of Benigni’s impulse to focus on the so-called silver lining as opposed to the horrific reality.

The general consensus seems to be that Jews have a certain right to the material of the Holocaust. It is somehow more appropriate for Jeffrey Ross to tell a Hitler joke than for Lisa Lampanelli, who told a joke about how Jews would have sprinted for the ovens rather than listen to David Hasselhoff sing. Most of my students were deeply offended and upset by Lampanelli’s joke, not only because she is not Jewish, but also because her attempt at humor cheaply exploits the experience of victims.

In Nazi Germany, both Jews and Germans became adept at joke-telling, but the impetuses for their comedic efforts were vastly dissimilar. Jews were political targets of the Nazi regime, and their humor was conceived as an instrument for dealing with this harsh reality. Humor was for them an expression of defiance. But for non-Jewish Germans, political jokes were a “release valve for pent-up popular anger”—a way to let off steam, not a form of resistance. The majority of the German political jokes were for the most part uncritical of the system, preferring instead to expose the human weaknesses of Nazi leaders. These same leaders’ crimes were usually omitted from war-time comedy. One example takes a jab at the pompous Hermann Göring:

Göring recently added an arrow to the many medals on his chest. It’s there as a directional sign: “To be continued on my back.”

One would expect that Göring’s widely-known sadistic tendencies would become the basis for jokes at his expense, but most jokes depict him, in Herzog’s words, as a “sort of pompous but ultimately likeable Falstaff.” Even German jokes about Dachau were innocuous, and aimed primarily at minimizing the horror associated with the camp rather than articulating any substantial criticism of it:

I took an excursion to Dachau, and boy what a place it is! Barbed wire, machine guns, barbed wire, more machine guns . . . But I tell you: Nonetheless, if I want to, I’ll get in.

Herzog offers a subtle but scathing indictment of Nazi-era Germans who after the war compiled a book of “whispered jokes.” Their eagerness to exonerate themselves from the legacy of terror and fascism contrasts wildly with many of these same Germans’ apathy regarding those victimized by the Nazi state during the war. Most of these jokes, as re-told and examined by Herzog, do not seem particularly funny, but they do give us some insight into the mentality of average German citizens.

The Holocaust is a tale, among other things, of the most staggering breakdowns of ethical responsibility. Neighbors turned on neighbors, and people closed their eyes to atrocities committed on a daily basis—evil was everyday and commonplace, an idea that is critical to Herzog’s premise, which is that the jokes told in Nazi Germany by ordinary citizens reveal the extent to which they were also responsible for the terrors committed by Nazis on behalf of the state. Herzog is accurate in his assessment that when we laugh at Hitler, we “dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists” and others who would have us believe that Hitler’s capacity for evil was not human. Laughing at Hitler might have been a way back to ethical responsibility, because inherent in the laugh is an acknowledgment of just how frightening the human capacity for evil can be.

Monica Osborne teaches in the Department of Germanic Languages and the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.