What an intellectual journey from the long pauses in an endless present which featured in Martina Kessel’s first book on boredom to the mean staccato bursts of laughter that focus her attention in Gewalt and Gelächter! Kessel has a knack for turning over the historical record in startling and productive ways. The story in this book on violence and laughter is a more specifically German history which leads if not inevitably then certainly forthrightly into the Third Reich and its disturbing remains in the present day. The key to the book is the symbiosis between the serious and the humorful, the sketches of a struggle for life that are both “ernst” and “heiter.” Kessel sees the “suffering, laughing Volk” as a “Verfasser” of its own history from tragedy and impotence to regeneration in strength and joy (p. 250). The laughter here is not Bakhtinian in which just rewards are repaid if only temporarily. It is not ambiguous or hybrid and does not occupy places that are “Dazwischen” or “Nicht-Nur” (p. 259).
Kessel’s laughter is a willful act of constitution, of creating a collective German subject out of elements of shared suffering, determination, and sang-froid. In this stimulating and intelligently, even cleverly written book, Kessel tells the story of how people wrote themselves and their imagined representatives into history. It begins appropriately at the dawn of the democratic age with people’s armies and people’s soldiers who maintain composure, the mix of “Ernst” and “Heiter,” in the face of tragic national fragmentation at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The genre of the suffering, laughing soldier was then firmly established in World War I and purified and concentrated by the Nazis and their war against the world a generation later. The National Socialists and the Wehrmacht emerge as grand producers of the jocular. Soldiers in World War II thumbed through publications such as Der Westwall lacht or Landser lachen.
For Kessel, the sketches both serious and light-hearted are means that created a German Passion, an emotional drama which began in humiliation and ended in righteous victory. The serious and the humoristic accompanied this Passion in a way that excised the alien and warded off the self-destructive. The laughing soldier exercised a power which forbade democratic or inquiring discourse. Since the emphasis was on composure, there was only one way forward into time and into space in order to establish German unassailability. The passage from being mocked to having the power to mock was such an intensely emotional drama, a “Gefühlsdrama,” that questions of right or wrong or proportionality were blunted to what would serve the victory of German arms. This was a victory without a moral balance sheet since the struggle was always defined by the derision and scorn and powerlessness that Germans had endured before but would no longer endure anymore. Laughter legitimated violence by creating a singular plot of either/or and us-versus-them. This totalitizing constitution, the “Verfassung” of the “Verfasser,” fortified the German people but it also sacrificed German citizens and other human beings. In one graphic, published in Simplicissimus in 1916, a wounded soldier with his arm in a sling studies a modernist painting in which torn-up body parts fly through the air and comments: “Den ‘Krieg’ hoasst er dös Bild? Naa, gar aso schlimm is er do net” (p. 77). “Ernst” and “Heiter” were sketches designed to recompose the broken body parts into a familiar, homespun bandaged whole. In this regime, there was no chance, Kessel notes, that German soldiers would jokingly order up a Charlie Chaplin feature in No-Man’s-Land, as did their British counterparts who hoped the war might end if soldiers on both sides collapsed in laughter.
The certainties of the knowledge of humiliation and of the righteousness of revenge wiped away any bounds imposed on violence. Laughter was an inalterable way to be in the world. The power to laugh was the power to mete out violence. Jews were excluded from this recomposed body because the satire and irony that might have protected the body and soul of the individual from the claims of the collective were designated as French, or democratic, and in any case destructive – and often enough Jewish. Germany’s enemies in the Great War were often depicted as Jews in a way that qualified and even withheld the patriotism of Germany’s Jews. A cartoon from the war introduced readers to prisoners in German captivity: there was Meyer from London, and there was Meyer from Paris, and Meyer from Warsaw, all characterized by Jewishness more than national origin and each one pleased to be out of the fight. In other words, the non-national, unpatriotic, non-fighting Meyer was the very antithesis of the composed, laughing German (pp. 92–93). Standard publications such as Simplicissimus become a by-word for sinister in Kessel’s account precisely because they transformed self-identity (Selbstverständnis) into self-evidency (Selbstverständlichkeit). The trope of the non-German Jew, spun out already in the Great War, was woven to completion in the Second World War.
Kessel knows full well that most readers will be acquainted with the subject of humor in the Third Reich; there is a shelf full of books telling jokes on Hitler and other Nazis, beginning with the remark on the party ideal: “Blond wie Hitler, groß with Goebbels, und schlank wie Göring.” Kessel is ready to tell us just exactly what those jokes served to do both during the Third Reich and long afterwards. They suggested resistance where there was none. At best, they presented a dichotomy, targeting a “diktatorische Entscheidungselite” in order to set off a “hilflose Mehrheit” thereby upholding rather than disputing the notion of the victimized German who was cast so centrally in the genre of “Ernst” and “Heiter” (p. 253). The focus on “Hitler and Co.” left out the victims of the racial regime whose presence would only lance the joke on the Nazis themselves. The sardonic term “Reichskristallnacht,” the perverse crystalline aesthetic of the choreography of the high and mighty, with their Reich-this and their Reich-that, is a case in point.
The pamphlets are all footnoted and the cartoons referenced. Unfortunately, Kessel does not pause to closely analyze the single joke to show how it included and excluded, created its own system of referentiality, and abetted violence. An analysis of joking, like joking itself, is a matter of timing. For example, Victor Klemperer retailed a bit of cabaret humor: A Jewish lady wants to get a perm back in April 1933. The hairdresser refuses outright. Why? “The Führer expressly assured that despite all the atrocity propaganda not a single hair on the head of a Jew would be touched” (p. 151). The punch pulled, the violence intimated, the half-wit actually getting the underlying message, the quality of laughter, and the boycott expanded to include withholding basic services to Jews as consumers – all this cries out for more analysis. Throughout the book there is the echo of Hitler’s notorious speech on January 30, 1939, in which he referred to himself as the victim of the laughter of the Jews and promised to put an end to the mockery. The “Endlösung” as the “End-Verhöhnung.” The theme of laughter in Hitler’s speeches, the applause that accompanied his emphatic parodies of his enemies, and the laughter cued-in by the audience (the protocols routinely noted “Heiterkeit”) requires more forthright and extensive analysis. It was on a laugh track that Hitler, Goebbels, and others besides announced and promised and finally delivered on the murder of the Jews. Perhaps putting Hitler front and center would have reproduced the distortions of the laughter that is Kessel’s subject. But the power of laughter, and the way that “Heiter” prepared the “Ernst” of the historic burden of remaking the German people that the Nazis felt they were taking on during the Final Solution, does, to my mind, require a closer look at the interlocked exchanges in Hitler’s speeches over the course of the years.
If some things are not fully explored, many other matters are insightfully examined. Kessel’s analysis of two things that do not seem to belong together, that is, laughter and violence, is subtle and illuminating. In her expert hands, lighted-heartedness is revealed to be really quite hard.