Almost everyone has heard of classic films such as Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" and Mel Brooks' post-war satire "The Producers," both of which poke fun at the Nazis. What is less known is that hundreds of political jokes circulated within the Third Reich itself. I collected some of the most interesting ones in my book Dead Funny - Telling Jokes in Hitler's Germany [Melville House, $26.00]. They give a rare glimpse of what was going on in the Germans' hearts and minds during this darkest chapter of their history. Whereas other documents from the Third Reich are poisoned by propaganda or tainted by other forms of spin, these testimonies ring true. By describing how and why people laughed during the Third Reich, I examined the sensibilities of the German people, and all of the changes to which those sensibilities were subject, during the 12 years of Nazi dictatorship. Among other things, what becomes clear is that the Third Reich was not nearly as monolithic as the makers of contemporary newsreels liked to depict it. Nazi society remained heterogeneous, influenced by very diverse interests, frustrations, worries and fears, all of which were reflected in the humor of the time.
Contrary to a common myth, targeting Hitler using quips and jokes didn't undermine the regime. Political jokes were not a form of resistance. They were a release valve for pent-up popular anger. People told jokes in their neighborhood bars or on the street because they coveted a moment of liberation in which they could let off a bit of steam. That was ultimately in the interests of the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the Führer and his henchmen rarely cracked down on joke-tellers and if they did, the punishments were mild - mostly resulting in a small fine. In the last phase of the war when the regime felt threatened by "dissenters," though, this changed. A handful of death sentences were handed down to joke-tellers, though the true reason for this was rarely their actual "crime." The jokes were taken as a pretext to remove blacklisted individuals - people the Nazis feared or detested because of who they were rather than because of what they had done. Among others, these included Jews, left-wing artists, and Catholic priests. As I show in my book, a staunch party member could walk free after telling a joke, whereas a known "dissenter" was executed for exactly the same quip.
As the following samples show, the "ridiculous Führer," stripped of his imperial posturing, was by no means a post-war innovation. Enough caricatures exist from the early years of Nazism that depict Hitler as loudmouth buffoon and a tin-pot dictator. The many disrespectful jokes about the Nazi Party leadership that circulated during the Third Reich also support the conclusion that Germans were by no means unwilling victims of propaganda. Great numbers of people back then saw through the swindles cooked up by Goebbels and consorts. Sadly, that did nothing to alter the fact that, in the course of a few years, Germany was thoroughly drawn into the terrible whirlpool of Nazi crimes.