The Null Device
Hammer & tickle
An article in Prospect looks at the tradition of black humour behind the Iron Curtain
Communism was a humour-producing machine. Its economic theories and system of repression created inherently funny situations. There were jokes under fascism and the Nazis too, but those systems did not create an absurd, laugh-a-minute reality like communism.
When Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, the population fought back with wit. Every night graffiti appeared in Wenceslas Square with lines like "Soviet State Circus back in town! New attractions!" and "Soviet School for Special Needs Children—End-of-Term Outing." People cracked jokes: Why is Czechoslovakia the most neutral country in the world? Because it doesn't even interfere in its own internal affairs. And: Are the Russians our brothers or our friends? Our brothers—we can choose our friends. "We showed our intellectual superiority," one former dissident told me proudly.
Jokes under communism were shaped by the cultures that produced them, as they are anywhere else. For the Czechs, a sense of humour encapsulated a type of national resilience. East German jokes, meanwhile, tended to be touchingly self-deprecating. And yet there was a pan-communist umbrella of comedy that stood above national distinctions, just as the international socialist project itself did. What ultimately defined the genre was less the purpose it served than its style. The communist joke was by nature deadpan and absurdist—because it was born of an absurd system which created a yawning gap between everyday experience and propaganda. Yet sometimes, through jokes, both communists and their opponents could carry on a debate about the failings of communism.
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