Friday, 24 April 2009

Vorsprung durch Lachen

Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg loved a good joke but discovered during the First World War that these were not commonly found in East Prussia, where he had made his military career, and that worldwide appreciation of German humour was at a very low ebb in the 1920s. When he became President of the Weimar Republic in 1925 one of his first actions was to issue a decree establishing a government department called the Humorabteilung under the command of a powerful official, the Staatswitzmeister, responsible for organising training courses for aspiring comedians and taking measures to raise the general standard of German jokes.

This had moderate success in the following years until 1934, when Hindenburg died and Adolf Hitler came to power. None of the Nazi leaders had any sense of humour at all (Julius Streicher published a comic newspaper for some years but the cartoons were whimsical rather than funny). The Humorabteilung was closed down, the post of Staatswitzmeister was abolished, the Third Reich was declared to be a Lachenfrei state and jokes of any kind were forbidden.

After the Second World War glumness prevailed throughout Germany and very little laughter was heard for some years. Then, in 1949, Konrad Adenauer became Chancellor of the Federal Republic of West Germany at the age of 79. He had been a popular stand-up comedian in Berlin nightclubs in the 1920s ("History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided” was one of his quips, but it sounded better in German and anyway it was the way he told it). Under his leadership a Lustspielhaus was set up in all major cities and the bierkellers echoed with Teutonic chortling once more.

Today, of course, Germany has regained its place among the top joke-making nations of Europe, and every German institution or company has its LachenbĂĽro with a qualified Witzleiter in charge, turning out a stream of comedy which in quality and scope has not been seen since the days of the Hohenzollerns.


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