German humour – myth and reality

Are Germans funny? This question arose in our department recently when a book about German humour crossed my desk. Being German and therefore naturally taking our humour quite seriously, the holdings of the UL dealing with this phenomenon seemed worthwhile investigating – especially with the so called “fifth season” (also known as Karneval or Fasching) in Germany currently at its peak (during Mardi Gras). Contrary to popular belief, it seems that humour is in fact quite important and deeply rooted in German culture. However, German humour is vastly different from British, even though both forms often rely on puns (but, due to linguistic differences, German puns are constructed in a way that makes it often impossible to translate without losing their wit). In Germany, political humour, satire and caricatures are also widespread, and comedy shows and programmes regularly feature on TV. It is therefore no surprise that the UL holds several books dealing with humour in a German context (such as caricatures, satire and the phenomenon of carnival during Germany’s turbulent history).

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An example of a cartoon by Loriot with full transcript, featured in Loriot (9000.a.4516)

Alaaf und Heil Hitler: Karneval im Dritten Reich by Carl Dietmar and Marcus Leitfeld (C207.c.8703) is one of these books, looking closely at carnival in the Third Reich. It gives an overview of the history and status of carnival during the German Empire and the Weimar Republic before examining its development under the Nazi Regime. It also includes a chapter about resistance and criticism of the Reich and Hitler in the context of carnival. Another book we have about humour in the Third Reich, published in 2006, is provocatively called Heil Hitler, das Schwein ist tot! by Rudolph Herzog (C204.c.1674). It was also published in English five years later with the considerably tamer title Dead funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany (571:75.c.201.21). With a wider approach than Alaaf und Heil Hitler, Herzog’s book includes chapters on caricatures, satire and film mostly within Germany, but also beyond. Thus, it also discusses Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Mel Brook’s The Producers.

null problemo

Null Problemo (S404:47.b.9.35)

Caricatures reflecting German history after World War II can be found in Horst Pötzsch’s Deutsche Geschichte nach 1945 im Spiegel der Karikatur (2000.9.1969). The book presents a collection of 212 caricatures published between 1945 and 1997, covering a wide range of topics from the end of World War II (“Stunde Null”), currency reform, relations between East and West Germany up to reunification. There are also brief summaries of historical events for every topic which put the subsequent caricatures into context. Another collection of caricatures is Null Problemo – DDR-Karikaturisten zur Lage der Nation (S404:47.b.9.35). It was published in 1990 and comments on the “Wende” in a satirical way from an East German perspective.

Whether or not Germans have humour, are funny or simply ridiculous are questions also found in the introduction to Die schärfsten Kritiker der Elche: Die neue Frankfurter Schule in Wort und Strich und Bild by Oliver Maria Schmitt (746:19.c.200.2). The ”Neue Frankfurter Schule” is a group of writers and illustrators that emerged from the editorial team of the German satirical magazine Pardon but has been publishing in the satirical magazine Titanic since 1979. The book focuses mainly on specific members of the group and highlights their work.


Cover of Loriots grosser Ratgeber (MRS.31.374)

An important figure for German humour is without question Bernhard Viktor von Bülow or, as he is widely known, Loriot. His works are not limited to one genre, but cover a wide range from cartoons to books to radio and TV sketches and movies. For Loriot’s 70th birthday in 1993, an exhibition was held throughout the year at different venues and an accompanying catalogue, simply called Loriot, was produced. It can be found in the UL at 9000.a.4516 and presents examples of his works as a cartoonist, in TV, film and even opera. It also includes a brief biography. Some of his TV sketches are presented with pictures and a full transcript of the dialogue. Other material about Loriot in the UL includes a book looking closely at his works as a poet. It was published under the title Loriot, der Dichter (C203.d.9157) shortly after his death in 2011. In addition, a collection of cartoons in the form of a not-so-serious handbook to master everyday situations is available as Loriots grosser Ratgeber (MRS.31.374).


A page of Spass beseite, featuring some examples of household objects with a political theme (C201.b.6335)

A more recent addition to our collection is an exhibition catalogue called Spass beiseite: Humor und Politik in Deutschland (C201.b.6335). The book accompanied a 2011 exhibition held in the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn for over six months. Spass beiseite contains 16 essays examining different aspects of political humour in Germany. Cabaret, satire, irony, cartoons and caricatures are just a few of the topics dealt with by humourists as well as academics. Marcus Hoinle, a political scientist, specifically looks at political humour in the context of German carnival and its history. It is hardly surprising that Loriot also features in this broad overview of German humour. Other essays in the book also focus on the historical development of political humour in Germany during the last century and the consequences of the division of Germany. Some of them also either engage in questions about censorship or whether or not there should be boundaries to satire and humour; both questions have, of course, recently become prominent with the discussions surrounding Charlie Hebdo.

Stephanie Palek

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