When it is not at war, democracy is a comical political system. To many of history’s greatest minds, the very idea of allowing the rabble to choose its leaders, who then pander to its wishes, was inherently ridiculous. Compared to the simple elegance of despotism, the stability of baronial rule, or the divinely ordained reign of a monarch, democracy is a messy, muddled method of government.
We, the people, know this. Because our leaders emerge from within our own ranks, we feel entitled to insult them mercilessly, especially when they get too big for their boots. And the worst insult any elected politician may suffer is being voted out of office. No matter how much dread he instills or respect he may inspire, his people do not love him.
In times of peace, we recognize that our leaders are not only no better than we, but in many cases, worse. We, at least, mind our own business and get on with making an honest living; they, on the other hand, willingly thrust themselves into the maelstrom of politics for what purpose? Power? Glory? Money? Fame? We suspect, perhaps wrongly, that whatever the reason, it must be nefarious. Some politicians may be motivated by a Great Vision, others by Moral Fervor, and still others by Fierce Ambition, but one verity remains: They want to clamber to the top of the greasy pole in order to run things and boss other people around.
Given that the system is so endearingly ludicrous, the antics of our elected representatives make entertaining viewing. Some commentators rue the disrespect with which politicians are sometimes treated. In turn, they can be accused of not only taking politicians altogether too seriously, but thinking ahistorically.
The inventors of modern democratic politics, the British, occupied a great deal of their time mocking its practitioners. The more rambustious and vibrant the politics, the more malicious the mockery. Whereas parliamentarians had once been lumped together as “the Commons,” the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of Tory and Whig political parties possessing distinct platforms. This was a development, coinciding with the explosion in political pamphleteering and newspapers, that bitterly divided the London coffee houses (Jonathan Swift, misanthropic author of the political satire Gulliver’s Travels, was a particularly vicious Tory hack) and unleashed an extraordinary partisan rancor.
Turn to a typical eighteenth-century caricature and, even in our crass age, one is horrified by the sheer delight artists took in portraying the great politicians defecating, urinating, fornicating, being disemboweled, and suffering from flatulence. Take, for instance, the famous print of the Whiggish Sir Robert Walpole — who served for more than 20 years as Britain’s first prime minister and to whom the phrase “every man has his price” has been, no doubt inaccurately yet justifiably, attributed — straddling the gate of government. The cartoon is entitled “Idol-Worship, or The Way to Preferment” and depicts a servile place-seeker kissing Walpole’s enormous, naked buttocks. By comparison, Doonesbury’s “waffle” and “feather” jibes seem thin gruel indeed.
Later artists and writers would downplay the scatology and instead focus on grotesquely exaggerating the personal appearance and besmirching the characters of politicians. By the late nineteenth century, when suffrage had bestowed the vote on most of the male population and parliamentary government was upheld as the epitome of Progress, middle-class publications such as Punch drew their claws. Disraeli, Salisbury, and Gladstone were portrayed rather harmlessly as (respectively) greasily unctuous, self-satisfied, and eye-glazingly boring.
But the British were always fond of their idiosyncratic little democracy, even as they poked fun at its ridiculousness. As Sir Joseph recounts in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore:
I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!
Today, ad hominem attacks gleefully continue, though with claws once again extended. For instance, on the satirical British television program, Spitting Image, Mrs. Thatcher’s former minister of education and home secretary, Kenneth Baker, was depicted as a perspiring, whiny slug. (He appears to have exulted in the attention: He collects political caricatures.)
The point is, notwithstanding the vicissitudes of humor, the democratic tradition of ridiculing and teasing politicians enjoys a long and honorable heritage. London’s Tate Gallery is currently advertising an exhibition devoted to the eighteenth-century caricaturist James Gillray with the line, “Don’t Limit Yourself to Laughing at the Politicians of Today.”
Following in the British tradition, American political jokes are mostly partisan jabs and tend to reduce politicians to an irreducible essence, a cliché, a buzzword. Thus, Nixon is incorrigibly shifty and sinister, Ford is an amiable bumbler, Carter is nice but out of his depth, Reagan is just dumb, Bush Senior is a cold wasp, Clinton is a sex maniac, Quayle is stupid, Gingrich is callous, Gore is a bore, and Hillary is a modern Lucrezia de Borgia. A strange admixture of Reagan, Quayle, and Ford, Bush Junior was until September 11 depicted as a fool prone to malapropisms.
A mid-90s joke had Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Dan Quayle riding in a car in Kansas. A tornado suddenly appears and hurls the car into the magical land of Oz. Gingrich says, “Well, I’m off to see the Wizard and get myself a heart.” Quayle adds, “I’ll go with you and get a brain.” And a leering Clinton asks, “Where’s Dorothy?”
A not altogether hilarious joke does, however, nicely summarize popular images of the presidents. The last six occupants of the White House are stranded on a listing Titanic. Ford says, “Oh, no, what do we do?”; Bush Senior sternly orders, “Man the lifeboats!”; Reagan wakes up, “Huh? What? Lifeboats?”; Carter decently suggests “Women first”; Nixon growls, “Screw the women”; and, of course, Clinton chimes in hopefully, “Do we have time?”1
A telling Hillary Clinton joke has the then-first lady and the president driving along in scenic Arkansas. When they pull over for gas, Clinton notices his wife has jumped out of the car, bounded over to the gas-station attendant, thrown her arms around him, and kissed him with tears of joy. “Who was that?” a bemused Bill asks as they drive away. “Oh,” replies Hillary somewhat wistfully, “he was an old flame I haven’t seen in years.” “Well,” says Slick Willie with a smirk, “I guess if you hadn’t married me, you’d be helping him pump gas now.” “I don’t think so,” says Hillary icily. “If I had married him, he’d be president now.”
No matter your partisan preferences, a truly magnificent Bush joke circulated during the Florida imbroglio in late November. In a stylistically perfect spoof of Nostradamus’s pompous prophecies, the “quatrain” ran: “Come the Millennium, month 12/ In the home of greatest power/ The village idiot will come forth/ To be acclaimed the leader.” For the most part, however, political jokes — especially of the Clinton sex variety — follow the ba-doom-boom formula favored by late-night comedians.
On the broadest level, nonetheless, what all these jokes have in common is that they focus on the personal idiosyncrasies and foibles of individual politicians. None calls into question the legitimacy of the political system. Thus, one may have a great deal of fun with Ted Kennedy’s eye for the ladies, his corpulence, and his veiny complexion, but who disputes the legitimacy and beneficence of Massachusetts democracy? It is remarkable that on September 10, having a laugh at Bush’s expense was almost de rigeur. Thereafter, the nation looked directly to their elected representatives and president for mastership and determined command in the face of an implacable enemy. Even in the bar of the National Press Club, usually a hub of ridicule and cynicism, political jokes instantly ceased. No stronger proof is required of the democratic peoples’ faith in their political system.
Put simply, ridiculing politicians does not belittle democracy, one reason being that we cheerfully recognize the absurdity of a system in which Kennedys, Clintons, and their ilk are successful. At the end of the day, we are the ones who control the levers of power: We can boot them out of office. In any case, the achievements of truly great politicians will inevitably overcome the temporary slings and arrows of ridicule.
In authoritarian societies, this happy state of affairs does not, for obvious reasons, pertain. The Anglo-American tradition of personal and partisan ridicule does not appeal to one-man or one-party regimes. As a 1960s German joke revealingly goes: Walter Ulbricht (the Stalinist leader of East Germany) and Willy Brandt meet and exchange pleasantries. “Do you have a hobby, Herr Brandt?” asks Ulbricht. “Yes,” replies Brandt, “I collect jokes about myself. And you?” “I collect people who collect jokes about me,” responds Ulbricht. Indeed, according to Suetonius, Augustus Caesar, who could be amusingly ribald, forbade jokes “against the emperor.”
Political humor of a different sort emerges in authoritarian societies. Unless the regime in question appeals to the nation, its humor stabs at the heart of The System and its representatives rather than individual politicians. Under the rigidly pan-Arabist Nasser, remarks Khalid Kishtainy in his book Arab Political Humor (London: Quartet, 1985), jokes “were usually about his regime, his socialism, his suppression, but hardly ever about his person; they hovered around him but never dared to touch him.”
There is a wrinkle to this rule: A purely military regime or an enlightened despotism rarely produces a rich trove of political jokes, though the ones that do appear tend to focus on personalities instead of The System. Sunglassed Latin American colonels or bewhiskered Habsburg emperors are more concerned with maintaining control in the here and now than with fulfilling prophecies of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under Nasser’s less ideological successors, jokes turned personal. Sadat jokes were caustic and scandalous while Mubarak is usually painted as a buffoon. One about Mubarak has him asking his private secretary to draft a five-minute speech, which he rehearses and annotates incessantly for weeks. Just before he is due to read it to the nation, a beetle-browed Mubarak sits scratching his head. “I just don’t understand,” he tells the secretary. “I asked for a five-minute speech, but no matter how hard I try I can’t get this down to less than twenty.” The secretary replies: “Your Excellency, there are four copies.”
Put simply, it is governments whose very reason for existence is to impose a grand ideological vision on humanity which provide fertile manure for subversive jokes.
Modern authoritarian humor has its roots in the Jewish struggle for emancipation in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. The Jews, being outsiders, had developed a folklore ironically exposing the hypocrisy, falsehood, and hollowness of political elites, their stupid or brutal bureaucratic minions, and society at large. In the revolutionary ferment of Eastern Europe, such jokes — suitably amended — would be devastatingly aimed at the existing regimes by disaffected intellectuals. Indeed, among non-Jews in the more fashionably leftist salons of Berlin and Vienna, Jewish jokebooks were quite popular around the turn of the century. Even in 1920s Soviet Russia, in the so-called Golden Age of what would become known as “Soviet jokes,” Jews excelled in cracking jokes at the expense of the regime. Very soon, such merriment would be driven first underground and then to the Lubyanka.
Soviet jokes, which also drew inspiration from the rich veins of witty Armenian riddles and long-winded Georgian drinking-speeches, are the highest form of authoritarian humor. It is a testament to their genius that they cross borders and time so effortlessly: Jokes conceived in, say, Romania or Poland would soon pop up elsewhere throughout the Soviet bloc. Variants, amended for local consumption, would emerge decades later in Cuba and throughout the Arab Ba’athist world. Most anti-Castro jokes, for instance, appear to be the work of Cuban immigrants to the United States using originally Soviet material.
As the classic Soviet joke goes, one secret policeman asks another, “So, what do you think of the government?” His colleague looks around before replying, “The same as you, comrade,” whereupon Policeman No. 1 declares, “In that case, it is my duty to arrest you.” Luis E. Aguilar, professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University, recalled in Chistes: Political Humor in Cuba (Cuban American National Foundation, 1989), “I heard the same joke years later. Only then it was being whispered in Cuba.”
The lineage of some authoritarian jokes stretches back far farther than the benighted twentieth century. One of the most popular jabs at the stupidity and dangerous arbitrariness of officialdom may have first been told by Arabs in the tenth century. The basic Arab version describes camels who run away because an idiotic new law is pressing mules into service. By the 1920s and 1930s, expanding on a Jewish joke of the tsarist years, the Soviet version described a group of rabbits who make a run for the Russian-Polish border. Applying for admission, the rabbits cry, “The Party has given orders to arrest every camel in the Soviet Union!” “But you are not camels,” replies the Polish border guard. “Well, you try telling that to the Party,” say the rabbits. Later versions were popular throughout Eastern Europe.
Indeed, the joke never dies. While I was in Beirut earlier in 2001, an activist associated with the anti-Syrian movement told me its latest incarnation: The cia, mi6, and Syrian Intelligence each send an agent to procure a camel. The cia spook accomplishes his mission in a week. The mi6 man returns with a camel soon after. A few months later, the Syrian secret policeman straggles into town with a donkey. When queried by his boss, he repeatedly strikes the beast across the face, shouting, “Say you’re a camel! Say you’re a camel!”
Demonstrating that while one apparatchik, appointed party leader, or secret police is as ghastly as any other but The System is forever, when individuals’ or agencies’ names were mentioned in these jokes they could be smoothly changed to reflect local circumstances. In democracies, this technique simply could not work. Listeners would be left puzzled if someone told any Clinton sex joke, and there are thousands of them, but replaced “Clinton” with, say, “Woodrow Wilson.” But take an old Soviet joke like the one about the man who goes to a post office and complains, “These new stamps with Lenin do not stick,” to which the bored clerk replies, “Comrade, you probably spit on the wrong side,” and substitute “Lenin” with Castro or Brezhnev or Saddam. It still makes its point.2
Another distinguishing feature of authoritarian jokes is that they rely on the teller’s and the listener’s mutual, covert, assumed recognition of the regime’s Big Lie — namely, that despite its incessant promises of Utopia, of freedom, of victory, and its exhortations to work harder, tighten belts, and watch out for saboteurs, the government’s program is continually frustrated by the crooked timber of humanity.
It may take some time for the scales to fall from their eyes, but those living under authoritarian conditions eventually realize that there is a chasm between what they are told is the truth and what actually is the truth. As the joke has it, Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev are travelling on a train when it suddenly shudders to a halt. “Fix it!” orders Stalin. The engineers repair it, but still the train does not move. “Shoot everyone!” orders Stalin. All the engineers are shot, but the train obstinately refuses to budge. Stalin dies. “Rehabilitate everyone!” orders Khruschev. The engineers are rehabilitated, but the train remains stationary. Khruschev is removed. “Close the curtains,” orders Brezhnev, “and pretend we’re moving!”
As modern Arab thinker Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad observes, “laughter is . . . a sudden and fast comparison between the state in front of you and the state which you imagine” — or are told should be. “Does two plus two equal four?” “I don’t know, what did Pravda say this morning?”
Without this tragic contradiction between the ideal and the real, there could be no authoritarian jokes. Thus, a Hungarian goes to a Budapest hospital and asks for the Eyes and Ears Department but is told there are two sections: one for eyes, the other for ears. “Oh, but I must go to both,” he sighs, “I don’t know what has happened to me lately. I don’t see what I hear.” Similarly, two European communists are rewarded with a trip to the glorious Soviet Union, but only one comes back. At work, the fellow traveler is quizzed by a colleague,
“How are living conditions in the Soviet Union?”
“Wonderful. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
“And how is the housing? How is the food situation?”
“Splendid. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
“But what happened to your friend?”
“Oh, he’s in Siberia. He did believe his eyes.”
In Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (Oxford, 1999), Sheila Fitzpatrick has collected several examples of anti-Stalinist humor from the 1930s. These are all the more remarkable given that the nkvd would eavesdrop on conversations in shopping queues and markets, jotting down any caustic jokes or subversive rumors. Particularly good jokes would lead to the teller’s arrest on the spot for “anti-Soviet conversation.”
Soviet slogans such as “Life Has Become Better,” numbingly repeated in newspapers and speeches, were satirized with rueful quips,3 as were the acronyms of various state agencies. The initials of the 1930s Communist Party — vkp — were mocked by some peasants as standing for “Second Serfdom” (Vtoroe Krepostnoe Pravo) and a few, evidently suicidal, Leningrad teenagers joked that the initials of the U.S.S.R. (sssr — or cccp, in the Cyrillic alphabet) meant “Stalin’s Death Will Save Russia” (Smert’ Stalina Spaset Rossiiu). In the same tenor, owing to the felicitous similarity of “grad” (city) and “gad” (scoundrel), wits could have fun with Stalingrad and Kirovgrad.
What we have dealt with so far is private political humor — the jokes cautiously whispered between intimates in authoritarian societies. Often passed over are two other sorts: semi-official and official.4
Semi-official humorists are those given space in party publications and newspapers, typically during periods of “glasnost,” but kept on a leash. The political satire they produce is tactful rather than outspoken, resembling feints rather than knock-outs. As such, semi-official humorists tend to serve as the modern equivalents of medieval court jesters, whose jolly ribaldry at the expense of their patron could be permitted so far, but no further. It was a matter of knowing where the line was.
Given that their work was often subject to a “committee of fun” before publication, much has to be read between the lines. In the 1960s, for instance, the Polish satirist Stanislaw Jerzy Lec penned ambiguous one-liners masquerading as “Thought For The Day” nuggets of wisdom in the Warsaw weekly Przeglad Kulturalny: “I am usually requested to proclaim that life is beautiful by those who have made it miserable for me,” or “If you want to sing in the choir, first take a good look at the conductor’s baton.” The penalties for not knowing when enough was enough could be harsh. Dimitur Chevdarov-Chelkash, editor of the Bulgarian magazine Sturshel, was sacked in 1961 for satirizing the fact that the government was storing thousands of pairs of shoes during a shoe shortage. The Home Trade Ministry weakly retorted they were for “emergency use only,” fatally giving Chelkash more ammunition. Having gone too far, he was accused of being “out of touch with the people.”
More influential was official humor. Newspapers and newsletters carried a “witty” cartoon, one-liner, or poem extolling the virtue of party domestic or foreign policies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, official attempts at making jokes were often — embarrassingly so — heavy, banal, and propagandistic. In each satellite, the party established official satirical magazines. In order to pretend that the party, too, could prick itself, the titles of these — the Czech Dikobraz, the Slovak Rohac, Poland’s Szpilki, Bulgaria’s Sturshel, and the Romanian Urzica — can be translated, variously, as meaning “stinging,” “nettles,” “needles,” “hornet,” and “porcupine.”
When it came to foreign policy, the magazines mostly stuck to caricaturing foreign politicians, inadvertently providing for us a glimpse into official party conceptions of the great abroad. Adenauer fared particularly badly: Usually portrayed as evil, deformed, and discolored, he was once depicted as a Fu Manchu lookalike playing an organ with sheet-music in front of him titled Mein Kampf. (Similarly, Willy Brandt was invariably drawn wearing a Nazi uniform.) Uncle Sam, but of course, was fat, ungainly, greedy, bellicose, and armed to the teeth, while John Bull acted as his sinister, craven accomplice. Very occasionally, in the edgier publications, there was a caricature of Khruschev (never of other Russian leaders, let alone Stalin): Sometimes the cartoonist cautiously flattered the man by drawing him as taller and slimmer than he was.
Domestically, official artists were allowed to blow off a little steam, especially during times of shortage or crisis. In the aftermath of 1953, even the ultra-apparatchik Czech vice premier Vaclav Kopecky urged reviving “satire and cabaret humor” to damp down dissent. For the most part, acting in the time-honored authoritarian tradition of exposing the “few bad apples ruining the orchard,” official humorists aimed their blunted darts at such convenient scapegoats as bungling functionaries, asinine regulators, and corrupt bureaucrats. But they refrained from directly attacking party leaders or policies.
The most interesting aspect of officially sanctioned humor is the conviction by authoritarian governments that jokes could be harnessed and put to good use. A year after backing “satire and cabaret humor,” Kopecky laid down that “on no account may humorists ridicule the activities of the Party. . . . Not a shadow of blame or mockery must affect the glorious native Party which deserves to be esteemed and loved to a supreme degree.”
More revealingly still, in 1961 the Bulgarian leadership decided that the purpose of humor “is to collaborate with the Bulgarian Communist Party in solving the economic and other problems of the nation, and in bringing up the workers in the spirit of communism. . . . In the struggle for the building of socialist society, our humor and satire must be a sharp ideological weapon.”
George orwell’s 1945 essay, “Funny, But Not Vulgar,” tends to be regarded as the most perceptive analysis of political humor. He wrote that “every joke is a tiny revolution” and defined humor, brilliantly, as “dignity sitting on a tin-tack.” So “whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny.” Yet considering the efforts that authoritarian regimes devoted to turning humor into a tool, this typically democratic idea — itself based on the Freudian belief that jokes allow us to revolt against authority and terror in order to liberate ourselves — that mocking politicians cuts them down to size is overly deterministic.
That is very true of Western democracies but not necessarily so of authoritarian regimes. Orwell, it is sometimes forgotten by those who apply his thoughts too universally, was writing about the decline of English humor from its eighteenth-century zenith. Nevertheless, referring to his movie and now Broadway musical The Producers, Mel Brooks recently explained that “if you ridicule [dictators], bring them down with laughter — they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.” Andrew Stuttaford, writing for National Review Online (October 15), similarly believes that “far from trivializing a conflict, humor can be a very useful weapon in its pursuit.” Referring to Osama bin Laden, Stuttaford observed that “this is someone to jeer and scoff at, a clown in a cave to be mocked, parodied, derided, lampooned, taunted, and ridiculed, a jerk on a jihad that we can only despise. . . . He’s a loser.”
However, it is questionable whether ridiculing the Soviet regime “brought it down.” Was the communist colossus, or any other authoritarian/totalitarian regime, ever really a laughingstock? Likewise, in the 1930s, the British sniggered at Adolph Hitler’s ludicrous mustache and manic gesticulations, but did that persuade millions of Germans he was “crazy”? Bin Laden may well be a “loser” and a “jerk,” but the nicknames retard the dreadful realization that he represents a coalescing Islamist totalitarian ideology. In any case, dictators like Saddam Hussein may very well be cheaply dismissed as “crazy,” but laughter does not lessen the dangers posed by them, let alone explain why creatures such as Stalin proceeded utterly rationally with their plans — and persuaded others to join them.
From a distance, it is easy to say that Russians recognized communism’s ultimate absurdity and so laughed at it to “liberate” themselves before its “inevitable” collapse. But it may be more realistic to argue that, despite their recognition that communism was murderously absurd, Russians quietly cracked jokes just to endure it. Authoritarian jokes are not tiny revolutions; they are temporary pain relievers serving as a substitute for being allowed to participate in real politics.
The sentimental axiom that jokes in, or against, authoritarian societies are liberating certainly does not stand up to scrutiny in the singular case of Nazi Germany. German jokes — and, in particular, those of working-class Berliners, who seem to have conjured up most of the gags — were unusual in that Nazi leaders, not Nazi ideology or the state apparatus, were their butt. This idiosyncrasy would seem to indicate that, at least until very late in the war, many Germans identified with and accepted the regime and its aims. Given that the Reich lasted but 12 years (half of which was occupied by fighting) and the Soviet Empire lasted eight mostly peaceful decades, Germans were not given the same opportunity to witness the Big Lie.
In the German case, political jokes were neither “tiny revolutions” nor pain relievers, but good-natured fun akin to jokes in democratic societies where the political structure is assumed to be legitimate.
Compare, for instance, the bitter Soviet transliteration of such acronyms as vkp as “Second Serfdom” to their playful German equivalents. As R. Grunberger reports in The Twelve-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany, 1933-1945 (De Capo Press, 1995), the abbreviation KdF (Kraft durch Freude — “Strength through Joy”) became Kind durch Freund (“Child by a Friend”) or Kotz durchs Fenster (“Vomit through the Window”), and BdM (Bund deutscher Mädchen — “German Girls’ League”) turned into Bund deutscher Matratzen (“German Mattresses League”).
Before the war, unless one was stupid enough to tell anti-Hitler or unpatriotic jokes loudly in the Gestapo’s earshot, the great majority of jokes ribbing the Nazi elders were not vicious enough to qualify non-Jewish Germans for life-threatening punishment. During the war, openly telling an anti-Nazi joke merited a death sentence — though this was unlikely — but then again, so did committing a myriad of other offenses such as race defilement, marriage-swindling, stealing goods during a blackout, and submitting a bogus claim form.
In his 1972 memoirs, the leftish (non-Jewish) Weimar political comedian Werner Finck recalled that in the early Hitler years Gestapo men would occasionally come to his cabaret, note down his double entendres and waspish allusions, and then leave inconspicuously. After a brief spell in a concentration camp in the mid-1930s, Finck was allowed to reopen his cabaret. The Ministry of Propaganda would sometimes send him admonitions but for the most part he was left alone. The cabaret was finally closed down after Goebbels declared in the Völkischer Beobachter that he had been “forced to take a series of measures concerning political humor. Naturally, the German people have lots of humor, but even this has limits!” As punishment, Finck was expelled from the Actors’ Guild, but served in the Wehrmacht during the war as a radio operator.
Many German jokes centered on the blatant disparity between the physical appearances of a portly Goering and a club-footed little Goebbels, or the well-known reputation of Ernst Röhm as a homosexual, and the Nazi ideal of blonde, nobly-countenanced, stoutly straight Aryan Man.5
Hermann Goering jokes, which were generally good-natured teasing, concerned (a) his fatness and (b) his mania for accumulating decorations, titles, and uniforms. Typical ones run as follows: Goering’s adjutant urgently informs the great man that “a pipe has burst in the Air Ministry!” to which Goering replies, “Quick! Bring me my admiral’s uniform!” Or, on their wedding night, his wife awakes and catches a naked Goering waving his marshal’s baton around. “What are you doing?” she asks. “I’m promoting my underpants to overpants.” Victor Klemperer’s remarkable I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941: A Diary of the Nazi Years (Random House, 1999) records just one joke between 1933 and 1941. It contrasts the 1917-18 punchline to the question, “How long will the war last?” with its modern equivalent. During the Great War, the answer was, “Till the officers have to eat the same food as the men”; during the Second World War, “Until Goering fits into Goebbels’s trousers.”
As for Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, jokes about him ridiculed his deformities, height, and complexion. It was only his many enemies in the party who tended to circulate those more waspishly commenting on his propagandistic distortions. Ernst Röhm, the brownshirted sa commander executed by Hitler in the Night of the Long Knives, generated a huge number of jokes, all of which harped on his homosexuality, towards which an “innocent” Hitler averted his eyes for a suspiciously long time (as a 1934 joke went: “Just imagine how upset the Führer will be if he gets to know Goebbels has a club foot!”). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only leading Nazis to escape laughter were Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler and his chief executioner, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (whose unusually high-pitched voice would otherwise have marked him as a prime target).
Even when jokes assumed a seemingly anti-institutional hue — such as the ones remarking on the stupidity of sa men — these were frequently the product of institutional rivals. In the sa’s case, ss officers, who cultivated a more elegant image, liked to lord it over the Brownshirts. It appears that most of the truly anti-Nazi jokes which do survive were either conceived after the war, or before it by Jews and transported abroad by émigrés.
Finally, it is unfortunately difficult to unearth many political jokes from the world’s largest authoritarian country, China. This dearth may be partly attributed to translation problems, lack of Western interest in fields unrelated to the high politics of economics and foreign affairs, and, perhaps, societal structure.
Though migration from the country to the coastal cities has risen in recent years, vast numbers of Chinese citizens are rural peasants. Historically, as is the case in most cultures, the agricultural and illiterate poor enjoyed a rough-hewn peasant humor centering around slapstick, sex, and Schadenfreude. Ridicule was common, but it seldom targeted the Imperial system, the central bureaucracy, or regional governments; rather, peasants would laugh at particularly buffoonish local officials or village headmen. In a manner resembling Roman “high” humor, the great Chinese traditions of clever wordplay and literary allegory were confined to intellectuals and political elites.
Though some crude jokes — usually of a sexual nature — circulated about Mao’s cruel widow after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and despite a degree of disillusionment with the communist regime today, there is a widespread absence of outright alienation between the Chinese and their government. The communist — or semi-communist, as it now is — government has been in power only since 1949 and until the 1960s was undoubtedly popular. Then came the Cultural Revolution, in which even the merest suspicion of thinking about an “intellectual” joke resulted in death. Unlike the Russians, who had decades to learn to see through the gauze veiling their relative poverty and official protestations to the contrary, the income and prospects of the average Chinese appear to be rising. Despite sunny prognostications about Chinese calls for political liberalization following the transition to “market socialism,” these hopes have not, as yet, borne much fruit.
China not only lacks the Jewish folkloric tradition of social and political commentary, but, aside from such places as Xinjiang and Tibet, is ethnically 90 percent Han. In the Soviet Union, subjugated nations from Poland to Central Asia could at least mournfully joke at the expense of their Russian tormentor. Indeed, there is an entire category of Soviet humor targeting discrimination by the Russian majority against a particular national minority, or the domination by a strong state over a weaker one.
Given time, however, China’s political humor may come to resemble Soviet-style humor, perhaps by appropriating the old stand-bys. And perhaps, if we’re lucky enough to see the day, the Chinese will even crack democratic jokes.
1 A 1988 joke has it that Nixon, Carter, Gary Hart, and Joe Biden are in the sinking ship. Carter wants to save the women; Nixon wants to screw them; Hart asks, “Have we got time?”; and Biden asks, “Have we got time?” This is a reference to the revelation that the Democratic senator from Delaware had plagiarized a speech.
2 The post office joke is a remarkable, and seemingly unique, example of an authoritarian joke being transferred to a democratic politician, namely Richard Nixon. Thus, a 1970s joke ran that the Nixon stamp was cancelled because people kept spitting on the wrong side. The reason probably lies in Nixon being, among certain sectors of the population, the most loathed of American politicians.
3 On a serious note, regarding Stalin’s “Life Has Become Better” slogan, an nkvd agent was present at a 1937 factory discussion centering on the new Soviet constitution. He reported: “When discussion turned to the fact that life has become better, life has become more cheerful, [one worker] threw the brochure of the draft constitution on the floor and began to trample it with his feet, shouting: ‘To hell with your constitution, it has given me nothing. . . . I am going hungry. . . . My whole family is going hungry. . . . I have begun to live worse. . . . It was better before.” Such outbursts, often sparked by drunkenness, were common. Quoted in Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism.
4 On these matters, see J. Sanders, “The Seriousness of Humor: Political Satire in the Soviet Bloc,” East Europe, XI (1962), No. 1, pp. 22-29, and No. 2, pp. 23-27.
5 See F.K.M. Hillenbrand’s eclectic collection of jokes and anecdotes, Underground Humor in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945 (London: Routledge, 1995).