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Do Germans have a sense of humour?

Dr Angela Schattner, research fellow at London’s German Historical Institute, examines the evidence.

In Germany, the British are famous for their dark humour and the vast range of comedians they have produced. Comedy shows from Monty Python to Rowan Atkinson are loved in Germany as much as they are in Great Britain. And yet Germans are often confronted with the cliché of being too serious and having no sense of humour at all. Is it true? Are Germans just people without humour?

On the subject of humour, the first person that springs to each and every German’s mind is the writer, cartoonist and actor Bernhard-Viktor von Bülow, also known as ‘Loriot’. When he died in August last year, the whole of Germany mourned his loss. Most famous for his drawn characters with their trademark huge noses, the humour in Loriot’s drawings, TV sketches and films were mostly built on all sorts of miscommunication, often with a touch of vulgarity. He caricatured everyday life and family life as well as civil society.

Beside the late Loriot, Germany has also established a long tradition of satirical cabaret artists such as the TV series Scheibenwischer and cartoonists such as Greser&Lenz who caricature German and international politics regularly in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the news magazine stern.

So why is that Germany are still seen as unfunny then? When asked about it in an interview, Loriot summarised, quite rightly: “The Germans have certainly as much sense of humour as every other nation. The only difference is that they value the worth of the comical quite differently. The comedian is valued much lower than the tragic actor.”

But things are changing. German stand-up comedy is getting increasing coverage in German TV schedules and home-grown  German comedians such as Michael Mittermeier and Mario Barth are becoming huge success stories domestically. Their comedy finds it hard to travel, however, because plays on words and political jokes are hard to translate, and you need to know the cultural background to appreciate the humour.

It seems that some are prepared to try to address English-speaking audiences, nevertheless. Michael Mittermeier – Germany’s best selling comic – debuts this year on the Edinburgh Fringe. Brave man.

For an insight into German humour, the GHIL is hosting an exhibition of cartoons from the German cartoonist duo Greser&Lenz until 29 June 2012.

*For those of you new to the whole concept of the German Historical Institute in London (GHIL), here is Dr Schattner’s description of its history, and function:

British and German history are often more closely entangled than one might think, and certainly goes far beyond WWI and WWII. Exploring those entanglements is an integral part of the mission of the GHIL. The Institute’s aim is to research German and British history and relations in co-operation with historians and to present those findings to the public.

The Institute itself has a very British-German history that traces back to Dr Carl Haase, the then Director of the State Archives in Lower Saxony, who developed the idea based on the model of the German Historical Institute in Rome. For him, the necessity for such an institute arose from the rich history between the two countries, such as the personal union between Hanover and the United Kingdom. Moreover, London’s position as an international research hub was ideal for giving new impulses to German history.

His idea was met very favourably by historians on both sides of the Channel, with British historians having themselves an interest in a research library on German history, too. An Anglo-German Historical Research Group was formed in 1969. It comprised leading British and German historians of the time such as Paul Kluke, the founder of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, the Reformation historian Arthur Geoffrey Dickens and Francis L. Carsten,  the leading expert on Prussian history in Britain and himself a German-Jewish exile. Supported by a society founded by the Volkswagen foundation, annual academic conferences on Anglo-German relations were organised, scholarships to German and British PHD students were awarded from 1971, and a small office with two members of staff was set up.

This was the nucleus for what was to become the GHIL, officially opened on 4 November 1976 as an independent academic institution.  In 1982, it moved to its beautiful present premises at 17 Bloomsbury Square. And since 2002, the GHIL has been part of the Stiftung Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland (DGIA), which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Today, the GHIL consists of  24 members of staff. It maintains a unique library on German history in Britain, from the Middle Ages to the present, and hosts around 20 international conferences and workshops per year, as well as a series of public lectures and exhibitions on German and British history.




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