Humor as Resistance
In order to help students think about the dynamics of power in different kinds of societies, this case study attempts to challenge the black-and-white thinking to which students are inclined when thinking about Communism. By analyzing jokes from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) we can see how people sought to create their own sense of freedom.
"Every joke is a tiny revolution." -George Orwell, 1945
Students are all too inclined to embrace the simplistic notion that "democracy" equals "freedom" while "communism" equals "totalitarianism" and "oppression." In order to help students think about the dynamics of power in different kinds of societies, I plan lessons that challenge the black-and-white thinking to which students are inclined. There are many ways in which people living within democratic societies are not free, and there are many ways in which people living in totalitarian societies create freedom for themselves. Documentary evidence, high quality secondary sources, memoirs, and written and cinematic fiction all can compel students to encounter, then consider, some of the contradictions and ambiguities of power different political regimes.
As a cultural anthropologist I seek to accomplish this task, and enrich chronological and thematic history curricula, with excursions into the everyday lives of the people and societies my students and I study. The German historical tradition known as Alltagsgeschichte (the history of everyday life) presents an obvious approach, particularly for GDR history. Alltagsgeschichte takes as one of its premises the theoretical perspective that people live within continuously shifting historical structures, processes and relationships of power. Culture, the domain of human assumptions, beliefs, customs, and behavior, is a venue within which humans struggle with and against power. As a form of social history "from below," Alltagsgeschichte invites us to examine everyday life for evidence of resistance to different forms of oppression and suffering.
This lesson is part of a unit on cold war history in a 10th grade New York State Global History and Geography Course. Students are well-prepared in a general way for study of these documents. They are familiar with major world events leading to the division of Germany and the creation of the German Democratic Republic. Antecedent topics include the ideas of Marx and Engels, the impact of World War I on Germany and Russia, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism in Germany, and the course of World War II in Europe. They learn about events resulting in the division of Germany including the Yalta conference, and they are familiar with geographic characteristics of the advance of American and Soviet troops at the end of the war. They are aware of the peculiar location of Berlin deep in the heart of the Soviet-controlled East. They can discuss the main characteristics of totalitarian societies. They know of the Marshall Plan and understand its positive impact on the West German economy. They also know of the high cost of war reparations demanded of eastern Germany by the Soviet Union, and the deleterious impact of these reparations and the communist economy on the material culture of daily life in the German Democratic Republic.
I lead a discussion of the Orwell quote introducing this lesson. In what way(s) can a joke be revolutionary? Students are often stumped, as there are essentially no risks or dangers associated with telling jokes in American society. It helps students it you lead them to think of different kinds of speech that are risky (e.g. insults) and the kinds of consequences people may experience. They can then extend that thinking to risks and consequences of jokes in a totalitarian society, particularly given the control of information and the dangers of dissent in such settings.
I have the whole class read and reflect on Document A (be sure they are familiar with the identities of Honecker and Mielke). What does the joke say about the practice of telling jokes in the GDR?
I have students work in pairs or small groups to read and discuss the jokes in Document B. Each joke is preceded with its "domain," or the area of GDR society the joke pokes fun at, and any pre-requisite knowledge needed to "get" the joke. I ask students to identify the opinions East Germans express through these jokes.
Once I am sure students are successfully reading and interpreting the jokes, I have them move onto those in Document C. These jokes may be approached in the same way as those in Document B, however the "domain" is not identified. I have students identify the subject of the jokes in general (e.g. politics, work, relationship with the Russians) and the particular opinion expressed by the joke. (E.g. joke 1: political, ridicules the idea that the GDR was as "great" as the powerful USA and USSR). Students sometimes need help "getting" the joke. They don't laugh much, but as they "get" the jokes their understanding of GDR society enlarged. Joke 12, in particular, requires that students reverse their thinking about hostages. Normally, a society would want its hostages to be freed. This jokes suggests that the GDR Central Committee wants it hostages kept as hostages! What does this say about the attitude of the GDR government toward its citizens?
Conclusion: Document D
I have students re-think their responses to the Orwell quote. They discuss ways in which their analysis of these jokes supports and/or alters their point of view. We return to the difference between telling jokes in a totalitarian society, and telling jokes in a "free" society like that of the United States. This difference is supported by the quote in Document D. I also ask students to extrapolate from this lesson and imagine what it would be like if they lived in a totalitarian society. In what settings would they risk telling jokes like these? Where would they not take that risk? With whom would they share this humor—and with whom would they not? Students often begin to think of the invisible social boundaries that intersect their own lives. For example, they suggest that people tell racist, sexist, or dirty jokes only to certain friends, in some settings, but not to other people, elsewhere.
Overall, this lesson helps students develop a richer, more nuanced understanding of the power of thought and speech in general, and the ways in which thought and speech are subjected to different kinds of voluntary (and involuntary) controls in different kinds of societies.
Kingston City Schools
Kingston, New York