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.”
If humour were a reliable weapon, The Great Dictator and Donald Duck would have halted Hitler’s rise.
Instead, they had no discernible effect except to amuse Allied audiences and make their creators feel superior (Chaplin especially.)
Amusement and morale are important.
But keep in mind: we have been making fun of “political correctness” since the mid-1980s and it is more powerful than ever.
When we tell each other reassuring mid-century, Mel-Brooksian fibs about how “dictators cannot bear to be laughed at” and so on, we are dangerously deluding ourselves.
The word “instead” in the quotation above isn’t quite apt:
No doubt many Germans thought that “laughing about it” they were “acting against it.”
So: mocking laughter was their main contribution to the resistance — a contribution that no doubt gave them a modicum of physical pleasure and a sense of smug satisfaction, but nothing else.
PS: I can’t believe that, in raising the Comedy Central Roast of David Hasselhoff, the reviewer neglected to cite one of the most perfectly crafted jokes ever written — Gilbert Godfried’s:
“David Hasselhoff claims he’s sold millions of records in Germany. But like most large statistics coming out of Germany, that one is probably exaggerated, if not an outright hoax.”