Don't mention the War!
Simon Barnes in The Times
I CAN see it coming and I am beginning to dread it. The massed ranks of England football fans walking to the match with bellies full of beer and the German security forces on all sides. And suddenly it begins: the goose-stepping, the straight-arm saluting, the left index finger across the upper lip. I can tell you from personal experience that the Germans do not find this sort of thing as amusing as we do.
The German response to the years of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War are complex and contradictory, but nowhere does humour play a part. It is, after all, hardly a piece of history that you can laugh off.
That makes the unending British facility for Nazi jokes profoundly baffling to the Germans. This disagreement over the humorousness of Hitler is, perhaps, the greatest culture clash between Britain and Germany. And I really don’t see how it can be avoided in the summer festival of football.
Not only do the Germans fail to find Hitler amusing, they are also mystified at the way Hitler has become a stock part of British humour. Just what, precisely, is it that the British are laughing at? Well, it’s not the Final Solution. It’s not the death camps and the torture, it’s not the warfare, it’s not the pseudo- philosophy and pseudo-science. It’s just that there is something about Hitler, something about Nazism, something about all forms of dictatorships, that is, in British eyes, every bit as funny as naughty vicars, banana skins, mothers-in-law, Scotsmen and women with enormous breasts.
Prince Harry dressed up as a Nazi and was genuinely baffled when people took offence. You may as well berate him for dressing up as Charlie Chaplin. It was a joke. The fact that it was a joke with baggage simply didn’t occur to him. It wasn’t witty, ironic, dangerous humour: it was a piece of dumb slapstick.
But Hitler and Nazism continue to be one of the great British jokes, perhaps most gloriously realised by John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Here, the joke is specifically against the British — the fact that they can’t deal with the Germans without mentioning a certain subject, and that they find Hitler a subject for burlesque.
But the joke is doubled, although it is against us, for we find the burlesque itself gloriously funny, as well as its inappropriateness. These jokes are even funnier when the Germans are watching, unamused.
The inability to take extreme government seriously is nothing less than an ingrained British trait. P. G. Wodehouse, however, was to become a victim of a peculiarly British conspiracy of the humourless when he made an injudicious — but hardly compromising — radio broadcast. As a result he was, quite absurdly, seen as a Nazi sympathiser. But years before, in 1938, Wodehouse showed us what he really thought when, in The Code of the Woosters, he gave us Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts, an unambiguous skit on Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.
When Bertie Wooster acts, as ever, the turning worm, he says what Wodehouse thinks about Nazism, fascism and all such forms of extremism, and also what the British themselves naturally think about such subjects and such people. “The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it’s the voice of the people. That is where you make your bloomer. What the voice of the people is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’ ”
Spode is comic, Mosley was comic to the British, and even — especially — Hitler was and is comic. That has been the great British defence against the Spodes and the Mosleys and the Hitlers of this life. The coarse and obvious jokes have been the soundest possible defence against would-be dictators. The Germans will wince when the English go goose-stepping into Nuremberg, but the history of the world would have been very different if the Germans possessed the British sense of humour.
For the British, all politicians are funny, and extreme politicians are extremely funny.
If they also dress up in a silly costume, invent a silly walk, grow a little moustache and take themselves very seriously, they may as well be stood on a stage dressed as a Dame and flinging buckets of custard at the back end of a pantomime cow.
This great tradition is also carried on in the States, where the use of Saddam Hussein as Satan’s randy lover in South Park was inspired.
But even on a more mundane level, humour is an irresistible weapon. If a politician cannot laugh at himself, he is in trouble. And once he becomes a figure of fun, he can forget about his career.
The Tories have suffered particularly from this in recent years, starting with John Major, who never recovered from the Spitting Image sketch in which he constantly professed to ‘liking peas.’ William Hague was plagued by that footage of his conference address when he was a toe-curlingly earnest teenager (though he has bravely reinvented himself as a TV humourist), while Ian Duncan Smith was dead in the water from his first speech.
Blair’s toothy grin is constantly mocked by satirists, but his own sense of humour has saved him. It will be interesting to see if Cameron or Brown can better handle the dreaded caricature.