Sostmeier's Hitler gaffe : Bad Jokes and Humourlessness - An Anglo-Germanic Affair

TV-reporter Carsten Sostmeier put a dampener on Germany's Gold in Team Eventing this week by making light of a Hitler quote. In Britain, says Kit Holden, the joke would have gone down much better - a poor reflection on a nation of self professed comedians.

Kit Holden
Der deutsche Reit-Teamchef Otto Becker mit der deutschen Fahne (Foto aus dem Jahr 2011).
Der deutsche Reit-Teamchef Otto Becker mit der deutschen Fahne (Foto aus dem Jahr 2011).Foto: dpa

The Germans have no sense of humour. That’s what I was brought up to believe, in any case. They don’t get Fawlty Towers, according to Edmund Blackadder, have no word for “fluffy”, and they always beat us at football. In Britain, the humourless German is not simply a stereotype; it’s an accepted fact. Just like the homosexual Frenchman, the moronic American and the greasy Italian.

None of these stereotypes are, of course, justified. The claim that the Germans aren’t funny, though, is a particularly difficult one to repudiate in Britain. No matter how many times Henning Wehn (The self proclaimed “German Comedy Ambassador to England”) makes a British audience fall about laughing, the Germans will always be considered inherently unfunny. You can’t argue with it. It’s just fact.

Why? What is it that makes the British so convinced of their comedic superiority? Most Brits have never seen a German comedian, and fewer still have seen one perform in German.

There is, for the British, one clinching piece of evidence which trumps all others: Germans can’t laugh at Nazi jokes.

I am an English Bayern fan. It’s a solitary experience. Even on the rare occasion that I am able to smugly celebrate an FCB victory over English opposition, I am invariably greeted with a chorus of “There Were Ten German Bombers In The Air”. And if I don’t laugh, I’m just being a typical, humourless German. The fact that I’m not German doesn’t come into it.

Once again, though, the idea that Germans can’t laugh at Nazi jokes is hardly based on any solid research, but rather on one (admittedly very funny) episode of Fawlty Towers.

The Brits being, on the whole, an insensitive nation, of course, the fact that Germans don’t laugh at Nazi jokes doesn’t stop the British making them. Carsten Sostmeier’s comments on ARD yesterday would not have made a single eyelid bat, had they been made on British television. Indeed, it would have seemed a little odd had he not made some allusion to Nazism. German victories in any sport event are, largely, equatable with classic, Wehrmacht efficiency, while German defeats are revenge for the Holocaust. As BBC commentating great John Motson once put it when England went 1-0 up against Germany: “They’re not singing Deutschland Über Alles at the moment!”

Well no, Motty, no they’re not. They haven’t been singing it since 1945, if you hadn’t noticed.

The British having never really had their own “Nazizeit”, they have the luxury of self-deprecation, and they sneer at the Germans for not being more British with the treatment of their own past. The fact that Sostmeier’s comments have caused such a storm in the German media would be, for most Brits, just more proof that the Germans are a humourless bunch. But, as I frequently tell those who sing “Ten German Bombers”, if the funniest thing you can come up with about Germany is the Nazis, then you have little right to call anyone unfunny.

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