Townsend, cover

The Important Role of Humor in 19th C. Germany
Book Essay on: Mary Lee Townsend, Forbidden Laughter: Popular Humor and the Limits of Repression in 19th C. Prussia
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press) 1992, 258 pages.

by Matthew Rusting-Morey
November 22, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
19th Century Germany
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2006

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About Matthew Rusting-Morey

I am a fifth year senior at University California Santa Barbara who is majoring in history without a focus on any particular time period or location. I recently went to Germany to see the World Cup in Stuttgart, where I watched the third place Portugal vs. Germany match. The trip made me very interested in Germany because of the strong national pride that the people had, leading me to take a class on German history. Also I have always enjoyed humor, and, being a regular watcher of “The Daily Show” with John Stewart I wondered what the 19th century Prussian version of political humor was.

Napoleon III and Wilhelm I In this 1870 Political Cartoon Louis Napoleon III and Wilhelm l of Prussia are depicted as drunken buffoons, representing the moral and spiritual demise of the ideals fought for in the French Revolution.

Abstract (back to top)

Mary Lee Townsend’s book Forbidden Laughter is a book that describes in detail the various types of humor in nineteenth century Prussia, how it was censored, who was reading the works, and how it affected them. She also includes a few biographical sketches of a few different artists and authors, the work they did, and the impact it had. In the two longest chapters she covers the humor itself, including the different topics it covers such as: marriage, family, social misery, political repression etc. There is an effort made throughout the book to show that much of the art and literature was very symbolic in a way to hide the message the authors were trying to convey that would criticize the State. Townsend concludes that humor was a vital part of Prussian and German society as a whole and was a determining factor in the events leading up to the revolution of 1848. I don’t fully agree with her statements. I believe that many issues such as famine and the state's inability to solve problems that faced the people were the main cause that led to revolution.

Essay (back to top)

Before I obtained the book Forbidden Laughter by Mary Lee Townsend, I had no idea of what I wanted to learn about Germany, but after looking through it I realized that contemporary humor would be a great way to gain insight into the mindset of the people and the role of government in Prussia during part of the nineteenth century.

The novel discusses the role of humor during the period between 1815 and 1848, and answers many questions about how different social classes reacted to humor, how common people were influenced in Prussia, what the government thought of political writings and other topics, and how it reacted.

To cover all of these questions Townsend splits her book into seven chapters, each focusing on a certain aspect of humor: the role of common people, what types of humor were used, what was censored, how effective the censors were, the role of the monarchy, how the literature was distributed, and who was reading it. The book provides a complete explanation of the function of humor in 18th century Prussia, using a vast number of contemporary sources, both written and graphical.

Townsend describes the humor after 1815 starting as apolitical, then slowly progressing into the realm of the political, although heavily veiled so as not to arouse the suspicions of the censors. Humor also started to touch on issues regarding the church in addition to social issues. Townsend gives many examples of censored materials, and in some cases shows the before and after of different pictures and writings. An example of this can be seen in the 1844 lithography by F. Hube where in the pre-censored picture a boy is standing next to a woman’s exposed petticoats, saying “I want to see if I might get inside,” supposedly referring to getting into Kroll’s amusement garden. To have it approved to print, the petticoat had to be covered and the quote was re-written to say “You! Someone there has gotten entangled” (Townsend pp. 89-90). It loses a lot of the meaning and humor but that was the kind of thing that the censors were there for.

Although each chapter had a main point, all of the chapters incorporate ideas from the other chapters as well. There was also a running theme throughout the book of the effect of humor on common people, how they were influenced and how the government was afraid of the repercussions if the lower class began to be incited by the Berliner Witz.

The Important Role of Humor in 19th Century Prussia

The effects of humor, both written and pictorial, were an essential part of Prussian society during the reign of Fredrick William III (1797-1840) and Fredrick William IV (1840-59). In a time of much repression of the press and of the people, where industrialization was taking hold and the cities were filling with greater and greater numbers of people, coming from foreign lands and from the German countryside itself, humor was an outlet for the people of Berlin and the surrounding areas, and was used as a “public forum to discuss forbidden topics” (Townsend p. 19).

After 1815 there was a move from the oral traditions of the past into an age of text and pictures. With the mechanization of printing there was a publishing boom that led to the mass dispersal of reading materials. With an audience able to appreciate literary work and a business community willing to sell them, Berliner Witz grew from a local pastime to a modern commercial enterprise (Townsend p. 70).

At first publications were purely for the sake of entertainment. This was exemplified by works of the writer Moritz Gottlieb Saphir, who put pen to paper with a mix of wit and sensationalism about popular nonpolitical figures that made his periodicals immensely popular (Townsend p. 37).

This was the beginning of the trend of Berlin humor, and with Saphir’s popularity others were soon to follow. These new writers were from a great variety of backgrounds, a mix of Berliners and out siders from a diverse range of geographic and economic backgrounds, all young, most of whom were under the age of 35. Although from such different circumstances, they still held a captive audience and were considered the ‘typical’ Berliner.

Many of these new authors now began to write about political and social issues, but the only way to get their work past the censors was to heavily mask their ideas with humor, or make it so ambiguous that the censors would not feel justified in banning it. It was clear that, “authors and artists knew how to hide serious messages behind a veil of ‘innocent’ humor” (Townsend p.19). What is not necessarily clear is whether or not this hidden humor played a significant role in causing the eventual rebellion in 1848.

Political humor was not the only type that was being written. There was also a great deal of humor that dealt with social issues such as courtship, marriage, the emancipation of women, and parent-child issues. Many of these things did not have to be censored. They were just poking fun at the lives of a general type of person and not a particular one, and it was not bad-mouthing the state. “If women enter the public life, who will stay home and cook our lunch,” was a popular joke about the emancipation of women (Townsend p. 94). However even in the realm of social issues, double meanings could be found. Most common were subtle parallels drawn between the parent-child relationship and that of the state and the citizen. Adolph Glaβ brenner’s comic family is a prime example of this. Throughout the stories Buffey the father always rebuffs his ten year old son Wilhelm, calling him stupid and disgraceful. The father’s exaggerated tyranny represents political as well as paternal repression (Townsend pp. 96-97).

Surprisingly during this period there was a very high rate of literacy, eighty-five percent of Berliners who were 35 and over could read and write in 1840, and ninety-one percent of 29-38 year olds were literate, an astonishing rate (Townsend p. 70). With such a high rate of literacy readers were from all strata of society. As seen in a pair of anecdotes on page 69, everyone from a barber’s helper to a duchess, were reading the same material. The authors themselves made a definitive effort to reach all types of people in society by using “…Berlinisch to give their works a certain flavor” (Townsend p.76). People “…even from the upper and highest estates… [spoke] urberliner dialect…it was also the language of the lower class” (Townsend p. 73).

One may wonder tho ugh how the poor of Prussia were able to afford purchasing these literary works during a time when the lower class was a quickly growing social stratum, and many could barely afford sustenance for their families. Most new pamphlets, books, prints and the like were out of reach with the meager income of the poor, but there were many different ways that they could find material to read. The common folk had access to these things “through Antiquars, libraries, reading circles, coffee houses, reading aloud, and display in store windows” (Townsend p. 83). So even though the middle class was the target audience for the writers and artists, as far as profit was concerned, they made their work understandable to everyone, because of the secondhand market. According to a contemporary, “each copy of a newspaper reached at least four people," thus Townsend argues that "literally everyone in Berlin was familiar with commercialized Berlin wit” (Townsend p. 83, p. 86).

Another important reason that literature of a humor ous nature was so readily available to the public was the blossoming network of transportation. The industrial revolution in Germany led to the creation of various railroad systems, which could bring literature to far places quickly. Once the literature reached a major city it was quickly dispersed throughout the city. In 1833 with a population of about 260,000, Berlin boasted some sixty bookstores. These, in addition to other non-official booksellers, children, rag-pickers, and small shopkeepers, allowed for a quick distribution system and a plethora of places to obtain literature (Townsend p. 78). Humor even began to spring up in different everyday goods such as in the wrappers of chocolates or with the purchase of various tobacco products, in a kind of equivalent to today’s Bazooka Joe chewing gum, except it sometimes had the ulterior motive of being used as political rhetoric.

Writers were still caught between people’s interests and the authority of the state; they had to please the people while no t being discovered by the censors, and the censors were caught between doing their jobs well enough not to get hassled by superiors, and at the same time be lenient enough not to be left out of bourgeois society functions. It was not only the higher government officials that the censors had to be wary of, the whims of the king were also a threat. He could use the humor as a political tool by “jesting dispassionately about his minister’s repressive measures and the threat of revolution that lurked behind political humor” (Townsend p. 16). Like the king others in the government, such as minister of the interior Gustav Freiherr von Brenn, “hoped that the Prussian state could use humor for its own purposes” (Townsend p.19). However it seems as if the state did not utilize humor to a great extent because no prominent examples are found in “Forbidden Laughter.”

The censors had a tough job. They were understaffed and often the administrative structure was unwieldy and inefficient (Townsend p. 172). However under the direction of Metternich, the laws were strict, and domestic repression was widespread, starting with the passage of the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819 (Townsend p. 21). These decrees forbade works that violated: principles of religion, morality and propriety, the dignity and security of Prussia and other German states, or the personal honor and the good name of others (Townsend p. 178). The confederation issued even stricter censorship and police surveillance in 1832 after the revolts in France in 1830 and in Poland in 1831, as well as the domestic unrest of the Hambach Festival that many liberal oppositionists attended in May 1832. There was a well-founded fear of revolution.

The ones who were to bring revolution to a realization were common people, and t he way that they would be incited to do so would be through Berliner Witz, which was seen as being the “Robespierre of the Berliners.” As Townsend writes:

A majority of German rulers insisted that their only hope for survival lay in absolutist rule and the suppression of all demands for change. This is why they devoted vast resources to surveillance of the press, universities, private clubs and public places. (Townsend p. 30)

The most strictly controlled literature was that which was intended for the lower class, because it was quite apparent that the Prussian state had good reason to be wary of jovial Berliners and their forbidden laughter (Townsend p. 12).

Specific social and economic events did not attract the attention of the humorists for a long time, but after June of 1844 the gloves started to come off, and the veil that for so long shrouded the political and social humor slowly began to lift. Writers were becoming bolder in their criticism of the government because of the bloody uprising in Silesia and the potato famine that had been leaving many to starve. The Silesian uprising happened at an inopportune time for the state, which was holding the German Industrial Exhibition to show off what it had accomplished during the industrialization. This is when the humorists began to write more directly of their dissatisfaction with the government. As one contemporary humorist wrote in 1844:

An immensely useful machine is still missing…It should have the function of giving the poor peasant and his ragged children something nourishing to eat every time the lord of the manor drinks wine. (Townsend p.136)

This dissatisfaction continued to grow and writers continued to produce political humor that influenced many who were frustrated.

Starting as simple entertainment, humor morphed into a forum for the public discussion of vital issues, both social and political, which was a vital part of nearly the entire Prussian society. However in the end it was improper management of the situation that eventually caused the revolution of 1848. People were starving and the state sat watching, unable to cope with the situation, even going so far as to sell good potatoes to alcohol manufacturers instead of the poor. With the inability to properly deal with the Silesian rebellion and spilling much blood in the process, it was almost inevitable that the Prussian and German people would rise up. People can only handle so much until they come to a breaking point, and although most people have thick skin, the harsh conditions the government enforced upon them, pushed them to their limits and a revolution was born.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)


  • Berger, Stefan. "Forbidden Laughter: Popular Humor and the Limits of Repression in Nineteenth Century Prussia." Journal of Social History 28:1(Fall 1994): 201(3). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Santa Barbara. 21 Nov. 2006
    This review written by Stefan Berger from the University of Wales College of Cardiff, describes each of the books chapters in a short paragraph for each, he has very little to criticize about the book only that Townsend may be too focused on Prussia and Berlin and its influence, and that her divisions of humor into four categories might be a little hazy because the humor could be in more than one category at a time. Berger still finds the book very convincing and well written and a good read.
  • Ohles, Frederik. "Forbidden Laughter: Popular Humor and the Limits of Repression in Nineteenth-Century Prussia." American Historical Review 99.n3 (June 1994): 922(2). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Santa Barbara. 21 Nov. 2006
    This review was written by Fredrick Ohles from St. Olaf College. Ohles describes Townsend's book well researched and finely written that is an easy and enjoyable read. His only critique is that she does not go into the iconography on religion fully missing a few minor details.

Books and Articles

  • Coupe, W.A. “The German Cartoon and the Revolution of 1848.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 9 (1976): 137-67.
    This selection was chosen because it contained different examples of humor and wit during the time of the revolution of 1848 in Germany. Townsend also used many of these examples but there were a few more contained in this article that she did not.
  • Eley, Geoff. “Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte: Experience, Culture, and the Politics of Everyday- A New Direction for German Social History?” Journal of Modern History 61 (June 1989): 297-343.
    This is an important journal in relation to Townsend's book because it elaborates on the background of the German experience in the nineteenth century. It gives detail on what Germans were going through at the time and the different social and political aspects of life.
  • Goldstein, Robert Justin. Political Censorship of the Arts and the Press in Nineteenth Century Europe. New York: Macmillan, 1989
    This book is relevant because it describes in detail topics that are contained in Townsend's book such as censorship of art and the press. Goldstein's book refers to the same time period as Townsend's book.
  • Ohles, Frederik. Germany’s Rude Awakening: Censorship in the Land of the Brothers Grimm. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. 1992), 227 pages.
    This is an important book because it is related to Townsend's topic. The humor that Townsend describes in her book was from the same time period and much of the humor was censored. Also she uses information from Ohles' book in hers. In addition Ohles has written a review in a scholarly journal on Townsend's work which would indicate that he is an authority on the subject.

Web Sites

  • Web site encyclopedia on the revolutions of 1848 included is an explanation of the popular culture at the time of the revolution of 1848. The site was created by James Chastin professor at Ohio Univ. and the article was written by Donald J. Mattheeisen Professor at the University Massachusetts Lowell. copyright 1997, 2005.
    Web site covering a wide range of topics about Germany and its relation to other parts of the world it also has a section that talks about German humor in the 19th century which is where the website above will take you, focusing on the author Theodore Fontane. This article was written by the staff at the Deutsche Welle Germany's international broadcasting company. 9-19-2006
    This is a fantastic website on the history of Germany covering all of the 19th century with links to contemporary articles from the Napoleonic era on to the era of Bismarck. It takes some time to look through but is well organized and full of information. The virtual library was created by Tim Berners-Lee the creator of HTML and it the oldest site of its kind. copyright 2003.

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/14/06; last updated: 12/16/06
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