‘The German sense of humour,’ Mark Twain famously observed, ‘Is no laughing matter.’ Although many Greeks, stretched on the Euro’s rack at Berlin’s behest, may be inclined to agree, Rudolph Herzog’s intriguing study of humour in and against Hitler’s Germany, Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany, proves conclusively that the Teutonic funny bone, while it may be difficult to locate, definitely exists.

Herzog, the son of the great German film director Werner Herzog, has written a book that is at once an anthology of German jokes current under the Third Reich, an analysis of their evolution as a weapon of resistance against Nazi rule, an insight into how Europe’s most industrious and inventive people capitulated to an insane ideology, and the witty ways, laced with heavy irony, that they dealt with this major mistake. The jokes in the book, Herzog argues, were the only weapons available to most people to resist their terrible regime. But, in telling political jokes, Germans, quite literally, risked their necks.

The role of jokes as a popular means of venting a head of steam and taking the piss out of the leaden rule of Communism is well known. Sample:

‘Brezhnev’s chauffeur is driving his limousine through an impoverished Russian village when he accidentally runs over a pig. An angry crowd gathers and Brezhnev sends the driver to face them while he cowers behind his car’s blacked out windows. To his amazement, he sees the peasants cheer, lift the driver to their shoulders and carry him around the village in a lap of triumph. When the chauffeur returns, a puzzled Brezhnev asks what he had told the people. The driver replies: “I simply said: ‘I’m Brezhnev’s driver. I just killed the pig.”’

The chief revelation of Herzog’s book is that such popular jests, at once mordantly cutting the ground from beneath the regime’s pompous lies and exposing the jackbooted feet of its leaders as being composed of clay, were a feature of Nazi Germany too. Sample:

‘Hitler and Goering are surveying their realm from the top of Berlin’s radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the sad faces of Berliners. Goering thinks for a moment then helpfully suggests: “Why don’t you jump off?”’

Chillingly, however, the Nazi authorities did not share this particular joke. Marianne K. a woman who told it to a neighbour in 1943,  was denounced to the Gestapo, arrested,  tried in Judge Roland Freisler’s notorious People’s Court, and,  like the ordinary couple the Quangels, protagonists in Hans Fallada’s great novel Alone in Berlin, went under the blade of the guillotine. The fact that Marianne was the widow of a soldier who, like the son of Fallada’s fictional Quangels, had died in battle for Hitler, and was consequently somewhat embittered against the regime, was neither here nor there. The Fuhrer was not amused.

Curiously, Hitler himself, contrary to popular legend, was in private quite a jokester. Nicolas Mosley, the novelist and eldest son of Sir Oswald Mosley, once told me that his late stepmother, Diana Mosley, when in Berlin lobbying for Nazi gold to prop up Britain’s failing Fascist movement, was summoned to the Reichschancellery to meet Hitler in the early hours of the morning. Diana, who described Hitler in Mitfordian terms as ‘a hoot’, told Nicholas that he had her in stitches with such gems as his take-off of Mussolini. Perhaps he would not have survived a stand-up turn at the Glasgow Empire; but, to his intimates, it’s clear that Hitler, if not exactly a hoot, was at least a giggle.

The concentration camps and the Holocaust were certainly no joke, however; but, even so, jokes were still told about them. One of the revelations of Herzog’s book is the extent to which these features of Nazi rule were known to the wider population, evidenced by ‘Fluster witzen’ – or whispered jokes (from fear of eavesdropping ears) such as this one:

‘A guy in a concentration camp tries to kill himself. First he hangs himself, but the rope is so rotten that it breaks. Then he sticks his head in a gas oven, but the gas is turned off between two and five. Then he tries to eat the camp rations. That worked like a charm.’

As one might expect, the Jews themselves made mordant cracks about their fate that take the term black humour to a new level:

‘How many types of Jew are there? Two: pessimists and optimists. The pessimists are all in exile and the optimists are all in concentration camps.’

Not all Germans, of course, were anti-Nazis. Indeed the vast majority of them, it should never be forgotten, were active or passive supporters of the regime, if not until the bitter end, then at least until the tide turned definitively against the Reich after the watershed of Stalingrad in January 1943. Nor was the Hitler fan club limited to Germans. In The Unknown Eastern Front another German historian, Rolf-Dieter Muller, tells the story of the many foreign troops, volunteers along with conscripts, who took part in Operation Barbarossa – Hitler’s vaunted crusade against Bolshevism, launched when he invaded Stalin’s Soviet Union in June 1941.

The three prongs of the Wehrmacht’s invading trident comprised, alongside native Germans and Austrians, countries allied with Germany including Finland (who had their own good reasons for wanting revenge against Stalin who had invaded them in the 1939/40 Winter War) Hungary, Italy, and Rumania. Later the Blue Division of volunteers arrived from Franco’s Spain; and, as the initial Nazi advance seized today’s Belarus, the Baltic republics and the Ukraine from Soviet rule, anti-Communists from there flocked to join the fray, many of them playing an ignoble role in the developing Holocaust.

These foreign soldiers, as Muller shows, were later stiffened by foreign fascists from countries occupied by the Reich who joined the Waffen SS, the fearsome fighting arm of Himmler’s ever-expanding Praetorian Guard of Nazism. Volunteers from Croatia; Bosnia (where Himmler relaxed his racial and religious rules to permit the recruitment of the Muslim Handscar Division), Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium (where the country’s divided Flemish and Walloon parts each contributed a division); and finally France, all sent thousands of men into the freezing wastes on the eastern front.

Astonishingly, estimates Muller, at the height of the war, one in three of the Wehrmacht’s men fighting in the east was a foreigner. With little to lose, having burned their bridges in their native lands, the Wehrmacht’s foreign soldiers often fought with a fierce fanaticism born of despair. The last unit defending Hitler’s embattled Chancellery in Berlin, for example, was a group of French fascists.

It is easy to see why these legions of the damned have been largely airbrushed from history. For racial reasons the German Nazis themselves were slow to recruit volunteers, however eager, from non-Aryan lands. Hitler had a particular down on the Slavs and was reluctant to agree to give thousands of defecting Ukrainians and Russians German uniforms and weapons, let alone acknowledge their contributions to his cause. While western Europeans such as the Scandinavians and the French have been too ashamed to admit that thousands of their citizens, rather than resisting the Germans, eagerly donned the uniforms of the conqueror and went off to further his conquests. In lifting the veil with which history has shrouded these men, Muller, like Herzog, has opened up a new vista on a largely forgotten, and sometimes deliberately neglected, but crucial aspect of recent history.

Nigel Jones is co-founder and director of www.historicaltrips.com he is currently writing a study of 1914 for Head of Zeus publishing.

Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany by Rudolph Herzog (Melville House)

The Unknown Eastern Front: The Wehrmacht and Hitler’s Foreign Soldiers by Rolf-Dieter Muller (IB Tauris)

Tags: History, Hitler, Humour, Nazism, Non-fiction, Second world war