Letting Off Steam: Jokes About Hitler in Nazi Germany

by Bob Schwartz

Did German citizens tell jokes about Hitler during the Third Reich? Actual jokes like this:

Hitler and Göring are standing on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners’ faces. Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?”

Were these people punished? Did the jokes have any effect?

These are some of the questions addressed in Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany by Rudolph Herzog. Herzog explains:

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.

We can’t deny the significance of laughing and humor during the hardest times, personal and social. Jokes, like other subversive art, have a way of digging deep and even encouraging change. There is the example of the king’s fool, who was allowed to say things that others feared to say. But make no mistake, when the king was unhappy, not even the fool was protected from retribution and punishment.