For several years now, observers have been telling us that virtually no one behind the Iron Curtain takes socialism seriously anymore. There will always be a few true believers—sad cases for students of pathology—but among politicians, the ideals of Marxism-Leninism are simply exploited as a matter of form, and among the general population socialism is just a bad joke. In East Germany, as in other totalitarian states, the jokes cannot be told on the local equivalent of The Tonight Show; instead they constitute a sort of low-brow samizdat, an oral underground literature that serves the "dissident-in-the-street."
Konrad Seyfferth was born and educated (that is, propagandized) in East Germany. In 1961 he fled to the West, but in the past twenty years he has visited the "Democratic Republic" often, and on each trip he has heard the latest jokes making the rounds. Now he has published a collection: Wer meckert, sitzt: Lachen im realen Sozialismus (Freiburg: Herderbucherei).
The jokes are concrete evidence of the sometimes bitter, occasionally hilarious, always perceptive criticism of the reality of life in a "workers' paradise" from the point of view of the workers themselves. The absurdity of life under socialism lends itself to joking—or else madness—for as Seyfferth points out in his introduction, "socialism is the triumph of an idea over common sense" (here and throughout, my translation).
The first bad jokes are questions:
What is that country whose name itself is a lie?
The German Democratic Republic.
And, in this wonderland of freedom,
What do you get for a good idea?
About five years.
And then there's the story of the man who went to heaven and was astounded to see the nations of the earth represented by clocks showing various times. He asked St. Peter for an explanation.
"When a crime against human rights is committed in any country, the hands on the clock representing that country move forward one hour."
"That's very interesting, but I don't see a clock for East Germany."
"Yes, well, we hung that one in the kitchen, as a ventilator."
As for distinguishing West and East, there's this:
What's the difference between a democracy and a people's democracy?
The same as between a jacket and a straight-jacket.
Only through the most grotesque perversion of language, of course, can countries like East Germany claim to be democracies:
On election day, each voter is given a sealed envelope and told to drop it in the ballot box. When an elderly lady tried to open her envelope, she was challenged by a poll-watcher.
"I just want to see what's in it," she said.
"But you can't," said the official.
"After all, it's a secret ballot."
When first-among-equals Honecker [Communist Party First Secretary] gives one of his optimistic speeches, he says, "Comrades, prosperity and happiness for all socialist peoples lie just on the horizon."
A representative of the people asks, "Comrade Honecker, what does 'horizon' mean?"
"Look it up."
According to the dictionary, the horizon is a boundary between heaven and
earth; it recedes as you approach it.
Adam and Eve were the first communists: they had no clothes, little to eat, no real shelter, and yet they believed they lived in paradise.
Socialist idealists apparently are not supposed to be concerned about petty material comforts—like necessities of life. But after a while shortages can become irritating:
When a party functionary gave a speech about the principles of the planned economy, one of the assembled workers kept shouting, "What about toilet paper?"
The functionary ignored him as long as he could and then, losing his temper, shouted, "Lick my ass!"
"That's fine, Comrade," replied the worker, "but that's only a temporary solution."
Another functionary pledges: "Comrades, after this five-year plan every citizen will have a motorcycle, after the next one a car, and after the next one an airplane."
Someone asks, "But why would we need airplanes?"
"Stupid question: Just think—you live in Rostock and you hear that toilet paper is available in Eisenach. You simply hop in your airplane, fly to Eisenach, and two hours later you're home again, without having to stand in line."
The shortages can confuse sexual relations as well:
A woman goes to a garage and asks to have her car fixed.
"Of course," says the mechanic—"but only if you give me a night in return."
The woman reluctantly agrees.
"Fine, then get in line down at the grocery store—they've got onions! I'll relieve you in the morning."
Housing is also in short supply:
A man tells his friend about a book he's been reading. "A man flirts with a woman."
"Is it a novel?"
"They fall in love."
"They get married and move into an apartment."
"I see—a fairy tale."
Yet housing isn't all that's in short supply:
In Leipzig, a man goes into a shoe store to buy some socks, but the saleslady says, "I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong place. Here we have no shoes—it's next door that they have no socks."
The people of East Germany have the Soviet Union to thank for their standard of living so, as you can imagine, there is a soft spot in their hearts for their benefactors in Moscow:
What are the three perversions of love?
Love between men, love between women, and love for the Soviet Union.
A worker says: "For the Russians I would toil night and day."
"That's what I call real socialist spirit! What is your job?"
In a school in Gera the teacher asks, "What is our relationship with the Soviet Union?"
"The Soviet Union is our brother."
"Why do you say brother instead of friend?"
"You can choose your friends."
And, speaking of schools:
A woman who wanted to learn to make her family's clothes enrolled in sewing class. After two months her husband asked if she was ready to darn a few socks and sew on some buttons. "Are you kidding?" she said. "We're just getting around to the Glorious October Revolution."
But seriously, folks—is it killing you? Do your sides ache? Well, perhaps a little rueful laughter helps to make life less stark, if only just beyond the Wall. Many would like to cross the border, but since 1961 that has become a dangerous undertaking. The West German government has spent billions buying freedom for citizens of the "Democratic Republic." The practice is a boon to the East German economy; indeed, it's the key to every five-year plan. Perhaps with detente, entente, Finlandization, and whatnot, conditions will improve—but don't hold your breath. Meanwhile, the jokes continue:
What is a quartet?
An East German symphony orchestra after a tour of West Germany.
There's no shortage of jokes about the Berlin Wall:
Why would the people of East Germany climb trees if the Wall were opened?
To avoid being trampled to death.
And don't forget this one:
A beautiful international film star visits East Germany and meets her biggest fan, Erich Honecker.
"I'd be willing to do anything for you," he says, "because I admire you so much. Is there a wish I can grant you?"
"Yes, you can open the Wall."
"Oh, you rascal! You just want to be alone with me!"
And would the last one out please switch off the lights?
Christopher McDaniel teaches German at St. Leo College in St. Leo, Florida.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Communist Comedy".