Laughing at Hitler: Humor and the Third Reich

From left, Roman Griffin Davis (as Jojo) with Taika Waititi (as his imaginary friend, Hitler) and Scarlett Johansson (as Jojo’s mother), from the 2019 film “Jojo Rabbit.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Nazis have long been the butt of jokes — since even before they rose to power in 1930s Germany. In 1923, German artist George Grosz mockingly depicted Adolf Hitler as a would-be Siegfried, Germany’s self-proclaimed savior, clad in bear skin with a swastika tattoo and a sword. Other left-minded artists, such as Grosz’s friend, John Heartfield, lampooned the Nazi leader as a stooge in the pay of big business or as a comic figure with his Charlie Chaplin mustache and histrionic gestures. Sadly, such efforts failed to sway millions of Germans who cast their votes for Hitler and the Nazi Party. Jokes and laughter did little to halt the Nazi propaganda juggernaut, which promised desperate and disillusioned German citizens a nation restored to greatness.

It is too much to expect that humor alone could defeat Nazism or any other form of extremist movement or oppressive regime, but we should not discount the role of jokes, witticisms, or quips in everyday life in Nazi Germany or in the countries threatened by Nazi aggression. In recent years, scholars have begun to seriously examine the importance that humor played for the Nazis, ordinary Germans and other Europeans, and for the Nazis’ victims. It would probably surprise many to know that by 1941, almost 70% of the theatrical shows performed in Nazi Germany were comedies. Likewise the German film industry produced more comedies than any other form of motion picture; they accounted for nearly 50% of all the films produced between 1933 and 1945.

Humor can serve a variety of purposes: as escapism for people sick of blatant political propaganda, as a vehicle for the Nazis to subtly disseminate antisemitic and racist tropes, as resistance, or even as a safety-valve in oppressive regimes to allow inhabitants to vent without totally subverting the political order. Jokes aimed at the Nazi regime also could be risky. Some Germans and others suffered imprisonment or worse for malicious criticism of the Third Reich and its leaders. And there were plenty of people willing to denounce a neighbor for anti-Nazi jokes.

For Americans and others not living under Axis rule, laughing at Hitler was both a way to take the Nazis down a notch and to soothe fears. The Nazis thrived on intimidation and threats, whether by parading down the streets in mass, beating up political opponents, publicly humiliating “enemies of the state,” or producing films aimed to show German military invulnerability. Making the Nazis look ridiculous helped to lessen popular fears and deflate Axis pomposity.

A cartoon postcard showing a member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) hitting Hitler with a rolling pin. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Michael Zentman in memory of his grandparents, Max (Mordechai) and Johanna (Chana) Zentmann

While Hollywood’s relationship with Nazi Germany proved to be more complicated, and initially not all that antagonistic, the American film industry came to address the Nazi threat through comedy. Whether in Three Stooges shorts or cartoons, the Axis leaders could be mocked and defeated. In the hands of Charlie Chaplin, comedy also could highlight the Nazi persecution of the Jews. In later years, he pointed out both the criticism he received for The Great Dictator and his regret at using comedy as the vehicle for his attack:

I was determined to go ahead [in spite of warnings], for Hitler must be laughed at. Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis. However, I was determined to ridicule their mystic bilge about a pure-blooded race.(1)

Chaplin’s comments continue to raise provocative issues about how we approach anti-Nazi humor in the wake of the Holocaust. Can we still laugh at Hitler in the 21st century?

Certainly American screens and stages have continued to feature TV shows, films, and plays that portrayed the Nazis as buffoons or poked fun at Nazi ideology. One need only think of Hogan’s Heroes, whose cast was filled with actors who fled from the Nazis or suffered under their rule. Or Mel Brooks’s numerous jibes at the National Socialists from The Producers with “Springtime for Hitler” or “Hitler on Ice.” The Nazis are not only popular culture’s most hated villains, but the most lampooned.

On October 18, 2019, Jojo Rabbit, a comedy set in the Third Reich, directed by and starring Taika Waititi (as Hitler), will open in movie theaters nationwide. The plot centers upon the experiences of a young German boy who creates an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, to help him through the pains of growing up. He discovers that his mother, a member of the resistance, is hiding a Jewish girl in their home, at the same time Jojo is trying to become a model Nazi. His discovery of, and infatuation with, his clandestine houseguest destroys his faith in Nazi ideology and Hitler.

Called by Variety the “first hipster Nazi comedy,” the film garnered first prize at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and has gained some Oscar buzz. Some critics, however, have complained that the film is cartoonish and fails to fully address the horrible realities of Nazi rule. The motion picture as Waititi points out is “a story of tolerance and understanding set in a time that lacked both, and I hope in making this film we can remind ourselves that it’s still possible to connect with each other even under the most chaotic of circumstances — no matter what age, religion, race or gender.”(2)

While it might be argued that humor is a poor vehicle to address the Nazi past, comedies have proven to be effective in creating empathy and raising important social and political issues. When Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator, he addressed the Nazi persecution of Germany’s Jews directly, at a time when Hollywood balked at even mentioning the Jews as a specific target of Nazi wrath. While audiences flocked to the film, critics gave it mixed reviews. Some politicians denounced it as pro-Communist or as interventionist propaganda aimed at bringing the United States into war against Nazi Germany. Chaplin called for a democratic world, free from hate and intolerance; he understood, however, that it would take more than comedy to destroy Nazi Germany.

Jojo Rabbit too poignantly addresses the issue of tolerance, but through the unlikely eyes of a German boy who has been indoctrinated with Nazi racism and hatred. The audience empathizes with him when he tries to fit in and later when he frees himself from the antisemitism. Like The Great Dictator, the film takes risks. During the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I, like other members of the audience, felt a bit awkward. Should I laugh or would this be offensive? The film, while lampooning Nazi racial ideology or idiocy, never pokes fun at the victims. Through comedy and a captivating story, Jojo Rabbit helps us understand the mass adulation that Adolf Hitler received during the Third Reich, the power of peer pressure, and the difficulty of overcoming deeply embedded prejudices and fears. Laughing at the Nazis can be fun and liberating, and, at the same time, tackle important issues.

Notes:

  1. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 392–393.
  2. Brent Lang, “Taika Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Wins Top Prize at Toronto Film Festival Awards,” Variety.com, September 15, 2019.

Steven Luckert, PhD, is senior program curator in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org

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