Present-day Western societies consider popular culture a crucial asset in promoting lifestyles, shaping politics, and producing economic wealth. With its easy-to-understand messages, it is a set of practices and beliefs destined to transgress the boundaries of local communities and cultural elites. More recent technological developments like social networking services, blogs, and video streaming platforms have strongly supported this aspiration. They enable independent producers to operate at the pulse of time and thus detect underlying major social and political changes much faster than more established and complex corporate institutions. Undoubtedly, this characteristic of the Internet and its specific forms of communication have an intensifying effect on public commemoration of past events. On the other hand, products of this development tend to be accused of simplifying complex situations and targeting more primitive instincts—a grave accusation when it comes to Holocaust memory. Criticism is also raised when digitalization in popular culture appropriates specific local heritage and identity, thus disregarding meaningful constraints imposed by traditional social structures. The general strategy to inflate local/national narratives for the sake of triggering interest on the global consumer market thus entails two fundamental issues that are in the background of the present study. The first is the dialectic question if a decidedly local/national profile is suitable for weaving a global trend into it, or if global trends are a coercive presupposition for developing local narratives—that is, if a local memory discourse can be globalized, or if a global discourse can be localized.1 The second issue is the crucial challenge consisting in the ideological character of mass culture that still is met with distrust because it is seen as an alienating tool used by capitalist elites to take advantage of less educated social classes or non-Western cultures.2
The second issue remains topical, even after the proclaimed and seminally discussed shift to postmodernism, a paradigmatic shift that promotes the elimination of the distinction between “high” and “low” culture. It is important to be considered if only for the purpose of discussing the uncertainty about the methods of analysis to use. Some proposals in aesthetic theory still consider that products of popular culture lack substantiality to such a degree that approaching them with the same complex methodology used for canonical works or serious avant-garde art would be a waste of time.3 They believe that pop culture's main essence lies in nothing more than a yearning for marketability.4 Other scholars insist on a stronger focus on the relation between pop culture, politics, and capitalism to detect the manipulative and/or revealing forces of pop culture.5
While being fully aware of the merits of this critical stance, the present study takes a different approach. It understands comedy relating to the Holocaust as an effort of the third or fourth generation for alternative ways to commemoration, provided always that the punch line's primary impulse is not antisemitic or plainly revisionist. Analyzing Germany's post–World War II history of coming to terms with the Shoah, it aims to highlight that recent developments in subversive satire detect a crystallization in official memory politics, reacting with a counter-discourse to the political correctness of the defenders of moralism. Consequently, and counter-intuitively at first sight, this article presupposes that it is entirely conceivable to combine Holocaust memory and comedy if the status of Jewish victimhood is not spoofed, Holocaust remembrance is not undermined in its entirety, and the limitations of official memory politics are critically debunked. Finally, it supports the belief that not every historical reappraisal in a local/national context is suitable to serve as a global blueprint. The universalization of certain specific traits within Holocaust remembrance clearly has its pitfalls. Recognition of national historical guilt and the subsequent establishment of a distinct collective memory are still crucial elements for understanding specific pasts. This insight explains why German popular culture referring to the Nazi past must be different from u.s. comedy dealing with the Holocaust.
It is rather obvious that this approach is not backed by the history of cultural criticism in Germany. In twentieth-century German social philosophy, systematic explorations of the relationship between politics and mass culture were the distinguishing feature of critical theory. The Frankfurt School's studies concerning the pitfalls of the cultural industry's characteristic products had a considerable influence on post–World War II generations. Commercial entertainment for the masses was looked on as a grim heritage of Nazism and one of the pillars of late capitalism. Adorno caustically described how listening to popular music would result in a “regression of listening.”6 He even criticized Arnold Schoenberg's grave and ambitious composition “A Survivor from Warsaw” as conciliatory and shameless,7 emphasizing that no artistic medium can live up to the victims’ suffering. Consequently, to be modern in the critical sense meant to be negative by passion, a passion that debunked anyone who consumed entertainment products as a victim of capitalism. Generalizing post–World War II theoretical approaches, one can clearly see that due to the heavy use of mass media during the Nazi dictatorship and the widespread reception of the Frankfurt School, German scholars tended—and still tend—to produce a considerably critical attitude toward pop culture.
But in twenty-first-century cultural settings, critical theory's perspective seems to be obsolete. In Germany, as in other Western cultures, breaking taboos in the wake of post-avant-gardism and hedonism is the order of the day, and discreet Holocaust remembrance is no longer a sanctuary. On a global scale, the Internet and easy-to-handle photo and video editing software programs have led to the formation of subcultures that spread highly unconventional references to Nazism and Holocaust remembrance, references that have resulted in an outright normalization and aestheticization of the Nazi past—a process that has intensified over the last two decades.8 Consequently, the culture sections of German newspapers now wonder if and how to participate in the debate on Holocaust humor.9 This development represents one side of the coin. The flip side is epitomized by right-wing populism in various European countries. Nationalist parties decry visions of a borderless society, the integration of the immigrating “other,” and the project of the European Community. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politicians like Björn Höcke, Alexander Gauland, and Andreas Kalbitz promote a counter-discourse that disparages official Holocaust memory from various angles.10 In a more recent incident, AfD party member Stefan Bauer compared AstraZeneca and BioNTech vaccines to Zyklon B, the gas used to exterminate Jews in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other Nazi camps.11 However, it would be misleading to describe the party's political alignment as outright antisemitic. The AfD likes to boast about the fact that there exists a party-affiliated political association named Jüdische Bundesvereinigung in der AfD (Jewish Federal Association within the AfD). Moreover, in recent times Islamophobic ideologies have more or less superseded antisemitic reminiscences in right-wing populism.12 It seems as if aggressive statements against official Holocaust memory are seen as nothing more than proof of AfD's civic and political passion to break up the encrusted structures of the traditional democratic party system. Picking up these tendencies, memory studies have started to detect and conceptualize a new approach to remembrance calling it “agonistic memory.”13
Consequently, research in the field of memory discourses has to face a twofold development: a subversive, ironic calling into question of certain tendencies in official Holocaust remembrance, on the one hand, and a stern attack on German memory politics by right-wing populism, on the other hand. To better understand these two developments, the present study will critically examine how post–World War II intellectuals developed an understanding of Germany's duty to remember, how the second generation sets itself apart from the first generation's mode of remembrance, and how the third and fourth generations contrast with right-wing attacks against official commemoration of the Shoah. To detect a characteristically German approach to comedy dealing with the Holocaust, the article examines how (Jewish-)German comedians like Oliver Polak, Alexej Boris, Shahak Shapira, Schlecky Silberstein, and Jan Böhmermann deal with Jewish culture in today's Germany. Furthermore, a comparison with international, especially American, dark comedy and serious artwork seems to be helpful. These tasks will be tackled together with the question of how to fathom the glocalization of Holocaust memory in entertainment genres. The study clearly distinguishes between international and German efforts to popularize the commemoration of Jewish victims. At the same time, it also differentiates between crude revisionist efforts of German right-wing populism and the creative subversion of official Holocaust remembrance through comedy and the arts.
The German Approach to Pop Culture and Its Relation to Holocaust Memory
West Germany's post-war production of popular culture and its public reception were massively influenced by British and American music and film genres. Consuming jazz, rock and roll, and Hollywood movies can be understood as the desire to learn from the victors, but it was also an expression of the necessity to forget about the past by immersion in the fantasy world of commercial movies and stardom. In the further course of Germany's “economic miracle,” promoting the more radical genres in pop culture was considered one of the crucial ways to express the post–World War II generational gap that culminated in the 1968 student protests. Adorno, who was himself driven into u.s. exile by Nazi dictatorship, clearly contrasts with the strategy to use pop culture as a means to convey socio-critical themes.14 Within this context, his verdict that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric15 caused an uproar among literary critics and authors, and still causes ripples in present-day Germany.16 This shows that the returning Frankfurt scholars—most of them Jewish—brought along a clear message: the memory of mass murder is incompatible not only with mass media, but with the Western idea of culture altogether. Their message of extreme moralism in the context of Holocaust memory was a clear rejection of early post–World War II attempts at normalization. Consequently, a whole generation of West German students struggled with Adorno's radical interpretation of commodification. His followers discarded as naive or hypocritical any impulse that followed mere enjoyment. To be modern in the Adornian sense meant to debunk any consumer of globalized pop culture as a victim of capitalism. The charged liaison between critical theory and mass culture did not improve with the student movements of the West and their understanding of mass culture. In a 1968 interview on popular music played within the context of students’ protest culture, Adorno stated the following:
I believe, in fact, that attempts to bring political protest together with popular music, that is, with entertainment music, are doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from commodity character, entertainment, and the lust for consumption that attempts to endow it with a different function remain entirely superficial. And I have to say that when somebody appears singing in a kitschy and sentimental way about Vietnam being unbearable, then I consider this song unbearable by making the horrendous consumable, wringing something like consumption qualities out of it.”17
It does not take a crystal ball to know that in this quote Adorno is referring to Joan Baez and hippie culture as a form of protest against the violent u.s. intervention in the East. With this attitude, Adorno's ideologically argued cultural critique opened up another generation gap: now it was the father figure who told the sons and daughters that their music taste was corrupted, manipulated by capitalist producers interested in shaping a new generation of acolytes. After Adorno's death in 1969, it took decades to steer cultural criticism to a more liberal and relaxed direction.
The 1980s produced a paradigmatic shift in the understanding of knowledge, values, and the arts in all of the Western world. The questioning of certain standards (concerning technique, material, verification, authenticity, means of communication, etc.) led to a conflation of high and low culture that undermined central aspects of Adorno's aesthetics. Occidental forms of composition, Western institutions of high culture like the museum, concert hall, or ballet, and principles of art critique were severely criticized, and Adorno's “moralizing and politicizing tone” got on the nerves of the new generation identifying with postmodernism.18 The children of punk, mtv, Game Boy, and Walkman linked the idea of bricolage to their own experiences of social rifts, political changes, and economic high-risk tolerance that characterized the years around the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of digitalized communication. As a consequence, a crucial element of neo-Marxist aesthetics was at stake: the idea that the history of the avant-garde is dependent on the development of productive forces within the most advanced aesthetic techniques.19
Today, the cultural scene of the German-speaking world in general is characterized by a large variety of styles. A national characteristic à la Dada, Bauhaus, or Neue Deutsche Welle disappears within global art trends and neo-eclecticism on the one hand and the standardization of global commercial specifications on the other. This development seems to surpass the Frankfurt School's cultural criticism, demanding a more complex, synesthetic theory. Interestingly enough, this theory does not exist, making Adorno the last author who attempted to present a comprehensive and authoritative aesthetic theory. What exists, however, is the previously mentioned neo-eclecticism based on the Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend's exclamation that “anything goes.”20
Not surprisingly, when it comes to German Holocaust remembrance, the aesthetic and ethical settings change dramatically. Official memory culture presents itself as unified, stern, and adamant. The claim for political correctness is ubiquitous. Consequently, ironic looks or joyful puns in the context of Shoah commemoration are frowned upon. To be sure, since the 1980s Germany has seen a number of radical proposals referring to Holocaust remembrance, such as the counter-monument movement represented by Horst Hoheisel's idea to destroy the Brandenburg gate or Jochen Gerz's invisible monument in Saarbrücken, but they follow the spirit of negativity so prominent in theoretical expressions of the Frankfurt School. As a consequence, scandals and resistance to official memory politics are an affair of antisemitic or right-wing agents, especially when they aim at undermining the status of Jewish victimhood or attack Israeli politics using antisemitic prejudices. Right-wing populism in Germany can be seen as revolting against the normalization of Holocaust remembrance, but it surely has to be taken as a revisionist attack based on nationalist bigotry.
Contemporary dark comedy dealing with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust takes a different approach. After recognizing that official memory politics in the Western sphere is well established, and after having observed the twist and turns of the argument that any kind of art is failing to represent the horrors of the camps, comedy advances into uncontested spheres with two advantages: it does not even aim at representing these horrors, and, despite irony and farcical exaggeration, it leaves the dignity of the victims untouched.
Globalizing Holocaust Memory by Means of Comedy: A Comparison of International and German Approaches
From its beginning, Holocaust memory in the Western world was combined with elements of consumer culture. Published in u.s. magazines and newspapers, photographs of Auschwitz and Treblinka, printed side by side with recipes and fashion advertising campaigns, were expropriated from their character as isolated sites of horror.21 This constellation still exerts its power today. Sixty years ago, on 11 April 1961, the trial of one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, began in Jerusalem. In April 2021, the German news magazine Der Spiegel commemorated the occasion with a 15-minute video in which eyewitnesses are interviewed and harrowing film clips of survivors’ testimonies during the trial are shown. The feature is interrupted three times with commercial breaks for software products helping to develop parlor games.22 The current use of the Internet and its social media platforms intensifies this perception, leading to the broad phenomenon of normalization. In Holocaust representation, this term is used to describe cultural tendencies that display dispassionate neutrality instead of bolstering ethical engagement, a tendency intensified by the Internet's easy ways to publish marginal views and aesthetic challenges to official memory politics.
In contemporary Germany, of course, there are plenty of social protagonists who criticize playful or thoughtless approaches to Holocaust remembrance, aiming to restore the moralistic culture of deep involvement. One of them is Berlin-based artist and comedian Shahak Shapira. In 2017, he launched a project called yolocaust. The “yolo” in yolocaust is an acronym for “you only live once,” a reference to the ancient theme of vanitas, dealing with expressions of the transience of life. The compound noun yolocaust thus points to hedonistic attitudes posted on social platforms alongside representations of utter pain and destruction. Shapira criticized this approach to Shoah commemoration by combining selfies that visitors took standing amid the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin with historical images from Nazi extermination camps. On Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, and Grindr, he found the selfies, showing cheering, conceited, or juggling young people with the Memorial as the backdrop. Comments, hashtags, and “likes” that were posted with the selfies were also included. The web page was visited by over 2.5 million people before Shapira erased his composites.23 The message had been understood. Shapira's project highlighted that Holocaust memory is not about joking and posing; it is about paying respect to the memorial and its solemn message. Following in the tradition of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, his approach clearly contrasts with the attitude that Instagram and Facebook users presented with their selfies.
As already mentioned, Shapira's work deals with a more recent combination of popular self-representation and dark tourism that uses social media to publish it, but it refers to a long tradition of linking popular culture with Western Holocaust memory. The Italian comedy-drama Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997) kicked off the wave of Shoah cheerfulness. In Germany, the feature films Comedian Harmonists (Joseph Vilsmaier, Germany 1997) and Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, Germany 1999) opened the door to a more light-hearted approach to Nazism and the Shoah, followed later by comedies and romances like Mein Führer—Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler (My Führer—the Absolutely Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler) (Daniel Levy, Germany 2007), Hannas Reise (Hanna's Journey) (Julia von Heinz, Germany 2013), Die Blumen von Gestern (Yesterday's Flowers) (Chris Kraus, Germany/Austria 2016), and Kiss Me Kosher (Shirel Peleg, Germany/Israel 2020). Outside Germany, the black comedy Jojo Rabbit is the most recent example of Holocaust satire (Taika Waititi, u.s. 2019). While all of these movies deal only marginally with Nazism and the Holocaust or mainly attempt to ridicule the figure of Hitler, thus using popular culture to transmit moral outrage concerning Nazi politics, Shapira criticizes an obvious lack of moral consciousness in the posting of irreverent selfies with the Memorial as their background.
In the context of the present investigation, the movie Die Blumen von Gestern deserves a more detailed consideration, as it represents the imponderables of combining German Holocaust memory and comedy in a nutshell.24 The plot of Yesterday's Flowers features a young and attractive French historian whose grandmother died in the Shoah. She joins a German academic team that is preparing a conference on the Holocaust. The commission includes the grandson of one of the perpetrators responsible for the murder of her grandmother. Since the scholar who is responsible for organizing the conference, a highly respected historian, has just passed away, the team needs to reorganize itself in order to convince the conference speakers to stay put. Between this task and the volatility of the young Frenchwoman, the whole plan breaks down. Right from the beginning, the director indicates that none of the twist and turns of the plot should be taken too seriously. At the same time, the film's reference to the historical background is a frank admission of responsibility similar to official German memory politics, as it is supported by renowned authorities and no ironic handling of citations can be detected in the script. The gap between the official representation of historical tragedy and the comedy of the actors may seem radical, but two problems become apparent while the story unfolds: none of the roles are designed to represent the tragic element of the Holocaust, and the jokes do not offer any real alternative to the official memory discourse, since they happen exclusively on the level of private emotions and personal interests. As in the case of the German comedian Jan Böhmermann, which will be discussed later, the satirical attempt ends in a farce, as the breaking of taboos runs on empty.
However, there is another aspect to be considered: the consequences of translating local/national discourses into mass media and thus creating a global response. The film was shown at a Tokyo film festival where it won the first prize and received very positive feedback. Director Chris Kraus, surprised by the success, was made aware of the historical connections between Japan and Germany during World War II: the Tripartite Pact and the Nanjing Massacre committed by Imperial Japanese troops. He explains: “Nearly every conversation I had with the Japanese began with: ‘You Germans do a great job at working through your history.’ [The success of the movie] has to do with the fact that they are longing for some way of dealing with the past. You could sense how the pus bubble in the culture is growing and there has to be a needle somewhere to puncture it.”25 That is to say, the Japanese audience was much more interested in the mere fact that Germany has a firmly established official memory discourse than in being presented a specific blueprint for the way the Japanese society should deal with its own past. It might be concluded that the scope of mass media is a decisive tool to initiate a transnational coming to terms with the past, while each nation has to find its own way to remember.
Without disregarding the fact that recent developments in art and cultural studies question the distinction of high and low culture, it might be instructive to have a quick glance at the way more complex intellectual works of art deal with the subject of Holocaust memory. Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus (1991) is a special case because its story is serious; only the medium is “low culture.” But there are many others who dared to combine consumer culture with remembrance of the genocide of European Jews. Zbigniew Libera, a Polish artist born in 1959, presented the controversial lego Concentration Camp set in 1996. In a first reaction, institutions resented his work, but in the meantime one of his sets was purchased by the Jewish Museum in New York City. Tom Sachs, a New York-based Jewish artist born in 1966, combines famous luxury brands with images of biopolitical suppression. Prada Death Camp (1998) is clearly reminiscent of a Nazi concentration camp, as it quotes both the form of the barracks themselves and their distribution. Central to the works of English-Jewish artist Alan Schechner is the belief that all images exist in social and political contexts and, as such, all images are ideological. Self Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing (1991–1993) uses collage techniques to bring together a self-portrait of the artist, a representation of a beverage industry's consumer product (a can of Diet Coke), reminiscent of an advertising campaign, and an iconic photograph of a barrack at Buchenwald taken by Margaret Bourke-White after the camp was liberated.26 Initially harshly criticized as examples of bad taste or excessive narcissism, these works finally were met with less scathing and more differentiated criticism.27 All of these artworks were presented in a 2002 exhibition titled “Mirroring Evil” organized by the Jewish Museum in New York.28 As we can see, even in the realm of contemporary autonomous art subversive tendencies to ironize official Holocaust memory are easily detectable.
Thus, the Jewish-German comedians’ approaches to Shoah memory and Nazism can easily connect to the international genre of autonomous art dealing with the Shoah, Holocaust humor, and Holocaust sexploitation. YouTube and Netflix are full of clips and comedy shows that refer to Auschwitz in a satirical way. Jewish-German and German comedians like Schlecky Silberstein and his Bohemian Browser Ballet, Oliver Polak, and Alexej Boris make allusions to antisemitic prejudices and Holocaust staple images in their stand-up comedy. Even Shahak Shapira embraces Holocaust satire by comparing the online travel company Trip Advisor's 4.5 rating for Auschwitz with Berlin Alexanderplatz's 3.0 rating for McDonald's, thus juggling with Auschwitz as an attraction29 and a destination for genocide tourism. Shapira's gag seems like a sequel of u.s. Sarah Silverman's early 2000 joke: “My lesbian niece … goes to a Jewish school and loves it. The other day, she called me and said: ‘Sarah, did you know it, Hitler killed 60 million Jews.’ I corrected her and said: ‘You know, I think he is responsible for killing 6 million Jews.’ She responded: ‘Oh yeah, I know that, but seriously, what's the difference?’ ‘The difference is, 60 million is unforgivable, young lady.’”30 Both ways to compare what has been declared incomparable have a subversive and liberating effect without questioning the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its importance for Western history. The development just described clearly contrasts with Adorno's position.
Nevertheless, the difference concerning the starting position between German and American comedians has to be taken into account. The latter speak to a nation that produced the liberation of extermination camps, the former to a nation that bears the responsibility for the mass killings. What might work in one culture could be a no-go in the other. That at least is columnist Jan Fleischhauer's argument in Der Spiegel.31 He further highlights an argument one will also hear from the participants in The Last Laugh (Ferne Pearlstein, u.s., 88 minutes), a 2016 documentary that discusses the possibility of Holocaust jokes, or from Hanno Loewy, co-editor of the German volume Laughing about Hitler—Auschwitz Laughter?: “One does not laugh when one may, but when one cannot help it. I cannot laugh about the gas chamber, but I can laugh about the way people speak about it.”32 Consequently, most comedians take the stance that Holocaust memory in the shape of jokes is permitted when they are funny, that is, when the audience laughs. Many people laughed about Silverman's joke (self-irony always works), very few about the situation Jan Böhmermann, a German comedian, produced in one of his shows: After an interview with Jewish-German comedian Oliver Polak, Böhmermann stands onstage with an anchorman, a music television presenter, and another comedian, all gentile Germans. Böhmermann pulls out a bottle of disinfectant spray and asks the others, referring to Polak: “Have you given him your hand?” Then he sprays their hands for the sake of disinfecting them.33 One might ask why jokes by Germans referring to antisemitic prejudices almost never work. One explanation is certainly that Germany's historical “locus of enunciation” undermines almost every attempt to satirically reflect on antisemitism and the Holocaust.34 In the case of Böhmermann's joke, two elements for successful satire or comedy are entirely absent: first, the comedian's historical location is not recognizable as clearly distanced from antisemitic attitudes, and, second, there is no “enemy” the joke seeks to attack. The lack of a radically ironic take, a real social or political constellation in need of improvement, and the absence of mindful exaggeration makes this joke an embarrassing setback, although most of the other comedians are able to comply with these rules.
During the last few years, discussions about “cancel culture” have intensified and have become an influencing factor in memory discourses. In the context of Holocaust remembrance in Germany, ostracism as a consequence of revisionist statements or negationism occurs frequently. In 2007, German comedians Harald Schmidt and Oliver Pocher related to this attitude, often called “safetyism,” with a sketch in which they presented a device called a “Nazometer.” The gadget was connected to the comedians’ heads and flashed every time they used words easily relatable to the historical context of Nazism, such as “shower,” “Autobahn,” “gas stove,” and “ghetto.”35 In this case, the comedians applied the tool of excess to a certain social attitude that they consider to have become somewhat of a mindless routine: the staged indignation produced as a reaction to the naive usage of historically contaminated terms or the clumsy trivialization of the Nazi regime. The show caused a public outrage that partially demonstrated exactly the theatricality that the sketch was targeting. On the other hand, some colleagues supported Schmidt and Pocher's strategy, claiming that teachers, politicians, and social workers might be forced to continue using the official Betroffenheitsrhetorik (rhetoric of dismay) but that it should gradually be possible to make fun of the Nazi jargon.36
What to Make of “Yolocausting”?
Some critics consider the tendency just presented as paving the way for a profound paradigm shift in the context of Holocaust representation, coining terms such as “genocide pop,” “Holocaust supermarket,” and “Shoah business.”37 They are observing a metafictional turn in Holocaust remembrance (i.e., a turn away from the relation between authentic experience and its representation), which now focuses on comparing and criticizing our rhetoric modes of representation. As we have seen, Jewish-German comedians participate in this turn. They subvert and corrupt established modes of Holocaust representation by ironically confronting them with established (memory) politics—an approach similar to that of early avant-garde artists such as John Heartfield, Marcel Duchamp, and George Grosz. With regard to his piece Self Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing, Schechner explains his motivation by referring to what Norman Finkelstein calls “the Holocaust industry”:38
Throughout my time in Israel I became acutely aware of how the Holocaust was used to justify some of the more unsavory aspects of Israeli policy. I was told more than once how “whatever we do to them (the Palestinians) can never be as bad as what they (the Germans) did to us.” The first stop of all foreign diplomats on arrival in Israel is Yad Vashem, before the diplomacy, before the state dinners and the visits these images are being used to serve narrow political agendas.39
In all the examples discussed above, the authors take for granted that the Holocaust happened, that Jewish suffering is inconceivable, and that the audience agrees with the existing historical evidence. But they are committed to the attempt of breaking with and foreclosing visual and linguistic routines in memory studies, thus producing a trendsetting method to push forward seemingly exhausted memory discourses. The rise of Holocaust comedy might thus be explained by a change of general interest from the securing of facts and ideologized interpretations of the past to more heterogeneous, emotionally charged everyday stories about the Holocaust.40 While the first generation of critical theory faced a general sentiment of denial or repression when it came to the claim of coming to terms with the Holocaust in post-war Germany, both the non-visual narrative and academic history have experienced a similar process of routinization and fatigue.
In her book The New Uneasiness in Memory Culture, the German scholar Aleida Assmann states that Holocaust memory has changed considerably under the constraints of complex developments in the global force field. Considering the controversies of digitized communication, she diagnoses a crisis in memory due to exploitation by intensive media coverage and secondhand comments. Shallow and stereotypical representations, so-called memory wars, and an excess of meaning and morality produce fatigue and, therefore, a degeneration of memory as such.41 Similarly, with regard to the humanities, Andreas Huyssen suggests that one could never stop adding instances of traumatic memories across the world, but it is questionable whether there would be a cognitive gain from such accumulation in a theoretical or methodological sense.42 It seems as there is no evidentiary gap left in Holocaust studies, and debates concentrate only on the relation between aesthetic forms and their adequacy in terms of our moral standards and feelings of decency. Both Assmann and Huyssen observe memory discourses turning into academic routine. Holocaust comedy, when it executes survival with humor and emotion, attempts to subversively tackle this routine.
The routinization argument is used also by Max Czollek in his 2018 book Desintegriert Euch! (Disintegrate!). Czollek denounces official German memory politics as Gedächtnistheater (memory staging) where Jews are supposed to play the role assigned to them by the commemorating German society. For him, Holocaust jokes, with their disrespect, irony, and blasphemy, might be an appropriate way to undermine the predominant political correctness that obliges German Jews to approve the official self-congratulation with which Germany comes to terms with its Nazi past.43 Unfortunately, Czollek contradicts himself by showing how Holocaust jokes are provoking exactly the conforming reaction among gentile Germans that he wants to subvert.44
In the end, it seems quite clear that the featured (Jewish-)German comedians belong to a wave of pop culture artists who participate in Holocaust memory by distancing themselves from the established official memory politics. Their approach is by no means revisionist. In most of the cases, comedians, artists, and writers must have felt the wear and tear in traditional ways of Holocaust commemoration and began looking for a more provocative stance that nevertheless complies with basic rules of respect for the victims. Irony, political satire, and the humanization of ultimate evil in this context may support the claim that we have learned our lesson in history, allowing us to show some sovereignty in handling delicate topics. In this regard, advanced Holocaust comedy differs from cases like the German rap duo Kollegah and Farid Bang who won the award for best rap album at the 2018 Echo Music Awards. Their album Jung, brutal, gutaussehend 3 (Young, Brutal, Good Looking 3) contains the provocative line “my body is more defined than that of an Auschwitz inmate,” a line that in conjunction with the erratic ceremony damaged the award to such a degree that it was finally revoked.45 The musicians clearly disregarded a crucial rule when it comes to the normalization of Holocaust remembrance: never compare yourself with the inmates of an extermination camp.
Considering the artistic quality of satire and comedy, the underlying political commitment to and the sensibility for the victims’ dignity are crucial when it comes to judging allusions to the Holocaust, Jewish life, and Nazism. The German actor and writer Jasko Friedrich adds to this by highlighting more requirements that have to be met: reference to a poor social or political condition that has to be improved, exaggeration of this condition to render it more visible, and consequently the right to drastic depiction.46 The Jewish-German rapper Ben Salomo puts it in a nutshell: “One has to take into account the artistic quality. There is a world of difference between ‘You Jewish bastard,’ and ‘Hey, you upset me, therefore I show disrespect and piss on the Wailing Wall.’ The last line is blasphemous, but not racist.”47
Late in his life, Charlie Chaplin regretted his parody on Hitler. In his 1964 autobiography, he wrote: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”48 Apparently, the conditions for Holocaust representation have changed in the meantime. With the last child survivors dying, academic history departments and the entertainment industry are looking for a contemporary take on the Shoah, an approach capable of reflecting the long list of past Holocaust representations. A second influential aspect surely is the transformation of German society due to increased immigration. Incoming refugees and an international workforce attempting to integrate with their hosting cultures often produce either a more distanced or an entirely different approach to World War II and the Shoah. Consequently, a crucial objective in contemporary intercultural education in Germany is the full recognition of the Other and the prohibition of straightforward assimilation. Multicultural orientation is explicitly understood as a consequence of the generation who failed to resist xenophobia and racism during National Socialism. In education, this creates a dilemma in that children “with a migration background” should be treated as Germans, but as migrants they have a very different generational background that prohibits most kinds of assimilation to the German way of coming to terms with its past.49
This fact automatically leads to a rethinking of official memory politics and how it is referred to in school education.50 The present article suggests the following conclusion. While official Holocaust memory politics dictate a sublime, noble handling of the unspeakable past, parody, satire, comedy, and other forms of popular culture enable us to globally test the limits of representation—a test that may result in alternative forms of remembrance more suitable for communities with a historical background different from that of German families. These alternative forms are a necessary ingredient to push forward our dealing with difficult pasts, and the boundaries of “good taste” have to be redefined with every twist in official politics and in each specific cultural context. Having said this, it is equally important to concede that Holocaust memory has an undeniable local component—for Germans as the joint heirs of the perpetrators, and Jews as the joint heirs of the victims. No global medium should level this distinction.
To further illuminate this constellation, I would like to conclude with a conversation on Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) that was held and published on Instagram in February 2021. Berlin-based visual artist Moshtari Hilal, born in Afghanistan, and the German author and philosopher Sinthujan Varatharajah, born in Sri Lanka, met to discuss the Nazi legacy and its continuities in today's Germany. Highlighting the burdened family history of some German intellectuals, they proposed to call regular Germans “people with Nazi backgrounds.” As one can imagine, this labeling caused a public outcry. Nevertheless, it was also understood that both intended to criticize the leveling and sometimes derogatory effect of Germans calling families like their own “people with migration backgrounds.” Ascribing a leveling identity to the members of the German majority population, they asked Germans to uncover and confront their previous generations’ involvement with the exploitations organized by Nazi officials. As descendants of refugees, they indirectly pointed to the fact that the specific way Germans remember the Nazi past is not entirely their own.51 As a consequence, they might broaden and intensify Germany's way of coming to terms with its past in times of global migration.
The author would like to thank all participants of the seminar “German Politics in Popular Culture: Logics and Consequences of Transforming Political Institutions, Processes, and Actors into Entertainment,” held at the 2019 German Studies Association conference in Portland, Oregon. Their insightful comments helped to improve the argument of the present study.
Roland Robertson, ed., European Glocalization in Global Context (New York, 2014).
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr; trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, 2002); Benson Kamary, “Commodification in Mass Media's Educative Function in Kenya: How Now Shall We Think?,” African Educational Research Journal 6, no. 3 (2018): 137–147.
Mikita Brottman, High Theory/Low Culture (New York, 2005), xi–xii.
Dominic Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, 2nd ed. (London, 2004): 3.
Fredric Jameson, “Fear and Loathing in Globalization,” New Left Review 23 (2003): 105–114; Tevi Troy, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House (Washington, dc, 2013).
Theodor W. Adorno, “Engagement,” in Adorno, Noten zur Literatur: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 11 (Frankfurt am Main, 1996), 288–317.
Ibid., 423. See also Ralph Buchenhorst, “‘… as if the Shame before the Victims Would Be Offended’: Adorno's Verdict on Arnold Schoenberg's ‘A Survivor from Warsaw,’” in Music and Genocide, ed. Wojciech Klimczyk and Agata S´wierzowska (Frankfurt am Main, 2015), 155–170.
See Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past Is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge, 2015).
Jan Fleischhauer, “Darf man über Juden Witze machen?,” Spiegel (1 November 2018), http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/darf-man-ueber-juden-witze-machen-kolumne-a-1236240.html.
The AfD was founded in April 2013 as a far-right political party. Its program opposes central elements of eu politics, the German government's immigration politics, and the concept of “multiculturalism.” Attacks on Germany's official memory politics are frequent and accompanied by claims to refocus on the positive, “invigorating” episodes of German history.
See “Impfstoff mit Zyklon B verglichen,” in taz (3 September 2021), https://taz.de/AfDler-relativiert-den-Holocaust/!5752552/.
See Marc Grimm and Bodo Kahmann, “AfD und Judenbild: Eine Partei im Spannungsfeld von Antisemitismus, Schuldabwehr und instrumenteller Israelsolidarität,” in AfD & FPÖ: Antisemitismus, völkischer Nationalismus und Geschlechterbilder, ed. Stephan Grigat (Baden-Baden, 2017), 41–60.
Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, “On Agonistic Memory,” Memory Studies 9, no. 4 (2016): 390–404; Stefan Berger and Caner Tekin, eds., History and Belonging: Representations of the Past in Contemporary European Politics (New York, 2018).
Theodor W. Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” in Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert; trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, 2002), 288–317.
Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson and Samuel Weber (Cambridge, ma, 1983), 34.
Wolfgang Johann, Das Diktum Adornos: Adaptionen und Poetiken. Rekonstruktion einer Debatte (Würzburg, 2018).
Ric Brown, “Theodor Adorno on Popular Music and Protest” (2007), https://archive.org/details/RicBrownTheordorAdornoonPopularMusicandProtest. Here and elsewhere, translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. The original quote is as follows: “Ich glaube allerdings, dass Versuche, politischen Protest mit der popular music, also mit der Unterhaltungsmusik, zusammenzubringen, deshalb zum Scheitern verurteilt sind, weil die ganze Sphäre der Unterhaltungsmusik, auch wo sie irgendwie modernistisch sich aufputzt, so mit dem Warencharakter, mit dem Amusement, mit dem Schielen nach dem Konsum verbunden ist, dass also Versuche, dem eine veränderte Funktion zu geben, ganz äußerlich bleiben, und ich muss sagen, wenn also dann irgendjemand sich hinstellt und auf eine im Grund doch schnulzenhafte Musik dann irgendwelche Dinge darüber singt, dass Vietnam nicht zu ertragen sei, dann finde ich, dass gerade dieser Song nicht zu ertragen ist, weil er, in dem er das Entsetzliche noch irgendwie konsumierbar macht, schließlich auch daraus noch etwas wie Konsumqualitäten herauspresst.”
Tobias Plebuch, “Musikhören nach Adorno: Ein Genesungsbericht,” Merkur 56, no. 640 (2001): 675–687, here 680. In a similar manner, American music critic Alex Ross takes Adorno critically to task, making him fully responsible for contemporary German music being a “wasteland of modernist conceits.” See Ross, “Ghost Sonata: What Happened to German Music?,” New Yorker (24 March 2003), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/03/24/ghost-sonata.
Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis, 2006), 7–25.
Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (New York, 1975).
See Tal Sterngast, “Shock Treatment: Figures of Women in Boris Lurie's Work,” in No Compromises! The Art of Boris Lurie, catalogue of a Jewish Museum Berlin exhibition in cooperation with the Boris Lurie Art Foundation (Bielefeld and Berlin 2016), 133.
“Der Massenmörder im Glaskasten,” Der Spiegel (10 April 2021), https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/adolf-eichmann-prozess-in-jerusalem-als-videodokumentation-der-massenmoerder-im-glaskasten-a-7f1771eb-f610-4133-9304-55cf73599ce0.
For Shapira's reaction in 2017 to the comments and postings, see the yolocaust website: https://yolocaust.de/.
In an interview conducted by Jochen Kürten, director Kraus highlights the necessity to break new grounds in Shoah memory. Kürten: “You made a film about dealing with the Holocaust that also contains elements of comedy, which is unusual. What made you decide to do that? In Germany, a lot is done to work through the Holocaust. Still, what are we lacking in dealing with the issue?” Kraus: “A role model for this project was always the book by historian and sociologist Harald Welzer, ‘Opa war kein Nazi’ (Grandpa wasn't a Nazi). I think he is very clever and original. Welzer proposed and backed up the thesis that there is a divide in Germany. On the one hand, there is the official culture of remembrance, which is very schematic, and which everyone can identify with because of the personal exoneration it offers. On the other hand, each individual person deals differently with the deeds of their ancestors. I found that fascinating.” See Kürten, “Why a German Holocaust Comedy Was a Hit in Japan,” Deutsche Welle (10 January 2017), https://www.dw.com/en/why-a-german-holocaust-comedy-was-a-hit-in-japan/a-37089000.
A more detailed discussion of these artworks can be found in Ralph Buchenhorst, “Field, Forum, and Vilified Art: Recent Developments in the Representation of Mass Violence and Its Remembrance,” in Memory and Genocide: On What Remains and the Possibility of Representation, ed. Fazil Moradi, Ralph Buchenhorst, and Maria Six-Hohenbalken, (London, 2017), 151–164; and Norman L. Kleeblatt, ed., Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art (New Brunswick, 2002). Even more confusing is the infamous case produced in Israel itself, the so-called Stalag pocketbooks, similar to Nazi exploitation in the Tarantino style. These pornographic novels appeared at the same time as the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and broke all sales records in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold at kiosks. See Ari Libsker, dir., Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel (2008), documentary film, 63 min., Israel, distributed by Film Forum.
An overview and an analysis of these critical reviews can be found in Gene Ray, “Mirroring Evil: Auschwitz, Art, and the ‘War on Terror,’” Third Text 17, no. 2 (2003): 113–125; Katherine Biber, “Bad Holocaust Art,” Law Text Culture 13 (2009): 226–259, a special issue on Crime Themes.
See Kleeblatt, Mirroring Evil.
In this case, Shapira might have learned from an episode of the Sarah Silverman program called “Wowschwitz” where she and her sister Laura Silverman develop a competition of Holocaust commemorations (Comedy Central, season 3, episode 10, 2010).
Fleischhauer, “Darf man über Juden Witze machen?”
See Margrit Frölich, Hanno Loewy, and Heinz Steinert, eds., Lachen über Hitler—Auschwitz-Gelächter? Filmkomödie, Satire und Holocaust (Munich, 2003), 132.
For more details, see “‘Sein Gag war keiner, denn er hatte keine Pointe,’” Süddeutsche Zeitung (25 October 2018), https://www.sueddeutsche.de/medien/antisemitismus-polak-boehmermann-1.4185956.
The “locus of enunciation” is a concept coined in the context of decolonial theory. It refers to the historical, geopolitical, and body-political location defining the subject who speaks. See Eduardo H. De Figueiredo, “The Locus of Enunciation as a Way to Confront Epistemological Racism and Decolonize Scholarly Knowledge,” Applied Linguistics 42, no. 2 (2021): 355–359.
The sketch appeared in their late night talk show Schmidt & Pocher. See the following video published on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9YRbIjrF88.
See, for example, Henryk M. Broder, “Rettet das Nazometer!,” Der Spiegel (15 November 2007), https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/streit-um-schmidt-pocher-rettet-das-nazometer-a-517416.html.
Sophia Komor and Susanne Rohr, eds., The Holocaust, Art, and Taboo: Transatlantic Exchanges on the Ethics and Aesthetics of Representation (Heidelberg, 2010).
Normal G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (New York, 2000).
Alan Schechner, as quoted in “How Many of My People Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb? On the Ownership of Experience, or, Who Can Say What to Whom, When,” Art Papers (March–April 1997): 34.
Marija Sruk, “Lachen nach Auschwitz? Herausforderungen der Filmkomödie zum Holocaust: Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung des Doktorgrades der Philosophie des Fachbereiches 05 der Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen” (2015), http://geb.uni-giessen.de/geb/volltexte/2017/12608/pdf/SrukMarija_2016_02_17.pdf.
Aleida Assmann, Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur: Eine Intervention (Munich, 2013), 77.
Tânia Ganito and Daniela Agostinho, “On Memory and the Yet to Come: Interview with Andreas Huyssen,” Diffractions: Graduate Journal for the Study of Culture 1 (2013): 1–7.
Max Czollek, Desintegriert Euch! (Munich, 2018), 101.
Commenting on the Echo scandal, Oliver Polak stated: “I saw that, as a result of the scandal, Kollegah and Bang were in Auschwitz. Finally, it hit the right ones.” See https://www.myspass.de/shows/webshows/nightwash-live/Kollegah-und-Farid-Bang-in-Ausschwitz-Oliver-Polak--/29785/.
Jesko Friedrich, “Was darf Satire?,” in ard-Jahrbuch 2009, https://www.ndr.de/fernsehen/sendungen/extra_3/wir_ueber_uns/wasdarfsatire100.html.
The German original reads: “Es gibt einen riesengroßen Unterschied zwischen ‘Du Judensau’ und ‘Ey, du machst mich sauer, ich bin so respektlos und piss an die Klagemauer.’ Die Linie ist zwar blasphemisch, aber nicht rassistisch.” See Lenne Kaffka's interview with Ben Salomo at https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/musik/ben-salomo-rapper-berichtet-von-wachsendem-antisemitismus-in-deutschland-a-1250713.html.
Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York, 1964), 392.
Rosa Fava, Die Neuausrichtung der “Erziehung nach Auschwitz” in der Einwanderungsgesellschaft: Eine rassismuskritische Diskursanalyse (Berlin, 2015).
Juliane Wetzel, “Erinnern unter Migranten: Die Rolle des Holocaust für Schüler mit Migrationshintergrund,” in Dossier Geschichte und Erinnerung (Bonn, 2008), 143–145.
For the discussion that Hilal's and Varatharajah's proposal triggered, see Michael Rothberg and Hanno Hauenstein, “Nazi-Hintergrund, ns-Erbe und materielle Kontinuität: Das Schweigen brechen,” Berliner Zeitung (10 April 2021), https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/wochenende/nazi-hintergrund-ns-erbe-und-materielle-kontinuitaet-das-schweigen-brechen-li.150838.