Is It Springtime for Hitler Jokes?


If comedy equals tragedy plus time, have we hit the zone where Adolf Hitler is a now a total hoot? That's the question asked in a recent story in the excellent Canadian news mag Maclean's:

Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, a new film by writer-director Dani Levy, has gotten lots of publicity as the first German movie to make fun of Hitler. The film shows Hitler (Helge Schneider) losing the war and losing his grip, suffering from impotence and insanity. His advisers hire a Jewish actor (Ulrich Mühe) to teach the Führer how to act like a competent dictator again. The actor gets his revenge on Hitler by making him dress in a jogging outfit and crawl around on the floor. Another scene is reminiscent of a gag in the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business: Hitler's barber makes a mistake while shaving him, leaving him with only half a moustache. Though the film has its dark and serious moments, it's more Duck Soup than Schindler's List.

The story does a good job of surveying comic jabs at Hitler over the years (going back even to pre-war mockery), Mel Brooks' longstanding Nazi fetish (somewhere, sometime, he said something like, "Any joke is 10 percent funnier with Nazis"), and tallies up the growing number of comedians who riff on history's most-rememberd one-nutted genocidal maniac. More, including information on the web site, here.

Missing from the litany: any mention of the truly awful 1973 Mad satire "Gall in the Family Fare," where it turns out that Archie Bunkerhill's long-lost war buddy is in fact…Adolf Hitler. That issue of Mad included a flexi-vinyl record featuring an even worse audio version of the parody, which ends with "Dolf baby" getting offered a network sitcom (and a disclaimer that "this show was recorded before a laughtrack machine, which threw up").

It may be that Hitler was always the subject of humor (as well as serious treatment, obviously) up through the early '70s, when World War II became to be defined largely in relation to the Holocaust. Once that became the dominant theme of the war experience (as it did, in histories such as The War Against the Jews and in pop culture artifacts such as the miniseries Holocaust), the jokes didn't seem quite as funny, even as black humor. Hogan's Heroes was always in questionable taste, but after a certain point, it may have been beyond the comic pale (sorry).

In any case, are we actually in the post-Holocaust Hitler age? If so, is that good, bad, or indifferent? As the son and nephew of half-a-dozen WW2 combat vets, the idea that the Germans succeed with anything, much less a Hitler comedy, bugs me at some level. And yet it seems that WW2's centrality to Western history and culture (especially pop culture) is predictably fading as time marches on.

And at the risk of starting an entirely different conversation, why was Stalin more linked to laughter all along?