In the spring of 1943, a woman in a German armaments factory told a joke to a fellow worker: Adolf Hitler and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring are on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the faces of Berliners. So Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?” Pretty good joke, actually, though the archives of the Nazi People’s Court don’t record whether the armaments worker, a depressed war widow identified as Marianne K., had a laugh from telling it. But the court was not amused—it had her executed by guillotine. In his subtle and eye-opening exploration of a totalitarian state’s unpredictable responses to discontent and opposition, Herzog (son of famed film director Werner) writes of others who shared Marianne’s fate, but also of quite a few who got off more lightly.
Much depended on how secure the Third Reich was feeling—in 1941, when the Wehrmacht ruled from the Atlantic to the Urals, the People’s Court sentenced 102 people to death for so-called “defeatist” utterances. The next year, as the tide of war began to turn, 1,192 were executed, and the numbers kept rising for the rest of the war. A joke treated as a misdemeanour by the Gestapo in 1933—an image of Christ should be placed between wall-mounted pictures of Hitler and Göring, since Jesus died “nailed up between two criminals”—sent a priest to the guillotine in 1944. But strong anti-Nazi humour, Herzog shows, was actually rare before the military situation deteriorated. Until then, anti-regime jabs were largely concerned with Nazis taking all the plum jobs, not with their policies. And those policies were no secret. Herzog demolishes the idea that Germans didn’t know what the Nazis were up to: there were many, many concentration camp jokes. Germans under Hitler seemed to find it natural, and kind of funny, that “troublemakers”—including Jews and dissidents—should end up behind barbed wire.