Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany, By Rudolph Herzog

Why the Reich had no real rib-ticklers

Peter Watson's recent The German Genius, a primer of Teutonic talent overlooked by a nation (ours) obsessed with National Socialism, was a thoughtful reminder of just how much German Kultur gave to the modern world, from abstract concepts to reassuringly solid engineering. Humour, though, barely appears.

The disconnect between German ghastliness and German brilliance doesn't allow room for it. After all, when John Cleese exploded in Fawlty Towers, it was the concussed Basil's guests who pleaded that there was nothing funny about the war, "not for us, not for any German".

Yet jokes were not simply abolished in the Third Reich, as Rudolph Herzog, son of the film-maker Werner, makes clear in this concise, compelling book. Although some died for their quips, their fates had already been decided from above. The actor and indiscreet raconteur Robert Dorsay, already hounded from employment, made one last splash as lurid posters announced his judicial murder. By contrast, the cabaret artist Werner Finck somehow managed to navigate his way through the era, daringly evading arrest by signing up. Postwar, he became a living symbol of a lost age.

Stripped of historical context, few of the gags in this book are actually funny, the author concedes. But he never lets mild satire pass as heroic opposition. Drinkers entering a bar and substituting "drei liter!" for the "German greeting" ("Heil Hitler!") or jazz-loving Swing Kids yelping "swing heil!" were as ineffectual as they were witty. Such gadflies were rarely prosecuted.

This, then, is a history of what passed for humour, including triumphalist gloating and petty anti-Semitic clichés. Unlike Hammer and Tickle, Ben Lewis's investigation of oppositional humour under Communism, Herzog gives equal space to the state-approved and compromised. Top Nazis liked to be seen enjoying themselves in public, taking in light entertainment that ranged from the feeble to the downright shocking. An astonishingly unfunny script unearthed from a never broadcast television variety show even refers to "concertration camps", a bad taste pun to beat all.

The turgid wartime public information routines of the characters Tran and Helle now seem merely threatening. German film, especially comedy, regressed as party hacks took over and the most talented fled.

But Jewish entertainers, effectively awaiting death, continued to perform. The forced cabaret at the "model camp" Theresienstadt was, paradoxically, freer than any since Weimar. The official propaganda film made under duress by the talented camp inmates somehow became known by the strictly unofficial, bleakly sarcastic title The Führer Gives the Jews a City. If a culture's strength is exemplified by its sense of humour, then the Nazis could never have wiped out Jewry.