The Important Role of Humor in 19th C. Germany
Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Matthew Rusting-Morey
I am a fifth year senior at University California Santa Barbara who is majoring in history without a focus on any particular time period or location. I recently went to Germany to see the World Cup in Stuttgart, where I watched the third place Portugal vs. Germany match. The trip made me very interested in Germany because of the strong national pride that the people had, leading me to take a class on German history. Also I have always enjoyed humor, and, being a regular watcher of “The Daily Show” with John Stewart I wondered what the 19th century Prussian version of political humor was.
Abstract (back to top)
Mary Lee Townsend’s book Forbidden Laughter is a book that describes in detail the various types of humor in nineteenth century Prussia, how it was censored, who was reading the works, and how it affected them. She also includes a few biographical sketches of a few different artists and authors, the work they did, and the impact it had. In the two longest chapters she covers the humor itself, including the different topics it covers such as: marriage, family, social misery, political repression etc. There is an effort made throughout the book to show that much of the art and literature was very symbolic in a way to hide the message the authors were trying to convey that would criticize the State. Townsend concludes that humor was a vital part of Prussian and German society as a whole and was a determining factor in the events leading up to the revolution of 1848. I don’t fully agree with her statements. I believe that many issues such as famine and the state's inability to solve problems that faced the people were the main cause that led to revolution.
Essay (back to top)
Before I obtained the book Forbidden Laughter by Mary Lee Townsend, I had no idea of what I wanted to learn about Germany, but after looking through it I realized that contemporary humor would be a great way to gain insight into the mindset of the people and the role of government in Prussia during part of the nineteenth century.
The novel discusses the role of humor during the period between 1815 and 1848, and answers many questions about how different social classes reacted to humor, how common people were influenced in Prussia, what the government thought of political writings and other topics, and how it reacted.
To cover all of these questions Townsend splits her book into seven chapters, each focusing on a certain aspect of humor: the role of common people, what types of humor were used, what was censored, how effective the censors were, the role of the monarchy, how the literature was distributed, and who was reading it. The book provides a complete explanation of the function of humor in 18th century Prussia, using a vast number of contemporary sources, both written and graphical.
Townsend describes the humor after 1815 starting as apolitical, then slowly progressing into the realm of the political, although heavily veiled so as not to arouse the suspicions of the censors. Humor also started to touch on issues regarding the church in addition to social issues. Townsend gives many examples of censored materials, and in some cases shows the before and after of different pictures and writings. An example of this can be seen in the 1844 lithography by F. Hube where in the pre-censored picture a boy is standing next to a woman’s exposed petticoats, saying “I want to see if I might get inside,” supposedly referring to getting into Kroll’s amusement garden. To have it approved to print, the petticoat had to be covered and the quote was re-written to say “You! Someone there has gotten entangled” (Townsend pp. 89-90). It loses a lot of the meaning and humor but that was the kind of thing that the censors were there for.
Although each chapter had a main point, all of the chapters incorporate ideas from the other chapters as well. There was also a running theme throughout the book of the effect of humor on common people, how they were influenced and how the government was afraid of the repercussions if the lower class began to be incited by the Berliner Witz.
The Important Role of Humor in 19th Century Prussia
The effects of humor, both written and pictorial, were an essential part of Prussian society during the reign of Fredrick William III (1797-1840) and Fredrick William IV (1840-59). In a time of much repression of the press and of the people, where industrialization was taking hold and the cities were filling with greater and greater numbers of people, coming from foreign lands and from the German countryside itself, humor was an outlet for the people of Berlin and the surrounding areas, and was used as a “public forum to discuss forbidden topics” (Townsend p. 19).
After 1815 there was a move from the oral traditions of the past into an age of text and pictures. With the mechanization of printing there was a publishing boom that led to the mass dispersal of reading materials. With an audience able to appreciate literary work and a business community willing to sell them, Berliner Witz grew from a local pastime to a modern commercial enterprise (Townsend p. 70).
At first publications were purely for the sake of entertainment. This was exemplified by works of the writer Moritz Gottlieb Saphir, who put pen to paper with a mix of wit and sensationalism about popular nonpolitical figures that made his periodicals immensely popular (Townsend p. 37).
This was the beginning of the trend of Berlin humor, and with Saphir’s popularity others were soon to follow. These new writers were from a great variety of backgrounds, a mix of Berliners and out siders from a diverse range of geographic and economic backgrounds, all young, most of whom were under the age of 35. Although from such different circumstances, they still held a captive audience and were considered the ‘typical’ Berliner.
Many of these new authors now began to write about political and social issues, but the only way to get their work past the censors was to heavily mask their ideas with humor, or make it so ambiguous that the censors would not feel justified in banning it. It was clear that, “authors and artists knew how to hide serious messages behind a veil of ‘innocent’ humor” (Townsend p.19). What is not necessarily clear is whether or not this hidden humor played a significant role in causing the eventual rebellion in 1848.
Political humor was not the only type that was being written. There was also a great deal of humor that dealt with social issues such as courtship, marriage, the emancipation of women, and parent-child issues. Many of these things did not have to be censored. They were just poking fun at the lives of a general type of person and not a particular one, and it was not bad-mouthing the state. “If women enter the public life, who will stay home and cook our lunch,” was a popular joke about the emancipation of women (Townsend p. 94). However even in the realm of social issues, double meanings could be found. Most common were subtle parallels drawn between the parent-child relationship and that of the state and the citizen. Adolph Glaβ brenner’s comic family is a prime example of this. Throughout the stories Buffey the father always rebuffs his ten year old son Wilhelm, calling him stupid and disgraceful. The father’s exaggerated tyranny represents political as well as paternal repression (Townsend pp. 96-97).
Surprisingly during this period there was a very high rate of literacy, eighty-five percent of Berliners who were 35 and over could read and write in 1840, and ninety-one percent of 29-38 year olds were literate, an astonishing rate (Townsend p. 70). With such a high rate of literacy readers were from all strata of society. As seen in a pair of anecdotes on page 69, everyone from a barber’s helper to a duchess, were reading the same material. The authors themselves made a definitive effort to reach all types of people in society by using “…Berlinisch to give their works a certain flavor” (Townsend p.76). People “…even from the upper and highest estates… [spoke] urberliner dialect…it was also the language of the lower class” (Townsend p. 73).
One may wonder tho ugh how the poor of Prussia were able to afford purchasing these literary works during a time when the lower class was a quickly growing social stratum, and many could barely afford sustenance for their families. Most new pamphlets, books, prints and the like were out of reach with the meager income of the poor, but there were many different ways that they could find material to read. The common folk had access to these things “through Antiquars, libraries, reading circles, coffee houses, reading aloud, and display in store windows” (Townsend p. 83). So even though the middle class was the target audience for the writers and artists, as far as profit was concerned, they made their work understandable to everyone, because of the secondhand market. According to a contemporary, “each copy of a newspaper reached at least four people," thus Townsend argues that "literally everyone in Berlin was familiar with commercialized Berlin wit” (Townsend p. 83, p. 86).
Another important reason that literature of a humor ous nature was so readily available to the public was the blossoming network of transportation. The industrial revolution in Germany led to the creation of various railroad systems, which could bring literature to far places quickly. Once the literature reached a major city it was quickly dispersed throughout the city. In 1833 with a population of about 260,000, Berlin boasted some sixty bookstores. These, in addition to other non-official booksellers, children, rag-pickers, and small shopkeepers, allowed for a quick distribution system and a plethora of places to obtain literature (Townsend p. 78). Humor even began to spring up in different everyday goods such as in the wrappers of chocolates or with the purchase of various tobacco products, in a kind of equivalent to today’s Bazooka Joe chewing gum, except it sometimes had the ulterior motive of being used as political rhetoric.
Writers were still caught between people’s interests and the authority of the state; they had to please the people while no t being discovered by the censors, and the censors were caught between doing their jobs well enough not to get hassled by superiors, and at the same time be lenient enough not to be left out of bourgeois society functions. It was not only the higher government officials that the censors had to be wary of, the whims of the king were also a threat. He could use the humor as a political tool by “jesting dispassionately about his minister’s repressive measures and the threat of revolution that lurked behind political humor” (Townsend p. 16). Like the king others in the government, such as minister of the interior Gustav Freiherr von Brenn, “hoped that the Prussian state could use humor for its own purposes” (Townsend p.19). However it seems as if the state did not utilize humor to a great extent because no prominent examples are found in “Forbidden Laughter.”
The censors had a tough job. They were understaffed and often the administrative structure was unwieldy and inefficient (Townsend p. 172). However under the direction of Metternich, the laws were strict, and domestic repression was widespread, starting with the passage of the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819 (Townsend p. 21). These decrees forbade works that violated: principles of religion, morality and propriety, the dignity and security of Prussia and other German states, or the personal honor and the good name of others (Townsend p. 178). The confederation issued even stricter censorship and police surveillance in 1832 after the revolts in France in 1830 and in Poland in 1831, as well as the domestic unrest of the Hambach Festival that many liberal oppositionists attended in May 1832. There was a well-founded fear of revolution.
The ones who were to bring revolution to a realization were common people, and t he way that they would be incited to do so would be through Berliner Witz, which was seen as being the “Robespierre of the Berliners.” As Townsend writes:
The most strictly controlled literature was that which was intended for the lower class, because it was quite apparent that the Prussian state had good reason to be wary of jovial Berliners and their forbidden laughter (Townsend p. 12).
Specific social and economic events did not attract the attention of the humorists for a long time, but after June of 1844 the gloves started to come off, and the veil that for so long shrouded the political and social humor slowly began to lift. Writers were becoming bolder in their criticism of the government because of the bloody uprising in Silesia and the potato famine that had been leaving many to starve. The Silesian uprising happened at an inopportune time for the state, which was holding the German Industrial Exhibition to show off what it had accomplished during the industrialization. This is when the humorists began to write more directly of their dissatisfaction with the government. As one contemporary humorist wrote in 1844:
This dissatisfaction continued to grow and writers continued to produce political humor that influenced many who were frustrated.Starting as simple entertainment, humor morphed into a forum for the public discussion of vital issues, both social and political, which was a vital part of nearly the entire Prussian society. However in the end it was improper management of the situation that eventually caused the revolution of 1848. People were starving and the state sat watching, unable to cope with the situation, even going so far as to sell good potatoes to alcohol manufacturers instead of the poor. With the inability to properly deal with the Silesian rebellion and spilling much blood in the process, it was almost inevitable that the Prussian and German people would rise up. People can only handle so much until they come to a breaking point, and although most people have thick skin, the harsh conditions the government enforced upon them, pushed them to their limits and a revolution was born.
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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: