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Forbidden Laughter: Popular Humor and the Limits of Repression in Nineteenth Century Prussia.

A senior colleague of mine sometimes introduces himself; "I am a mixture of Irish efficiency and German charm," adding "It is difficult to tell that joke i German." The anecdote underlines one of the most established notions of Anglo-Saxons about Germans, namely that they lack a sense of humor. The book under review here goes some way towards destroying that myth. It investigates the social context of popular humor in Berlin and Prussia during the period fro 1819 to 1848. After a brief but to-the-point discussion of the methodological problems encountered in writing on humor, Mary Lee Townsend recreates the social, political and economic conditions of Berlin in the first half of the 19th century, so as to allow the reader to glimpse the context in which the particular kind of humor could flourish which is the subject of her subsequent chapters.

She then moves on to the humorists themselves, providing the reader with short biographical sketches combined with an evaluation of their work and its political impact. The next chapter traces the development of a mass market for humorous publications in the first half of the 19th century and discusses the factors which facilitated the emergence of professional humorists.

Chapters 4 and 5 are the longest, and here the reader is confronted with the humor itself. Berliners joked about almost everything: sexual relations, marriage, family, gender roles, church, state, local politics, alcohol, smoking social misery, police, emigration, foreign policy, the German 'national character', political repression, the king and the royal family. Although Townsend quotes one of her heroes, Adolph Gla[Beta]brenner ("explanation is the death of a joke"), she nevertheless succeeds in tracing the ambiguities and hidden meanings of the jokes. She convincingly uncovers different levels of meaning in them and points to their political nature. The section on the humorous character of the 'Eckensteher Nante' is a particularly fascinating one Whereas Nante could be used to placate middle-class fears of the 'lower orders' he could also express working-class aspirations and grievances.

The penultimate chapter examines the limited efficiency of the Prussian state i its use of censorship to curb the social and political criticism advanced by th humorists. The intricate picture she paints of the relations between censorship officials and authors in a state where the rule of law set clear boundaries to the intervention of the state bureaucracy, makes excellent reading.

In the final chapter Townsend relates the results of her study to the wider debate on the German Sonderweg. She is able to throw considerable doubt on a number of claims which in the past may have been taken too easily for granted. First, she substantially qualifies the view that due to repression and censorship there is little to study for historians of humor in the restoration period after 1819. Following on from her rediscovery of the wealth of humor published in this period, she then questions the notion that there was a pronounced difference between a calm and tranquil Biedermeier and a turbulent Vormarz. Yet probably what is most challenging about this study is its attack o the assumption of German cultural exceptionalism. Ever since Thomas Mann(1) a number of cultural historians have argued that German culture--in contrast to French and British culture--was decisively unpolitical. Martin Swales and Peter Paret have both already contributed towards demolishing much of this assumption.(2) In documenting intensely political forms of popular humor Townsend will further contribute towards the re-evaluation of German cultural exceptionalism. Finally one can only hope that someone will take up her challenge that the time is ripe for a comparative study of popular humor in the 19th century. French, British and German humor have been the object of a considerable amount of research over the past years, and the breakdown of narro national boundaries would enrich our understanding of European popular humor in the 19th century.

There is very little to criticise in this book. Occasionally Townsend might be accused of being prone to Prussocentricism (or rather: Berlinocentricism). Although she herself mentions intra-German, regional differences in humor, her statements about Berlin and Prussia setting the tone for the whole of central Europe almost certainly underestimate the regional variety and distinctiveness of humor even within Prussia, let alone Germany or central Europe. On another note, one might also wonder how useful her division of popular humour into four categories--universal, innocent, reflective and political--really is, given the fact that the boundaries between these categories are less than clear cut. Also as the author herself constantly stresses, one joke could have a variety of meanings for different people: what might have been innocent for one, was highl political for another.

Nevertheless, on the whole, the book remains convincing. As befits its subject matter, it is well written and even intensely funny at times, while never degenerating into the merely anecdotal. The analytical strength of the author i making the late 20th century reader understand the popular humor of the 19th century is admirable. Her study is based on a wealth of primary source material which she has made every effort to unearth from no less than thirty-nine archives, libraries and museums. The study is a truly innovative piece of socia history scholarship. And certainly, after reading this stimulating book it will be much more difficult to uphold the old stereotypes of the humorless and unpolitical German.

Stefan Berger University of Wales College of Cardiff


1. Thomas Mann, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (1918).

2. Martin Swales, "The Peculiarities of National Cultural Traditions: the Germa Case", conference paper delivered at the conference on 'National Histories and European History', London, 27-29 February 1992; Peter Paret, Art as History: Episodes in the Culture and Politics of Nineteenth Century Germany (1988).
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Author:Berger, Stefan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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