Bob Schwartz

Category: History

Letting Off Steam: Jokes About Hitler in Nazi Germany

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.

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American Dislike of Studying History and Government Comes to Haunt Us

I have loved reading about American history and government since, well, since I have been reading. I was an officer in our high school Future Voters of America club, and I was a delegate to a mock presidential convention. A nerd then, and maybe still.

That is not typical for a large number of Americans, who seem disinclined to read much (and that is read, not just listen or watch) about these subjects. Partly that is because these subjects are usually required in school and are not always very well taught, with all due respect to those who have the sometimes thankless job of teaching.

My high school American History teacher was also our basketball coach, a decently smart and affable guy who happened to have been given one of the all-time exciting American History textbooks to teach from: The American Pageant, which thanks to the unique approach of its original author, historian Thomas A. Bailey, remains in print in its 16th edition. It was, and hopefully still is, one of the most fun reads of any textbook on any subject. Yes, I said “fun.” Without speaking for my classmates, I was excited to read each chapter.

I don’t believe all Americans think of learning about history and government as fun. More like work, maybe hard and distasteful and avoidable work. Except that avoiding knowing history and government means that when, as can happen, things get way out of whack, you won’t recognize what is happening, or recognize that as a historical matter, the consequences may be unfortunate, if not dire.

As can happen, things may get way out of whack, and they have. Maybe those who find learning about American history and government useless might squeeze it into their busy schedules. Particularly if they love America, because as we know, true love means learning about the one you love.

U.S. Days of Remembrance, Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Babi Yar

These are the official Holocaust Days of Remembrance in the U.S., coinciding with Yom Hashoah, the Day of Remembrance. The U.S. Congress established the Days of Remembrance as the nation’s week-long annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

In looking for a poem to include, I discovered that the great poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died this month at the age of 84. This news did not receive the sort of coverage it deserved. If ever a poet lived the life of poetry as insurgent art, he did.

Yevtushenko also wrote one of the definitive poems about the Holocaust. From the Guardian:

Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his 20s, with poetry denouncing Joseph Stalin. He gained international acclaim as a young revolutionary with Babi Yar, an unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the antisemitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.

Until Babi Yar was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the cold war….

Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site of the mass killings in Kiev, Ukraine, and searching for something memorializing what happened there – a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker – but finding nothing.

“I was so shocked,” he said. “I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it.”

It took him two hours to write the poem that begins: “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”

Babi Yar
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
Dreyfus.
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
Hounded,
spat on,
slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people!
I know
you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
transparent
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!

More poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

China’s Big Long View: “Swords Drawn and Bows Bent”

In a story about current tensions between the United States and North Korea, this was reported:

“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in Beijing, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.” (emphasis added)

It is hard to imagine the American President or Secretary of State using such poetic language to describe such a serious situation. But allusions to swords and bows is not just poetic. It reflects the thousands of years that China has had to deal with situations just like this.

In the world, few nations, and none so powerful, are as young as the United States. We tend to equate power with enlightened perspective, but that is silly. Even the European nations can’t compare their histories to the long and hard lessons that many Asian nations have learned.

It is no accident that in the years since the end of a series of modern Asian wars involving the West—World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War—Asian nations have to some degree risen and dominated in various ways. China in particular. These nations have had to ride the wave of history, going back to times when swords and bows were the tools of strategy and subjugation, of victory and defeat.

Many Americans think that the most significant global affairs began a couple of centuries or so ago, when this nation emerged in North America as the perfection of what our European ancestors tried but failed to accomplish. Like all precocious children, we think that it is all about us, especially because of our might and our ability to damage and destroy. Those who have seen it all before are careful not to provoke us, but know that no matter how big our weapons, they are only swords and bows, about which they have much more experience.

Twilight Zone America: Characters in Search of an Exit

The strange and uninformed version of history that Sean Spicer recounted today is just one more episode in what increasingly seems like Twilight Zone America. The Washington Post:

Spicer brought up Hitler unprompted during Tuesday’s White House briefing while emphasizing how seriously the United States takes Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said. “So you have to if you’re Russia, ask yourself: Is this a country that you, and a regime, that you want to align yourself with? You have previously signed onto international agreements, rightfully acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons should be out of bounds by every country.”

Later in the briefing, a reporter read Spicer’s comments back to him and gave him the opportunity to clarify. Spicer’s answer only added more confusion.

“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” Spicer said, mispronouncing Assad’s name. “I mean, there was clearly, I understand your point, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not in the, he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. What I am saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns, it was brought — so the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.”

Twilight Zone America. Consider the episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit (see image above), in which an Army major finds himself in a room with an odd assortment of four other people. Rod Serling explains at the opening:

“Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an Army Major—a collection of question marks. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation; just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the shadows. In a moment, we’ll start collecting clues as to the whys, the whats, and the wheres. We will not end the nightmare, we’ll only explain it—because this is the Twilight Zone.”

And closes with this:

“Just a barrel, a dark depository where are kept the counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth, wrought in a distorted image of human life. But this added, hopeful note: perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children, there can be nothing but love. A clown, a tramp, a bagpipe player, a ballet dancer, and a Major. Tonight’s cast of players on the odd stage—known as—the Twilight Zone.”

Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, Army major. And Sean Spicer. Yep, that’s Twilight Zone America.

Nazi in the White House: Nothing Surprises But Everything Astonishes (Update)

Update: Since publication of this story in the Forward on Thursday, two things have happened:

There has been the traditional muddying of the waters when controversial trump-related matters arise, with comments from various sources that on their face seem to put the basic matter to rest, but never directly address the question on the table. Or don’t address the question at all: neither the White House nor Gorka will talk about it.

The major news media have shied away, at least for the moment, because of their unwillingness or inability to look through muddy waters stirred up in trump-related matters. In many cases, this doesn’t go to journalistic high-mindedness or objectivity, but to weakness and timidity, and in this case, to having been scooped (or alternatively to having sat on the story).

Following the first story, the Forward has gone on to publish multiple stories, including this excellent summary from the following day, March 17. Please read in its entirety:

Sebastian Gorka: What Is The Evidence, And Why Does It Matter?

Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s deputy assistant, and his chief adviser on counter-terrorism, has undisputed ties to the Vitézi Rend — a far-right Hungarian group who were close allies of the Nazis in World War II. Born in Britain to Hungarian parents, he became a naturalized American citizen in 2012 after marrying Katherine Cornell. No one has suggested that there is evidence he is anti-Semitic or an enemy of Israel but the ongoing political affiliations of White House advisers matter. Here is the actual evidence under discussion, and why it matters.


This from the Forward:

EXCLUSIVE: Nazi-Allied Group Claims Top Trump Aide Sebastian Gorka As Sworn Member

Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s top counter-terrorism adviser, is a formal member of a Hungarian far-right group that is listed by the U.S. State Department as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II, leaders of the organization have told the Forward.

The elite order, known as the Vitézi Rend, was established as a loyalist group by Admiral Miklos Horthy, who ruled Hungary as a staunch nationalist from 1920 to October 1944. A self-confessed anti-Semite, Horthy imposed restrictive Jewish laws prior to World War II and collaborated with Hitler during the conflict. His cooperation with the Nazi regime included the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews into Nazi hands.

Gorka’s membership in the organization — if these Vitézi Rend leaders are correct, and if Gorka did not disclose this when he entered the United States as an immigrant — could have implications for his immigration status. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual specifies that members of the Vitézi Rend “are presumed to be inadmissible” to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Gorka — who Vitézi Rend leaders say took a lifelong oath of loyalty to their group — did not respond to multiple emails sent to his work and personal accounts, asking whether he is a member of the Vitézi Rend and, if so, whether he disclosed this on his immigration application and on his application to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2012. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.

But Bruce Einhorn, a retired immigration judge who now teaches nationality law at Pepperdine University, said of this, “His silence speaks volumes.”

Resistance Literature: On Tyranny

I didn’t realize there was a genre called “resistance literature” before I saw this blurb for the just-released On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Professor Timothy Snyder:

“Easily the most compelling volume among the early resistance literature. . . . A slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and feels only slightly less vital. . . . Clarifying and unnerving. . . . A memorable work that is grounded in history yet imbued with the fierce urgency of what now.” —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post

On Tyranny is worth reading: it is short (128 pages), learned, wise, and inexpensive ($2.99), from a scholar who is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

Here are the twenty lessons covered:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Here is the close of the Epilogue:

The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. So long as there was a contest between communist and capitalist systems, and so long as the memory of fascism and Nazism was alive, Americans had to pay some attention to history and preserve the concepts that allowed them to imagine alternative futures. Yet once we accepted the politics of inevitability, we assumed that history was no longer relevant. If everything in the past is governed by a known tendency, then there is no need to learn the details.

The acceptance of inevitability stilted the way we talked about politics in the twenty-first century. It stifled policy debate and tended to generate party systems where one political party defended the status quo, while the other proposed total negation. We learned to say that there was “no alternative” to the basic order of things, a sensibility that the Lithuanian political theorist Leonidas Donskis called “liquid evil.” Once inevitability was taken for granted, criticism indeed became slippery. What appeared to be critical analysis often assumed that the status quo could not actually change, and thereby indirectly reinforced it.

Some spoke critically of neoliberalism, the sense that the idea of the free market has somehow crowded out all others. This was true enough, but the very use of the word was usually a kowtow before an unchangeable hegemony. Other critics spoke of the need for disruption, borrowing a term from the analysis of technological innovations. When applied to politics, it again carries the implication that nothing can really change, that the chaos that excites us will eventually be absorbed by a self-regulating system. The man who runs naked across a football field certainly disrupts, but he does not change the rules of the game. The whole notion of disruption is adolescent: It assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up.

But there are no adults. We own this mess.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

tomorrow-belongs-to-me

There are two outstanding movie moments—one light, one dark—that tell two stories about Nazi Germany.

We will start light, from the movie The Producers (1968). In it, Mel Brooks incorporated an unthinkable stage musical called Springtime for Hitler. The title song-and-dance number mocks the lunatic aspirations and monstrosity of the Third Reich—mockable because just twenty-three years earlier, they had lost the war. It provides the most laughs anyone has provided or will provide on the subject. It is the most audacious thing any movie director has put on film.

Germany was having trouble
What a sad, sad story
Needed a new leader to restore
Its former glory
Where, oh, where was he?
Where could that man be?
We looked around and then we found
The man for you and me

And now it’s
Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Deutschland is happy and gay!
We’re marching to a faster pace
Look out, here comes the master race!
Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Rhineland’s a fine land once more!
Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Watch out, Europe
We’re going on tour!

Springtime for Hitler and Germany!
Winter for Poland and France
Come on, Germans
Go into your dance!

The second, darker vision is from the movie Cabaret (1972). It is set in 1931 Berlin. The characters sit at an outdoor café. A young man in a brown shirt begins singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me. It is a sweet tune at first (“The sun on the meadow is summery warm…”), but as the crowd stands to join in, the song grows belligerent and menacing. We know how the story turns out, and though some may think rehashing it is overdone and almost clichéd, we are chilled each time. Because the threat is never as far as we might think.

The sun on the meadow is summery warm
The stag in the forest runs free
But gathered together to greet the storm
Tomorrow belongs to me

The branch on the linden is leafy and green
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen
Tomorrow belongs to me

Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
The morning will come
When the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me
Tomorrow belongs
Tomorrow belongs
Tomorrow belongs to me

With This Magazine Cover Germany Has Made Full Retribution

Der Spiegel

This is the cover from this week’s issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel. It is accompanied by the story The Pain of the Donald Trump Presidency.

The cover has been controversial. The magazine explains it this way:

The image for this week’s cover was created by the artist Edel Rodriguez. Edel was nine years old when, in 1980, he came to the U.S. with his mother — two refugees, like so many others. “I remember it well, and I remember the feelings and how little kids feel when they are leaving their country,” he told the Washington Post on Friday night. The newspaper wrote: “This DER SPIEGEL Trump cover is stunning.” It wasn’t the first time Edel has drawn Trump. He usually portrays him without eyes — you just see his angry, gaping mouth and, of course, the hair. “I don’t want to live in a dictatorship,” he says. “If I wanted to live in a dictatorship, I’d live in Cuba, where it’s much warmer.”

I am Jewish, descended from Eastern European Jews, with extended family who likely perished there during World War II (they were never heard from after). I was a stamp collector as a kid, and a friend of my parents gave me his entire collection of German stamps from that era, with a note that explained why he could not keep them. For myself, I’ve treated Germany as just another nation, no more or less, depending on what it does and doesn’t do.

No nation in modern history has had to live down what Germany has. People of faith and good will have been visited with the sins of the Fatherland, and have tried hard for generations to establish that they are not those Germans. They have proven themselves, and with this cover, they are doing what some have the courage to do, some not, or at least not yet: Bear witness—graphically, unflinchingly—to what may not quite be an atrocity, but is a devastating and deadly affront to what Americans, Germans, and free people around the world hold dear.

Germany, you have proven your good faith time and time again over the decades. Germany, if there is even anything left to forgive, all is forgiven.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day: Conspiracy

conspiracy

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Conspiracy (2001) is an HBO movie that tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942. It was a top secret meeting of senior government officials of Nazi Germany and SS leaders to debate the merits of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution,’ the extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe.

The excellent movie and the horrifying meeting are both mesmerizing and near-sickening. But whatever your knowledge of the Nazis and the Holocaust, you should—must—see it.

Not only because you should know more about the Nazis and the Holocaust, though you should. See it because you will discover how men of supposed culture, faith, education, and managerial and professional stature (many at the meeting were lawyers) can find themselves not just following a debased and subhuman road, but actually designing and building the road themselves. A highway to hell.

Conspiracy should be made freely available, at least on this one day. Unfortunately, besides free availability on Amazon Prime Video, you will have to pay $9.99 to stream or buy it. You can at least view some clips for free.