European satire, the past and present peril | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 12.01.2015
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European satire, the past and present peril

Satire has always been a dangerous form of art. Over the last centuries, European political cartoonists have faced prison, censorship and death threats. A brief history of the risky business of breaking taboos.

The satirical magazines which emerge in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries have different artistic styles but share a common mission: to sting the monarchy and bourgeoisie through sharp irony. Titles like "Wespennest" ("Wasps' Nest"), "Stachelschwein" ("Porcupine") and "Brennnessel" ("Stinging Nettle") make this intention perfectly clear. But the public needs time to get used to this new form of social criticism. Most new publications do not sell well and fail after three or four editions.

The first successful satirical magazine is called "La Caricature." It appears in 1830 in Paris and combines editorial and strip cartoons with caustic texts on eight pages printed on cheap newsprint. Thanks to a new printing process only used by artists until then, the drawings are entertainingly printed as colored lithographs between the texts. The publisher is the very productive Charles Philipon, who is also an artist, dealer of colored paper and coworker in a Paris gallery of art and graphic reproduction.

His closest collaborator and creative director is Honoré Daumier, who comments on political events in France with his brilliant drawing technique. In 1832, Philipon starts a follow-up publication called "Le Charivari." Both magazines sell extremely well.

University of Jena historian Louisa Reichstetter, who specializes in the history of satirical magazines during the interwar period, explained: "With Daumier, Philipon finds an artist who perfectly catches the spirit of the age and addresses the right issues."

The authorities as target

The new French magazines find imitators everywhere in Europe. "Punch," the famous English magazine, uses "London Charivari" as a subtitle in its first issues. "Many publications refer to the Parisian magazine in their subtitle. In Berlin, "Kladderadatsch" ("Unholy Mess"), which appears in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, relates very strongly to the revolutionary periodicals published in Paris," Reichstetter told DW.

Honoré Daumier's depiction of France's King Louis Philippe, Copyright: picture alliance/akg-images

Honoré Daumier's depiction of France's King Louis Philippe

Popular themes in French cartoons are the king and his court, as well as the bourgeoisie. Cartoonists mischievously attack the ruling class through irony and sharp satire. In England, the king remains taboo. British cartoonists prefer to stick to enemies on the European continent. The military is another target of their satire.

Cartoonists live dangerously

In Paris, the aristocratic ruling class is not laughing. On November 14, 1831, publisher Charles Philipon is brought to court for treason. He is acquitted, but shortly afterwards his colleague Honoré Daumier is sentenced to six months of prison.

"He is charged because of his bold taboo-breaking cartoons and drawings, but is not given an occupational ban," adds Louisa Reichstetter. "He keeps going undeterred, to find out soon enough that there is not enough freedom of the press and liberalism in restorative France to tolerate such satire."

The 19th century is the golden age of satire and humorous political magazines in Europe. "Nebelspalter" ("Fog Splitter") is published in Switzerland, "Kikeriki" in Austria, and "Ulk," "Berliner Wespen" ("Berlin Wasps") and "Leuchtkugeln" ("Light Balls") in the German Empire. In 1848, the humorous and satirical weekly "Kladderadatsch" appears in Berlin. Revolutionary turmoil and war times boost its circulation. The acquisition of the paper by German industrialist Hugo Stinnes in 1923 has far-reaching political consequences. The content starts leaning to the right and the cartoons become increasingly anti-Semitic.

Honoré Daumier's depiction of France's King Louis Philippe, Copyright: picture alliance/akg-images

France's King Louis Philippe didn't have a particularly good standing with Honoré Daumier

After "Kladderradatsch," the Munich paper "Simplicissimus" is Germany's second-most traditional satirical magazine, collecting almost 50 years of blunt social critique. Publisher Albert Langen prints 480,000 copies for its first edition in 1896. Only 10,000 are sold, the rest are either given away or pulped. The "Simpl" nevertheless quickly becomes an institution in the Empire: anti-clerical, anti-feudal and fundamentally democratic, it serves as a forum for the most important writers of the period right into the Weimar Republic. After a Nazi SA squad wrecks the editorial offices in March 1933, the magazine takes on a National-Socialist course, which marks the end of this ambitious literary satire magazine.

Cartoons become popular in Europe after the Second World War. In 1959, "Pilote" appears in Paris. René Goscinny, one of the main cartoonists for the magazine, will later achieve worldwide fame with his Asterix series. The satirical monthly "Hara-Kiri" - the forerunner of "Charlie Hebdo" - is created in the early 1960s. "Pardon" appears in Germany in 1962. French cartoonists draw on the tradition of Philipon and Daumier, provocatively crossing lines and breaking all taboos.

World War I satirical cartoon, Here, German Emperor Wilhelm II is getting a spanking , Copyright: picture-alliance/akg-images

Here, German Emperor Wilhelm II is getting a spanking

The duck in chains

The most influential and famous satirical magazine remains the century-old "Le Canard enchainé" ("The chained duck"). Its combination of investigative stories, biting commentary and political cartoons has been persistently annoying the powerful since 1915. Each week, freshly printed copies are delivered directly to the Élysée Palace. "Freedom of the press disappears when it is not used" is the principle guiding the editorial team in the upkeep of its daring tradition of defiant insults.

"The tradition of 'Le Canard enchainé' has a lot to do with anger over their own guild, the press, which was forced into line during the First World War," said historian Louisa Reichstetter. "They are frustrated with both the press from the left and the right. That's why they want to create a truly independent media." A feat still achieved to this day: the magazine has a current circulation of 500,000 copies.

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