New Comic Tests Germans′ Ability to Laugh at Hitler | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.07.2006
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New Comic Tests Germans' Ability to Laugh at Hitler

The Third Reich has always provided rich comedic possibilities for other countries looking to poke fun at the Germans. Laughing about the war in Germany, though, has always been taboo. But things are changing.

Gandhi, Mussolini and Churchill are among those who harass Hitler in a new comic

Gandhi, Mussolini and Churchill are among those who harass Hitler in a new comic

Imagine the scene: Nazi leader Adolf Hitler receives a visit from Mahatma Gandhi, who gets hungry less than two hours into a hunger strike for peace.

If things weren't bizarre enough already, the Führer then answers prank calls on his mobile phone from Winston Churchill who impersonates Germany's moderator for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in one and then offers cheap insurance against losing a war in another.

In most other countries, this surreal humor -- taken from "Der Bonker," the latest of Walter Moers' three comic books depicting a ridiculous Adolf Hitler cut off from historical reality -- would be well appreciated. But in Germany, the subject matter is still too close to the bone for many .

Walter Moers Der Bonker, Piper Verlag

"Der Bonker" is Moers' third Hitler comic

While the jokes in the comic books remain tasteless to some in Germany, comedy, when done carefully, can be a helpful way for Germans to deal with the past and they should expect more of it in the future, said Norbert Frei, a historian at the University of Jena.

"Comedy will become more and more a part of the discussion of Hitler because the distance from this time has a loosening effect on the topic," he said. "I think the passage of time is an explication for why later generations are in a position to approach the topic with the help of satire and irony more than earlier generations could."

Not an entirely new development

Despite the fact that the second World War and Hitler are thoroughly discussed in German schools and the horrors of the Holocaust clearly recalled in numerous books, movies, exhibitions and lectures, Germans still have problems with comedy relating to the darkest period in their history.

But broaching the topic with irony and satire is not a new thing, according to Frei.

"In the 50s irony was used as a means of getting a certain distance from the topic," he said. "In the high times of political cabaret in the 50s there were always confrontations with the past, and they definitely made use of irony and satire."

Walter Moers, Der Bonker, Piper Verlag

Churchill dresses in a dog outfit to get inside Hitler's bunker

While cabarets dealt with the issue satirically inside Germany, much of the international knowledge coming out of the country concerning Hitler has focused on the meticulous analysis of his relationships with other Nazi officials and his family and personal life.

Only more recently has Hitler become the subject for absurd thigh-slapping within Germany. The length of time it has taken for people to think in this way, the author Moers believes, has much to do with the problems arising from the realization that Hitler was human and not the demonic monster of a thousand other portrayals.

"I know that humanity would probably have an easier time if he was the devil or an alien, but he is part of the family, as unpleasant as that can be," media-shy Moers said in an interview that appeared in several German press outlets.

The cartoonist is unapologetic about his creations and artistic decisions which also depict Hitler having a conversation with Mussolini, who is dressed as God and who helps himself to Hitler's last bottle of cognac while praising his host's bunker. "The demonization that allows him to become a cult figure for Neo-Nazis is dangerous," Moers added.

Humanizing Hitler

Szenebild aus Der Untergang mit Bruno Ganz und Heino Ferch

Students left "The Downfall" with a less negative view of Hitler

Regardless of comedy's role, popular media have the potential to alter the public perception of Hitler, according to research conducted by Wilhelm Hofmann, a psychologist at Koblenz-Landau University. He examined the emotions students connected to Hitler after watching the 2004 film "The Downfall" and compared them to those of students who had not seen the movie, which many reviewers said intended to depict the human side of Hitler.

"Before the film many of the students did not have a clear image of who Hitler was and were strongly influenced by Bruno Ganz, (the actor who played Hitler) and the positive context in which Hitler was portrayed and saw him more positively and as less scary then students who did not see the film," Hofmann said, adding that the film did not pique the ninth and 10th graders' interest in finding out more about the Third Reich.

A movie, especially one which deals superficially with Nazi Germany, is more likely to have an effect on students' feelings than a book, comic or documentary, he added.

Whether Germans are willing to accept Hitler as a person with everyday characteristics or if he should continue to be vilified as the Devil's spawn is a question Germany still needs to deal with, according to Hofmann.

"Our research shows that there is a tendency toward making Hitler less offensive," he said. "It is up to society to decide if that is what it wants."

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