Nothing dates as quickly as political humour. Watch a satirical comedy show from six months ago and already the most topical jokes have lost their edge. Watch one from ten years ago and it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about. Watch one from before you were born, and it’ll be largely meaningless, any jokes that you do get being filtered through historical knowledge rather than your own experience. So studying the satirical and humorous material in our 1848 collections is particularly difficult. Often the items refer to events or people whose significance at the time is not mirrored by their role in formal histories, or they use catchphrases and in-jokes of the day which are lost on posterity.
Nonetheless, sometimes the joke can be recognised, even if it’s never going to make you laugh out loud. Many Berlin satires played on the title of Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s address to the people after the March revolution, ‘An meine Lieben Berliner’, an easy thread to follow through. Plays on the names of public figures can also be easily identified – as long as the men in question themselves can be identified. One example is the radical writer and demagogue Friedrich Wilhelm Held, whose critics made full ironic use of the fact that his surname means ‘hero’. A more elaborate (and laboured) word-play is found in a broadside describing the Austrian General Windischgrätz as ‘Grenade-Prince Bombowitz’; the author goes on to explain that removing the first and last letters of the General’s name gives the word ‘indischgrät’, i.e. ‘indiskret’ (indiscreet), which the author sees as characteristic of all Windischgrätz’s actions.
Even the humour in visual images, although harder to identify, can sometimes be detected. Clothes are often used as cartoon shorthand to identify political or social groups, and one image (sadly not in the BL’s collections) even provides a handy guide. Similarly, many cartoons use the pigtail traditionally sported by conservative bureaucrats as a symbol of reactionary forces, and coinages such as ‘Zopfentum’ (‘Pigtaildom’) are also used in written satires to refer to the old order.
Finally there is the kind of humour which is recognisable because it’s based on enduring clichés: the nagging wife who asks her husband a string of questions but never lets him answer; the barber who listens to his clients’ different political views and tells them what they want to hear; the dim-witted provincial in the big city. And yesterday I found a prime example of the evergreen very long compound German word joke: a spoof news item in a satirical journal explained that one Herr Duncker had been appointed ‘Volksversammlungs- auseinandertreibungswidrigenfallseinhauenlassungs-Direktor’ (‘Director of dispersing popular assemblies or failing that having them laid into’). Of course, if I’d known which of the two Dunckers involved in Prussian politics at the time was meant and what event had prompted the joke, it would have been funnier. But the sheer ridiculous length of the word still made me smile.