Melville House £18.99

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam