Satire and Humor

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Satire and Humor

The 1997 Academy Award-winning movie by the Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni, La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful), raised the fundamental question of whether it is permissible to use satire and humor in confronting the Holocaust. Many critics and general audiences, particularly those not immediately affected by the events of the Holocaust, expressed great delight with Benigni's film. Others registered their deep disgust.

The literary form of satire has a long tradition and is closely associated with writers such as Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Heinrich Heine, Kurt Tucholsky, and Erich Kästner. Similarly, artists such as William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, George Grosz, and John Heart-field used their drawings to ridicule social events.

With the advent of fascism in Germany in 1933, many writers and visual artists emulated their predecessors and even stepped up their attempts to use satire as a weapon in the fight against fascism. Their plays, sketches, poems, and caricatures were meant to undermine the power of the Nazis and provide encouragement to those directly affected by fascism. As early as October 1933 the prominent Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus had voiced sincere doubt on the ability of words to truly combat the imminent evil.

Kraus's reservations were, in fact, contradicted by the course of action taken by the Nazis from the moment they assumed power. The writer Carl von Ossiezky and journalist Fritz Gerlich were among the first to be arrested, tortured, and killed. In 1932 Gerlich had published a biting essay questioning whether the dark-haired Adolf Hitler might not be of "Mongolian" lineage. Kurt Tucholsky had mocked German militarism and blind obedience for years. In his 1930 publication, Herr Wendriner steht unter der Diktatur (Mr. Wendriner under the Dictatorship), Tucholsky made fun of Nazi stormtroopers and even predicted the requirement of yellow identification papers for Jews. His clever witticisms delighted many audiences and, not surprisingly, on May 10, 1933, the Nazis burned his books throughout Germany for their "impertinence" and "lack of respect." Tucholsky went into exile in Sweden, where he committed suicide in 1935. In addition, Erich Kästner, a beloved author of children's books, wrote entertaining and sarcastic poems warning about the dangers of fascism. His books were also burned in May 1933.

From the onset writers and journalists found the Nazis' overblown seriousness, lack of humor, pomposity, and constant obsession with uniforms an easy target for mockery. They ridiculed the hyperbolic language of Hitler's Mein Kampf, and the book's title quickly became known as Mein Krampf (My Cramp). In 1940 the British poet R. F. Patterson escalated the attack on Hitler's tome. In Mein Rant: A Summary in Light Verse, the author claims his own version of the oeuvre to be far more acceptable than the original. In 1941 playwright Bertolt Brecht, by that time already living in exile in Finland, wrote Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui). The drama is a "gangster parable" and satirizes Hitler's rise to power supported by terror and backed by financial support from big industry. Brecht ridicules Hitler's frugal and petty-bourgeois lifestyle as well. Brecht's expectations for this play remained unfulfilled. By 1941 it was too late to show his audiences how Hitler's ascent to power could have been stopped. In 1936 Lion Feuchtwanger used the genre of the historical novel to shed light on the true nature of National Socialism. His satirical novel Der falsche Nero (The Pretender) also fell short of what the author had intended.

The influence of exiled writers was restricted because they were cut off from their usual audiences. In addition, scholarly literary forms such as novels and plays only reached a limited audience. On the other hand, poems, ballads, and songs performed in cabarets reached a wider audience. Political cabarets were a staple in the cultural landscape of pre-Hitler Germany and existed in virtually every large city. Erika Mann's Die Pfeffermühle (The Peppermill) continued to delight audiences from late 1932 through 1937, even though most of the cabaret's later years of existence coincided with the Mann family's forced exile in Switzerland. The ensemble also gave guest performances in countries not yet occupied by Nazi Germany.

A close cousin of the cabaret was the Kleinkunst Theater. Whenever its actors, writers, or performers were no longer permitted to perform in public, many turned to the newest technical medium, the radio. The Austrian refugee actor and writer Robert Ehrenzweig (in England he became known as Robert Lucas) originated the "Hirnschal Letters," broadcast in 1941 by the German language division of the BBC. The main character is Adolf Hirnschal, a German private, who writes to his wife admiring letters about Hitler and the Third Reich. But as his name Hirnschal (literally meaning cerebral cavity) suggests, the protagonist is quite clever. In talking about every-day events, the "Hirnschal Letters" undermined the authority of official propaganda and raised the morale of radio listeners. Other popular radio programs were "Blockleiter Braunmüller" (Blockleader Brownmiller) and "Frau Wernicke" (Mrs. Wernicke). These radio spoofs were created by Bruno Adler, another German writer in exile working for the BBC.

John Heartfield perfected the genre of the photomontage, creating hundreds of images that appeared in popular German newspapers and magazines, and on book covers. Heartfield juxtaposed fragments of photographs with snippets of newsprint. With his montages he intended to create new images yielding original points of view. Heartfield's work referred to particular current events in an insolent, funny, and biting manner. After his escape from Germany in 1933, Heartfield continued his work in Czechoslovakia. A photomontage of December 1935 derides the food shortages as a result of Germany's remilitarization. Entitled "Hurray, the Butter Is All Gone," it shows a family seated around the dinner table gnawing on metal chains, handlebars, screws, bicycle parts, and shovels.

Photomontages and caricatures published in the popular print media had a more decisive influence on audiences than elite literary forms—even though their practitioners were no longer able to work from within Germany. The graphic artist Carl Meffert published early caricatures of the Nazi elite, which resulted in an expulsion order from Germany. He fled to Argentina, where he assumed the name of Clement Moreau. In exile Moreau published some of the most ferocious and poignant anti-Hitler caricatures in daily newspapers.

Humor, comedy, and laughter also existed under extreme conditions of incarceration and confinement. During the latter part of 1943 and through the summer of 1944, various cabaret performances were staged in the Dutch camp of Westerbork. The melodies for these cabaret pieces about lack of food and cramped living conditions derived from the heydays of cabaret life in Berlin and Vienna. Most of the performers were murdered in extermination camps in the East.

Survivors of the Kraków ghetto recount how in 1942 a Nazi slogan was transfomed into its opposite meaning by the substitution of a single letter. As a consequence of this witty action, the propaganda catch-phrase Deutschland siegt an allen Fronten (Germany Is Victorious on All Fronts) became Deutschland liegt an allen Fronten (Germany Is Defeated on All Fronts). This subversive prank provided the ghetto inhabitants with a sense of joyful empowerment.

SEE ALSO Comics; Drama, Holocaust; Film, Dramatizations in


Heartfield, John (1992). John Heartfield. Exhibition Catalogue. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Lareau, Alan (1995). The Wild Stage: Literary Cabarets of the Weimar Republic. Columbia, S.C: Camden House.

Lipman, Steve (1991). Laughter in Hell. The Use of Humor During the Holocaust. London: Jason Aronson.

Nauman, Uwe (1983). Zwischen Tränen und Gelächter. Satirische Faschismuskritik 1933–1945 (Between Tears and Laughter. Satirical critique of fascism 1933–1945). Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein.

Tauscher, Rolf (1992). Literarische Satire des Exils gegen Nationalsozialismus und Hitlerdeutschland (Literary Satire against National Socialism during Exile). Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovac.

Wiener, Ralph (1994). Gefährliches Lachen: Schwarzer Humor im Dritten Reich (Dangerous Laughter: Black Humor during the Third Reich). Reinbek: Rowohlt.

Viktoria Hertling