(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
Sometime in the summer of 1943 in Nazi Germany, a young woman from Berlin named Marianne Elise Kürchner was guillotined for telling a joke.
Kürchner, who worked at an armaments factory, told the following joke to a coworker who denounced her:
Hitler and Göring are standing atop the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners’ faces. So Göring says: “Why don’t you jump?”
Not exactly a side-splitter. More like a neck-splitter: making jokes at Hitler’s expense was, in theory at least, a capital crime.
Mind you, most people who made nasty wisecracks about the Nazis faced no consequences at all. They were rarely denounced, and if they did come before a court they were usually given a warning, or at most a few months of “re-education” in Dachau.
The Nazis did occasionally use sedition as an excuse to arrest and execute people who’d gotten on their bad side for one reason or another, but ordinary Germans initially had little to fear.
However, as the tide of war began to turn against Germany, the punishments for sedition became ever more severe.
Marianne was called up before the People’s Court, whose president, Roland Freisler, was famous for both his long raving speeches berating defendants, and his death sentences. She admitted to making the joke but said she hadn’t been herself at the time, feeling bitter about the recent loss of her husband at the front.
Freisler would have none of it. In fact, he considered Marianne’s status as a war widow to be an aggravating factor. “The People’s Court,” Rudolf Herzog said of this case in his book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, “made it a point of pride to take no account of individual suffering.” In his ruling, Friesler wrote:
As the widow of a fallen German soldier, Marianne Kürchner tried to undermine our will to manly defense and dedicated labor in the armaments sector toward victory by making malicious remarks about the Führer and the German people and by uttering the wish that we should lose the war … She has excluded herself from the racial community. Her honor has been permanently destroyed and therefore she shall be punished with death.
The People’s Court’s judgment was rendered on June 26, 1943. Marianne lost her head shortly thereafter.