Ben Lewis sets out to find the truth behind the theory that humour brought down Communism. An original, interesting and challenging task no doubt. The result, Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism told through Communist Jokes takes us through an interesting journey from the Wall to Vladivostock through jokes during the 60-odd years that the political philosophy (which was supposedly laughed out of existence) held sway. He interviews all the joketellers and joke collectors that he could possibly find (such as the super cool Stefanuscu of Romania) including many establishment voices such as the erstwhile editor of the DDR's official satire rag Eulenspiegel. Lewis goes beyond the joketellers where he can - in an attempt to find out how the political top brass viewed jokes, he meets Lech Walesa, Jerzy Urban, the Gorbachev Foundation archives, a US Cold War veteran and a joketelling Putin aide. This post is not a review of the book so I shall leave you to read it for yourself and find out all about his conclusions. I found the book to be engaging though I wish Lewis was a little less serious about the jokes and his own theroies - that way he might have actually listened to the people he was speaking to. There was also some supposedly deep side story about the author and his postmodern, East German artist girlfriend which was totally boring and unnecessary but thankfully, there wasn't too much of it. Minor irritations. If you like satire and / or have a passing interest in the Soviet Bloc, definitely worth reading. Great jokes, good context, exhuastive research.
Anyway, I am just using this post to post a few jokes for future reference. I have always been partial to humour (and in some ways, one could stretch this to other forms of literature) from certain countries in Europe relative to others. Britain features pretty high on the list and the other two on my top three would be Russia and the Czech Republic. Russian humour is not very difficult to find and a good many of the jokes in this book I had already come across, so I shall refrain from those jokes and keep to the Czech jokes in this post.
First, Czech jokes on Nazism. In his comparison of Nazi jokes vs. Communist jokes, Lewis claims that only in the Czech Republic is there a broad spectrum of Nazi jokes that takes on the whole system instead of just sections of it. A few samples:
What should be the ideal Nazi look like?
For the protection of the race and in the interests of the nation's population, he must have as many children as Hitler. He must be racially pure, like Leni Riefenstahl; have a slim, resilient frame, like Goering. He must speak truthfully, like Goebbels; and be true to the cause, like Hess.
A worker is telling a colleague how he went to a governement building in search of the office that will award him a pay rise. When he enters the entrance hall, he finds two doors, one marked 'Germans', a second marked 'Others'. He enters the second. Beyond it lie two more doors, one with a sign reading 'Married', other other with a sign reading 'Single'. He enters the first. Then there are more doors, each marked 'One Child','Two Children',and so on. He enters the appropriate door; the advanture continues.
'So what happened?' a co-worker hearing the story asks.
'Nothing,' the worker responds, 'but that's what I call organisation!'
What is the difference between the Romans and the Germans?
The Romans put hopeless miscreants on the cross. The Germans put crosses on hopeless miscreants.
When Hacha (Emil Hacha, puppet President) was in Berlin, they had to give him something to eat. So he sat next to Goering, who gave him a menu. Hacha took it, gave it a quick glance and asked where he should sign.
One morning the Czech state's leading Nazi official, Karl Hermann Frank, looks out of his castle window towards the opposite wall and sees painted a slogan in Czech in huge letters. 'Hitler is an ass!' it says - and that much he can understand. Apopleptic with rage the Reichsminister goes straight to the offices of the Czech puppet President Hacha and launches into a furious speech about the disloyalty of the Czechs.
Hacha takes high cigar out of his mouth and waves apologetically toward the Nazi: 'These people, these people,' he says, 'How many times do I have to tell them, "Everything in German, everything in German!"'
(People, doesn't the last one remind you of Mendelssohn is on the Roof?)
Now, for the Communist jokes. The Golden Age of Czech Communist jokes was obviously during and after the Prague Spring of 1968. Here are a few:
How do the Russians visit their friends?
Is it true that the Czech patriots appealed to the Red Army for help?
Yes, it is true, but they appealed in 1939 and help arrives only in 1968.
How do the Czechs know that the Earth is round?
In 1945, the imperialists were driven out to the west and in 1968, they returned from the east.
Whis is the most neutral nation in the world?
Czechoslovakia. It does not even interfere in its own internal affairs.
What is the most secure country in the world?
Israel, because it has no friendly neighbours.
Which are the biggest enemies of Socialism?
Spring, summer, autumn, winter and imperialism.
When will Socialism be acheived in Czechoslovakia?
Where everybody has had enough of everything.
It took the Red Army nearly a year to get Czechoslovakia out of their Spring and during that time an active anti-Soviet press came up with some brilliant graffiti and posters. The most famous among the cartoons(and the only one I have seen before) is the drawing of a Soviet tank in all sorts of things - mostly the work of one Ivan Steiger who had left Prague for Munich just before the Invasion.
As per Lewis, there is an obscure institute somewhere in Prague called 'the Institute for Underground Literature' which is a treasure trove of underground printed material from the 1960s. An old dissident, Jiri Gruntorat who catalogues the materials in this institute makes this comic statement in the book which reminds me of a certain other set of people from desh that we all so know and love and so I thought this is worth producing in full:
'I am convinced that the humour, at the very least, showed our intellectual superiority. If this had been a different country, the response would have looked different. Maybe the Yugoslavians would have put up a fight, but we here - we showed them our intellectual superiority and not a shot was fired. I don't know if this is good or bad but this is how I see it'.