The project by German director Rudolph Herzog, son of the veteran filmmaker Werner, explodes the myth that the Germans were so hypnotised by Adolf Hitler that they were blind to the brutality, and at times absurdity, of his rule.
“They saw through the propaganda,” Herzog told AFP. “They saw the ridiculous and ludicrous aspects of the regime.”
The book, released on Friday, accompanies a film that was first broadcast on German television this week.
Together they reveal that there was room for laughter even in the darkest period of European history, and show how humour allowed suppressed truths to seep out.
The jokes show that at least a slice of German society was fully aware of the hopelessness of the war effort, as well as the systematic campaign to wipe out European Jewry, and had a healthy contempt for Hitler.
Among the jokes:
* Hitler and his chauffeur take a drive in the countryside. All of a sudden, boom! They drive over a chicken. Hitler tells the chauffeur, “We have to tell the farmer. Let me do it. I’m the Fuehrer, he’ll understand.” After two minutes, Hitler runs back holding his backside – the farmer had given him a thrashing. The two drive on. Again, boom! They run into a pig. Hitler barks, “You go to the farmer this time!” The chauffeur follows his orders but comes back a half an hour later, falling-down drunk with a basket filled with sausages and presents. Hitler is stunned. “What did you tell the farmer?” And the chauffeur says, “I just said, ‘Heil Hitler, the pig is dead!’ and they gave me these gifts!”
* What should the new master race look like? As thin as Goering, as blond as Hitler and as tall as Goebbels. (Referring to Hitler’s overweight number two, the dark-haired Fuehrer and his diminutive propaganda chief.)
* Hitler and Goering are standing atop the Berlin Television Tower. Hitler says, “I’d like to do something to cheer up the Berliners.” Goering: “Then jump.” (A munitions worker who told this joke was executed after being denounced by her colleague.)
Herzog said jokes were an invaluable way to peer inside the hearts and minds of people living in a dictatorship, although the view was not always flattering.
“They knew about the camps,” Herzog said of the Germans.
“The war generation denied it but jokes about Dachau existed since 1933, they knew what was going on,” referring to the concentration camp in southern Germany erected just months after the Nazis came to power.
But Germans had to be careful who heard their banter because insults to the regime could be prosecuted, with punishment ranging from fines to death.
Herzog said his project was possible now because 61 years after World War II, enough time had passed to allow an honest reckoning with what the Germans knew.
“Times have changed, my parents are still close to the war, we’re the generation of grandchildren,” he said.
“It’s not over, it never will be, but we have to consider it in our own way. It’s not easy, looking back at that time. Even if it’s humour, it’s difficult.”