OCTOBER 26, 2012 10:48AM

When jokes had teeth: Humor behind the "Iron Curtain"

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 GDR

Many people regard the German Democratic Republic as something
of a joke today, but that nation's rich joke culture masked a bleak reality

POLITICAL JOKES JUST HAVEN’T been the same since the demise of the old Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites. In totalitarian states, where intelligent and highly educated people were compelled to obey egregiously buffoonish leaders and conform to absurd ideologies, humor provided not only an escape valve for frustration but also a risky but largely tolerated platform for criticism. Humor is serious business in an authoritarian society. For example, defeatist jokes meant summary execution in the last months of Hitler’s Third Reich. (One popular, but deadly, one went like this: “Berlin is a city of warehouses. Everywhere you go, people are shouting: ‘Where’s my house? Where’s my house?’”) Although many joke tellers did end up in East Bloc labor camps, communist officials tended to overlook the odd gag from marginal citizens, and even repeated some of the best ones to their colleagues behind closed doors.

These jokes were always situation-based and are largely incomprehensible to those who never went through the communist experience – as I did throughout the 1980s, culminating in nearly half a year I spent living in old East Berlin in 1988 (I wrote about that time here) along with stays in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Life in a communist dictatorship was so structurally bleak that black humor was the only way to remain moderately sane. “It’s funny in the Russian sense of the word,” as the saying go, meaning that a situation is “funny” in the darkest possible sense. This Stalin-era joke, which exiled author Lev Kopelev picked up during his stint in a Gulag in the late forties, is a classic example of East Bloc humor: “The Soviet Union has not yet become a classless society, but has reduced its classes to three: Those who have been in prison, those who are in prison now, and those who will be in prison in the future.” Taken in context, this is actually a very funny joke. It also represents the only way to deal with totalitarian oppression: Laugh it off in the hope that you may yet have the last laugh.

Now compare this rich world of black humor with what counts as wit in “the West.” Since I haven’t lived in the US for decades and, in my line of work, have no access to a water cooler (where, as I understand, Americans tend to gather and exchange gossip and jokes), I actually had to go online to find some political jokes. Here’s a typical example:

Q: What’s Barack Obama going to pretend to be for Halloween this year?

A: A president.

Ha-ha. This, like so many other alleged political jokes, is entirely ad hominem and reveals no awareness of the kaleidoscopic, down-the-rabbit-hole world we have all been living in since September 11, 2001 – and a lot longer than that, by the way. Financial systems and living standards aside, the real difference between communist and present-day “Western” society is that here in the West we all believe our own propaganda about our collective awesomeness, while behind the “Iron Curtain” almost no one believed theirs. Yes, our airwaves are flooded with alleged jokes, and yet there is hardly a comedian alive these days who would ever dare pop our cushy cognitive bubble. In the East they told jokes, in the West we take Prozac. But while jokes sharpen our wits and can lead to revolution, Western media and other antidepressants merely deaden our common sense. “It’s called the American Dream,” George Carlin once said, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

 Gitmo

Is there anything funny about the situation shown here? I sure don't know, but humor and satire require awareness in order to function. In a society where nobody even knows what's going on, let alone has a considered opinion on why it violates their leaders' proclaimed values, irony and thus also change are
rendered impossible.

For all I know, there may be some clever jokes being told in US government departments and in NATO mess halls about the delusional Afghan War, an example of government planning on crack cocaine that has been taking on an increasingly Soviet aspect. If there are some good Gitmo or Bagram jokes out there, I’m not aware of them, perhaps because there’s simply nothing funny about American politics these days, and few people are sufficiently aware and critical to see the absurdity of it all.

Alongside its other duties, the West German BND intelligence service regularly collected the East German jokes its agents overheard in bars and on street corners. The jokes were hugely popular in West German ministries – the BND normally delivered them at the start of Mardi Gras season – and they largely color today’s view of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as an oppressive but generally silly and ultimately innocuous regime (the best movie about life in the GDR, Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin, rightly treats the East German experience as one big, dark joke). I mean, any society whose most visible technical achievement was the primitive and smelly Trabi automobile, which normally took ten to fifteen years for delivery, isn’t really possible to take seriously, is it? But the regime’s inanity was more than skin deep. Eastern European communism wasn’t a comedy of errors but rather a tragedy of the human spirit. Sure, it was funny all right, but only “in the Russian sense of the word.”

I’ve assembled a set of East German jokes below. They are taken from a wide range of printed and online sources. I was told some of them during my own frequent stays in East Germany between 1984 and 1988. Typical topics include the GDR’s poor consumer goods supply, ideological humbug, government corruption, the desire to travel freely, media lies, and raw contempt for individual leaders. Many familiar jokes are unintelligible today, and many of them are based on puns that simply don’t translate. In the collection below I’ve included the most comprehensible ones and, I think, the funniest. I’ve added explanatory notes as needed.

 


One morning, while General Secretary Erich Honecker is doing his exercises on his balcony, the sun calls out to him and says: “Good morning, Herr Honecker!” Amazed, Honecker tells his Politburo about it at a meeting a few hours later. They all head over to his house to see what’s going on. At noon, while they’re all assembled on the balcony, the sun addresses him once more: “Good day, Herr Honecker!” The General Secretary and Politburo spend the rest of the day talking about the miracle until the sun is just about to disappear beyond the horizon. This time, however, it remains silent. “Sun,” Honecker calls out. “You greeted me in the morning and at noon, so why not in the evening?” The sun replies: “You can kiss my ass, because I’m in the West now!”

 Trabant

A "Trabi"

They’re going to bring out a new Trabi with two exhaust pipes – so that it can double as a wheelbarrow.

 

A Stasi officer stops a citizen on a Leipzig street.

“How do you judge the political situation?” he asks.

The citizen responds: “I think…”

“That’s enough!” the officer cries. “You’re under arrest!”

 

There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes.

 

In the same vein, from around 1970:

Not long ago, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and General Secretary Walter Ulbricht met for a chat.

Ulbricht: Do you have a hobby, Herr Brandt?

Brandt: Yes, I like to collect the jokes people tell about me.

Ulbricht: You don’t say! Mine’s the same, except that I collect the people who tell jokes about me.

 

If a farmer falls from his tractor,

Look around, there must be a reactor.

(Overheard following the reactor blast in Chernobyl in 1986, which the state media ignored and played down as long as possible.)

 

Q: Why are GDR butcher shops required to keep at least one sausage on view in their display case?

A: Because otherwise people would start lining up to buy the tiles off the walls.

 

Standing in line East Germans regularly lined up for merchandise.

Little Fritz comes home from school with a huge smile on his face.

Fritz: Daddy, daddy, I was best in my class today!

Father: What did you do, Little Fritz?

Fritz: We were supposed to write an essay about “the achievements of the GDR,” and I got a D.

Father: A D?! What did the others get?

Fritz: I don’t know. They haven’t come back from their interrogations yet.

 

A Polish dog, a GDR dog, and a West German dog get together and talk about their lives.

The Polish dog says: “We’re really doing badly – we don’t have enough to eat.”

The GDR dog says: “Well, we’re okay as far as eating is concerned, but we don’t have much of a say either.”

The West German dog says: “When I bark, I get meat.”

The Polish dog: “Meat? What’s that?”

The GDR dog: “Bark? What’s that?”

(This wicked joke refers to the structural poverty of Polish society and the more prosperous East Germans’ supposed timidity – unlike the rebellious Poles, East Germans rarely dared to complain about their condition.)

 

 
Young Pioneers giving the "Be prepared! Ever prepared!" salute.

Three members of the Young Pioneers communist youth league are walking along the Spree river in East Berlin and see a man thrashing around in the water. They pull the drowning man onto the riverbank and discover that it’s Erich Honecker. Thankful to be alive, the General Secretary says he will grant them each one wish.

“I want a bicycle,” the first one says, “but there aren’t any in the shops and my parents don’t have any connections.”

“Okay,” Honecker says, “I’ll get you a 5-speed Diamant bike from our party warehouse.”

“I want a computer,” the second one says, “but they don’t sell them anywhere.”

“Sure,” Honecker says, “I’ll buy you a Commodore from the foreign currency shop.”

“I want a state funeral,” the third one says.

Honecker looks surprised. “Aren’t you a little young to be thinking about death, son?”

“No,” the boy replies. “Because my father will kill me if he finds out that I pulled you out of the water.”

 

Erich Honecker has been trying to breed peace doves for forty years. And what did he get? Millions of migratory birds!

(Referring to the GDR’s demagogical peace rhetoric and the millions of East Germans who fled to a better life in the West.)

 

Erich Honecker dies and knocks on the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter tells him to go to hell. One year later, two devils show up and knock. “You’d better go back where you came from,” Peter tells them. “No, you don’t understand,” they protest. “We’re the first refugees!”

 

At school, the teacher asks Little Fritz who wrote the Communist Manifesto. Little Fritz hesitates. “Go on, who was it?” the teacher prods. Little Fritz, clearly agitated, cries out: “I don’t know! But it wasn’t me!”

Disturbed by his response, the teacher tells his wife about the incident at home that evening. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe it really wasn’t him!”

Even more disturbed by these reactions, the teacher goes to his corner pub for a few quick ones. “What’s the matter?” the man sitting across from him at the table asks. The teacher tells him about Little Fritz’s response. “Don’t worry,” the man says. “I’m from the Stasi. We’ll soon find out who wrote it.”

At the pub one week later, the teacher runs into the man again. “You’re right, Herr Teacher,” he says. “Fritz didn’t write it after all. It was his father. He finally confessed!”

 

The Five Principles of socialism are:

1.     Don’t think!

2.     If you think, don’t speak!

3.     If you think and speak, don’t write!

4.     If you think, speak, and write, don’t sign anything!

5.     If you think, speak, write, and sign things, don’t be surprised!

 

Q: Can a GDR citizen be descended from apes?

A: Of course not. Have you ever seen an ape that can live off of just two bananas per year?

 

 Banana

That obscure object of desire... In communist East Germany, the exotic banana was the very essence of a free, cosmopolitan lifestyle.

A woman goes to a department store. Frustrated at the scant goods available there, she turns to a clerk and says: “Young man, do you sell no curtains here?” “Sorry, ma’am,” he replies. “This is the first floor. No curtains are sold on the second floor.”

 

Erich Honecker returns from his first state visit to West Germany and all of his party comrades want to know what it was like. “Don’t get excited, it’s the same as here,” he tells them. “If you have Western currency, you can buy anything!”

 

An East German husband and wife are sitting at the breakfast table.

He: Hey, read this: “The GDR is one of the world’s ten leading industrial nations.” You know what, I’ll cut this out and send it to my uncle Frank in Munich. I wonder what he’ll say to that!”

She: Go right ahead. And while you’re at it, ask him to add a couple rolls of toilet paper to our Christmas package this year.

(This joke is devastating on a number of levels. Regarding the Christmas package, many West Germans supplied their East German relatives with basic consumer goods at Christmas time, which represented both a welcome improvement to their standard of living and a constant reminder of their own society’s structural underdevelopment.)

 

In the same vein:

Erich Honecker decides to find out for himself just how popular he is among the East German people. He rings a doorbell and a little boy opens up. “Who are you?” he asks. “Who am I?” Honecker replies. He smiles and bends down to talk to the little boy. “I’m the one who makes it possible for your family to own a color TV and always have nice things to eat.” “Mama!” the little boy shouts into the house. “Uncle Franz from Cologne has come to visit!”

 


General Secretary Erich Honecker (1912-1994)

 

A man steps into a hardware store.

Man: Have you got any nails?

Clerk: Nope.

Man: Have you got any screws?

Clerk: Nope.

Man: Have you got anything at all?

Clerk: Nope. But we're open twenty-four hours a day.

Man: Why’s that?

Clerk: The lock’s busted.

 

During one of the GDR’s chronic power outages, a man shouts from the balcony of a tumbledown inner-city apartment house: “Don’t shut everything off, there are still people living up here!”

(Said to be a true story.)

 

Q: Why do people compare the East German coffee brand “Rondo” with a neutron bomb?

A: The drinker dies and the cup survives.

 

There will be no Christmas in the GDR this year. Mary couldn’t buy any diapers for the baby Jesus, Joseph was called up for his army reserve training, the Three Kings couldn’t get an entry visa, and the shepherds didn’t fill their milk production quota.

 

Q: Why are there no bank robbers in the GDR?

A: They have to wait fifteen years to buy an escape car!

 

Ever since the meeting between {West German chancellor} Helmut Schmidt and Erich Honecker, GDR citizens can travel to the Federal Republic. However, the booking price is 31,000 marks: 1,000 marks for travel, room and board… and 30,000 for the long chain.

 

In 1987, in preparation for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin, the East German capital was the scene of massive excavation work on the streets of the city. One Berliner asks another: “Does all this digging have anything to do with the 750th anniversary celebration?” The other replies: “No, the communist party just wants to see if communism is finally taking root here.”

 

 NVA

Soldiers of the GDR's National People's Army goose-stepping
along Unter den Linden, East Berlin

Two men are sitting in a bar. “Hey, I’ve got a joke,” one of them says. “Erich Honecker walks into the woods carrying a rope…”

“Hey, why did you stop?”

“I’m not allowed to continue. But it sure gets off to a good start, doesn’t it?”

 

A question to Radio Yerevan:

Is it possible to destroy the GDR with an atomic bomb?

A: In theory yes, but why go to all that trouble? Fifteen centimeters of fresh snow will do it in just as fast.

(“Radio Yerevan” jokes, which were popular across Eastern Europe, always included the words: “In theory yes, but…”)

 

A citizen encounters a communist party functionary:

Citizen: Who invented socialism? A scientist or a politician?

Functionary: A politician, of course!

Citizen: I though so. If it had been a scientist, he would have tested it on rats first.

 

A GDR border guard is talking to his comrade in a watchtower.

“So what do you think about our Workers’ and Peasants’ State?”

“The same as you, I should say.”

“Then I’m sorry, but I’ll have to place you under arrest!”

 


A perennial sore spot: East German toilet paper

Q: Why is East German toilet paper so rough?

A: To make sure that every last asshole in the country turns red.

 

Q: What’s the most popular kind of pornography in the GDR?

A: Naked store shelves!

 

And finally, my favorite:

 

Q: What happens when the desert becomes socialist?

A: In the first few years, nothing at all. Then they start running out of sand.

 

Sand 

 

 

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Comments

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Those jokes really cut to the quick! With irony like this getting spread throughout society every day, it's a miracle those regimes lasted as long as they did. Umberto Eco wrote a bestseller about the dangers of humor and satire (this time to the medieval Catholic Church) called "The Name of the Rose." Some things never change! r.
Love the jokes, especially the one about the desert.
Thanks, Judy and John. If you ask me, in the end it wasn't the arms race but rather the jokes that did the old regime in.
Great collection Alan. I remember that one about the sun from Lives of Others. The need for furtiveness under a dictatorship seems to get the creative juices flowing.
Thanks, Abrawang. Believe me, the jokes were the only thing that was funny about communism.
As always, thoroughly researched and vividly brought back. There were the same jokes that circulated in the Eastern Bloc, so Poland was relevant for the humor. I am glad you write about it because it helps me to explain that reality to my children. It is gone era, and thanks goodness. But, the jokes were never better than back then, because absurd was given to you on a silver plate. How could you not joke about it. The toilet paper jokes, best ever. Robin Williams gave it credibility in Moscow on the Hudson. And the "Running out of sand" if you turn the country over to the Socialistic regime. It wasn't a joke it was the reality that make the joke so relevant.
[r] alan, you rock. favorites "bark -- what's that?" and the one about no curtains being sold on the second floor! hah!

hmmmm ... US political jokes ... why won't Israel become the 51st state? answer: then it would have only two senators!

I used to love was it Gary Larson cartoons about the guys chained in the dungeons or the guys' side comments chained in rows on the boats. Oppressed peasant humor. sigh. will be back to check out your link. wow. best, libby
A great collection -- thanks for posting!

The mention of Radio Yerevan immediately brought back a favourite song from the 80s by Nina Hagen, which begins with narration "this is again Radio Yerevan …"
@Kasia

Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I believe you can learn a lot about a society based on their toilet paper...

@Libby
Jokes are a weapon in the liberation of humankind, and the one about the "51st state" is genuinely loaded! I'd heard it before, long ago, but it really made my day hearing it again!

@Bart
I'm not aware of that one! Of course, Nina Hagen was from the GDR. It seems to me that Radio Yerevan needs a reboot!
Somehow East Bloc musicians managed to invent some fabulously exciting (and sometimes mordant) music in that era.

Nina Hagen's "Born in Xixax" is on youtube at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTNVuY9gBzw
Some great jokes! I did not know any of them.

This one is from the Soviet Union:
It is sometime in 1986, and Boris eventually gets his administrative clearance to buy a Lada. So he walks into the Lada store and proudly orders one.
"When will I get it?" Boris asks.
The salesman browses through a list and says: "On April 2, 2002."
"Oh niet! Impossible! That's when the plumber's coming."
I don't know if I'm in the mood for these Jokes today...I'm on my way out to Vote now. Trying to get a "Joker" from sleeping in the White House! R
That a banana was the symbol of a free, cosmopolitan lifestyle....
I'll likely not see those huge piles of them in the grocery the same way again.
Enjoyed these jokes, enjoyed the whole thing -- my parents' friends who were from Central Europe were the most funny/sad people I've ever met. They made my parents laugh until they were crying. Then they'd start really crying together, then hugs-with-back-slaps, more laughs.
I remember telling my mother I thought she was a paper cut-out doll compared to those friends who 'got' children so well, too (what a terrible thing to say to one's mother! But they laughed and re-told that conversation for ages).