Friday, October 30, 2009

Jokes Behind the Berlin Wall

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is coming up on November 9. It is a time when my thoughts return to my father's home town and to Germany's 40 years of complete separation. Americans still feel the effects of our own civil war, which resulted in a splitting of the United States for four years. Germany certainly presents a fascinating case study.

One thing that has come to light in the aftermath of German reunification is the intense interest of West Germany's espionage service in the conditions, attitudes and opinions of ordinary East Germans. One of the more interesting activities of the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) was the collection of political jokes forwarded by its informants in the former East Germany. The joke reports made for very popular reading, and were considered useful for gauging popular attitudes and levels of discontentment. Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine reports as follows on the extensive collection of jokes compiled by the BND.

The jokes were gleaned from secretly opened letters and phone conversations that agents from West Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) would monitor in their quest for East German state secrets during the Cold War.

Intelligence services around the world tend to value every snippet of information they get and the BND was no different. It scrupulously collected and filed the jokes and dispatched them to Bonn during the carnival season each year, much to the delight of civil servants. The BND has just released the files it kept on East German humor.

The joke report was by far the most popular service the spies provided. "It was our biggest hit," recalls former BND spy Dieter Gandersheim, whose real name is of course quite different. The Chancellery and the ministries couldn't wait for the file, he said."

Although East German jokes were popular in West Germany, they were dangerous business in East Germany. In the 50's and the 60's, there were quite a few people who ended up in jail for telling jokes that were considered subversive. Getting caught having a laugh at the expense of the regime was a real possibility. According to Der Spiegel, "The Stasi had 91,000 employees and a network of around 189,000 civilian informants to spy on the East German population of 17 million. It regarded every political joke as a potential threat. Anyone who poked fun at the representatives of the organs of state and society was subject to prosecution."

Why was the regime so afraid of humour? With a monopoly of the newspapers and the broadcast media, word of mouth was the one alternative source of information. Ridicule was one of the few weapons left to a population that had been disarmed, demoralised and intimidated. Ultimately, the Berlin fell. The regime that inspired such fear is now but a memory.

To this day, East German jokes are still told. There are books full of them that have been published and reprinted. Sequels have been written as well. What is the attraction in the jokes of a captive nation? Der Spiegel gave a few examples. Google yields a wealth of East german jokes as well. I have included some of the jokes here.


Early in the morning, Honecker arrives at his office and opens his window. He sees the sun and says: "Good morning, dear Sun!"
The sun replies: "Good morning, dear Erich!"
Honecker works, and then at noon he heads to the window and says: "Good day, dear Sun!"
The sun replies: "Good day, dear Erich!"
In the evening, Erich calls it a day, and heads once more to the window, and says: "Good evening, dear Sun!"
The sun is silent.
Honecker says again: "Good evening, dear Sun! What's the matter?"
The sun replies: "Kiss my arse. I'm in the West now."

The teacher asks in school: "What is the most important thing in socialism?" The students consider and little Fritz (Fritzchen) answers: "The most important thing in socialism is the human!" The teacher: "That is a good answer, Fritzchen. I will give you a B-grade." Fritzchen is dissatisfied and responds emphatically: "Would you maybe give me an A if I told you what the human's name was?"

The teacher asks: "Fritzchen, why are you always speaking of our Soviet brothers? It's 'Soviet friends'." Fritz responds: "Well, you can pick your friends.

"Honecker meets Mao and asks him: "How many political opponents do you have in China?" Mao: "I estimate about 17 million."
Honecker: "Oh, that's pretty much the same here." (The GDR had 17 million inhabitants)

The teacher asks: "Fritzchen, what is the difference between capitalism and socialism?" Fritz replies: "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Under socialism, it is the other way around."

"What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage."

"Why does West Germany have a higher standard of living than we do? Because communists can't get work permits there."

According to one joke, Christmas had been cancelled. Mary didn't find any diapers for the baby Jesus, Joseph was called up to the army and the three kings didn't get a travel permit.

East Germany was not alone in having a rich arsenal of political jokes. My favourite anti Nazi joke was told to me by an ethnic Ukrainian whose parents had worked as slave labourers in Germany.

"What is the difference between a Nazi and a dog?"

" A Nazi lifts his arm."

In the USSR, they had Radio Yerevan (capital of Armenia) jokes, in which subversive answers were given to questions submitted by listeners. The following are some examples.

Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union the same as there is the USA? A: In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and yell, "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished. In the Soviet Union, you can stand in the Red Square in Moscow and yell, "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished.

Q: Is it true that the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide?
A: Yes, it is true, and even the record of his very last words is preserved: "Don't shoot, comrades."

Q: Why is there no flour in the market?
A: Because they began adding it to the bread.

Q: Is it true that in the Soviet Union people do not need stereophonic equipment?
A: In principle, yes. One hears exactly the same thing from all sides.

Q: Is it true that conditions in our labor camps are excellent?
A: In principle, yes. Five years ago one of our listeners was not convinced of this, so he was sent to investigate. He seems to have liked it so much that he hasn't returned yet.

Q: Under communism will we still have money?
A: No, none of that either.

Q: Could an atomic bomb destroy our beloved town, Yerevan, with its splendid buildings and beautiful gardens ?
A: In principle, yes. But Moscow is by far a more beautiful city.

Q: What is chaos?
A: We do not comment on national economics.

As the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches recalling the humour of the East Germans gives us insight and feeling for that trying time. The suffering of the East Germans and others who lived under communism should not be forgotten. The jokes that people did time for are colourful brush strokes in the picture of that troubled time. I hope my readers appreciate them. Sphere: Related Content

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