Monday, May 01, 2006

Coping with the Nazis

One of the greatest strengths of Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich in Power is the detailed picture it presents of German society under Nazism. Evans is interested in whatever he can learn about how people felt, thought, and talked about life under the Nazis, whether they supported the regime or were, to whatever degree, disaffected.

One way Germans expressed dissent—or even simple dissatisfaction with the regime—was through humor, and Evans provides some good examples. The President of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts, Adolf Ziegler, who organized the Degenerate Art exhibition at Hitler’s behest, was “a painter of classical nudes whose pedantic realism earned him the popular nickname of ‘Reich Master of Pubic Hair.’” Similarly, Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, whose high-handed manner helped scotch German hopes to keep the British out of the war, was known in London diplomatic circles as “Von Ribbensnob.”

Some other jokes that made the rounds in Germany during the early days of the Nazi crackdown on freedom of expression:

At the Belgian border crossing, huge numbers of rabbits appear one day and declare that they are political refugees. “The Gestapo want to arrest all giraffes as enemies of the state.” “But you’re not giraffes!” “We know that, but try explaining that to the Gestapo!”

In Switzerland a Nazi bigwig asks the purpose of a public building. “That’s our Ministry of Marine,” says the Swiss man. The Nazi laughs and mocks him. “You with your two or three ships, what do you need a Ministry of Marine for?” The Swiss man: “Yes—so what do you still need a Ministry of Justice in Germany for then?”

In the wintertime, two men are standing in the tram making strange movements with their hands under their coats. “Look at those two,” says one passenger to his fellow, “what are they up to?” “Ah, I know those two, they’re deaf-mutes, they’re telling political jokes to each other!”

But, as Evans notes,
The authorities themselves realized that humour was usually a way people found to live with the regime; it seldom indicated real opposition to it. . . . Those arrested for disrespectful humor were often released without charge if they had no previous convictions. Only where they had an oppositional record were matters taken further, often ending in a short spell in prison. What mattered in the end was the identity of the joker rather than the nature of the joke.

I suppose the Gestapo figured that people who were telling jokes weren't plotting revolution.

It’s good to be reminded that, around here, despite the totalitarian tendencies (and bad senses of humor) of some of our leaders, you don’t get arrested for telling sharp political jokes. You just get pouty looks.

No comments:

Post a Comment