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Satirising Tyrants

According to Mel Brooks, “Nothing can burst the balloon of pomposity and dictatorial rhetoric better than comedy. Comedy brings religious persecutors, dictators and tyrants to their knees faster than any other weapon.” There is a broad truth here, but although I am a big fan of Mr Brooks, I believe that he is too optimistic when he asserts that comedy is the most powerful weapon in the fight against tyranny. Comedy, specifically satire, can only thrive in a society which tolerates it. It is a highly risky enterprise and satirists operating in a totalitarian climate can never be sure when or whether they have crossed a boundary which will very bad, even lethal consequences for them.

Mel Brooks’s brilliant movie, ‘The Producers’, pokes fun at Hitler several decades after the dictator’s exit from the world stage. Even so, it has caused outrage. By his own account, “Most people got the joke. They loved it. They knew what I was doing. I did get almost a hundred letters from rabbis, students, scholars, and representatives of Jewish organisations who were very angry with me. I wrote back to every single one and tried to explain to them that the way you bring down Hitler and his ideology is not by getting on a soapbox with him, but if you can reduce him to something laughable, you win.”

So, as well as hitting its target, a movie ridiculing Hitler and the Nazis still divides an audience of Jews, amusing some and infuriating others. Satire is a weapon that can backfire. More than half a century after the war, the wounds of the Holocaust are still raw, and many Jews see no grounds for mirth and mockery in the treatment of a tragic event that destroyed millions of lives. Perhaps they feel that laughter diminishes the gravity of the Holocaust and that by implication it is an insult to the memory of both victims and survivors.

But the alternative is never to move forward, to continue to preserve Hitler as a monster, the incarnation of evil. That is a part of the truth, but it is not the whole truth, and one way to modify such a simplistic perception is to hold up to scrutiny the other side of the man, the ludicrous posturer, the inadequate buffoon who would have sunk without a trace had he not been bolstered by a people who had been humiliated in defeat, whose economy was in ruins, who had been nurtured on antisemitic propaganda for centuries and who were all too ready to follow the ranting leader who was promising to restore their national pride.

Humour can also be part of a healing process. Psychologists helping to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the war found that the children of survivors, goaded by their parents’ constant bitterness and abusive behaviour towards them, would find release from the unbearable tension within the family by taunting their parents with ‘sick’ jokes about the Holocaust, a sad reminder that sooner or later emotional tension will burst out in one form or another. Psychiatrists refer to such jokes as ‘gallows humour’, symptomatic of an underlying depressive state. Sample: Two Jews are placed up against a wall, about to be shot. One shouts to the SS Officer with the machine gun, “Filthy swine! I hope you perish in hell!” The other turns to the first and exclaims, “Hymie! What are you saying? Aren’t we in enough trouble already?”

Movies are not the only satirical weapon against tyranny. There are plenty of satirical writings, TV spoof shows, stand-up comic acts, songs and theatrical productions which play their part in undermining the totalitarian fabric by pillorying tyrants and persecutors of all shades. The political cartoon is yet another effective weapon in the satirical armamentarium. During the build-up to the Second World War, the British politician Lord Halifax, one of Chamberlain’s appeasers, pressurised the political cartoonist David Low into toning down his portrayals of of the Fuhrer in the interests of peace, but Low stood his ground and by 1940 he had so incensed Hitler that he found himself featured in the notorious ‘Black Book’, a list compiled by the SS of those earmarked for extermination when Germany would occupy Britain.

We can conjecture that those with dictatorial tendencies have an extremely low threshold of tolerance for satire. On the other hand, there are many politicians who value freedom of expression and even take pride in their grotesque portrayal by newspaper cartoonists.

Satire is like a mirror. It teaches us to laugh at our own failings as well as those of others. Without the input of satirists, society would be the poorer – it would take on a more narrow-minded, monochromatic hue. So I say, hats off to the likes of Mel Brooks, David Low and the army of satirists who continue to make us laugh, fume and learn about ourselves.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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