Using Comedy to Examine the Rise of Nazism

by Charlotte Campbell, Ellen Harper, and Yeeun Moon 

On Thursday, October 17, the Institute of European Studies and the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute were pleased to host historian and IES Senior Fellow Edith Sheffer, for a lecture entitled “Nazism: A Dark Comedy in Liechtenstein.” In her lecture, Sheffer discussed what we can gain from applying a comic lens to national socialism, specifically examining the case of Liechtenstein during World War II.

While Liechtenstein remained neutral during World War II, it was heavily influenced by the political rhetoric of Nazism. Sheffer talked the audience through the events leading up to this shift in public opinion, beginning with antisemitic tendencies driving hostility against Jews who entered the country and purchased citizenship, built homes, and contributed to the economy. Though the presence of Jewish people was of great benefit to the nation, Nazism took hold in government and captured a large proportion of the electorate, with some of the population even hoping Hitler would annex Liechtenstein as he had done with Austria in 1938. Throughout these political shifts towards Nazism in Liechtenstein, Jews in the country were under threat. 

Drawing on the work of various scholars and satirists who have used comedy to highlight incongruities in history, Sheffer argued that writing in the dark comedy tradition about the rise of fascism in places such as Liechtenstein can call attention to gaps that reveal the human folly of Nazism. She illustrated the comedic value in examples such as the kidnapping plot where nine Nazi supporters tried to overpower four Jews but unsuccessfully ended chasing them off of a cliff, or the story of citizens and state officials begging Hitler and the Nazis to annex their country. Sheffer argued that viewing these events through the lens of dark comedy highlights both the humor in projections of grandiosity that are incongruous with reality, and the speed at which people can adapt to changing norms.

In a dynamic Q&A with the audience of 30, Sheffer responded to questions about the application of her analysis to the current moment and to other cases such as Switzerland. She also discussed the gendered and religious dimensions of the situation in Liechtenstein during World War II.