Reading Rudolph Herzog’s extraordinary book about the culture of comedy in Nazi Germany (“Dead Funny”) I came across the fascinating story of dissident cabaret artist Werner Finck.
Finck founded the cabaret “The Catacombs” in 1929, and was one of its star performers. His act got him briefly sent to a concentration camp in 1935, but his fame and notoriety kept him safe – and he wsa released six weeks later when an actress friend who was having an affair with Goring interceded on his behalf.
He kept performing, and this time the subject of his act was to encourage the audience to know how much he could not say. Asked once by an audience member “what time is it?” he replied “I’m not allowed to talk about that.” Everyone got the joke.
So did the Nazis. In 1939 Finck learned that the Ministry of Propaganda was planning to make him disappear. By then the war had started and emigration was impossible. There was no place he could go that would keep him from disappearing … except one.
Werner Finck volunteered to join the army. They needed men.
His life was still in grave danger – but the Ministry of Propaganda couldn’t touch him there. The result was that one of Germany’s great dissadent comedians survived the war, and could tell his story.
Times have changed. In 2013 the Cambodian dictator Hun Sen has come up with a novel way of keeping Cambodian’s comedians from pillorying his rule:
According to The Atlantic, Cambodia’s leading satirists are often drafted into the army, given the rank of Colonel, and assigned to Hun Sen’s personal body guards. They are then regularly assigned to perform, for high pay, in pro-government TV programs.
Apparently the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ “Propaganda and Education Commission” includes “the bulk of the country’s comedians.”
It’s hard to think of a much better way to keep the people who could be your worst critics aware that you’re constantly watching them – and appropriate their talents to the service of the regime. I can’t imagine how even Werner Finck would have gotten out of this.