Humor, whether dark or satirical, can be a trenchant analytical device. It is a tool for exposing facades, revealing contradictions between envisioned and actual reality. Satires of Nazism have been especially resonant, and controversial — from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. They upend familiar narratives, pointing to human folly at the heart of monstrous power.
This talk asks what we gain from applying a comic lens to Nazism, exploring the curious case of Liechtenstein. In this real-life Lilliputian land, just over half the size of Nantucket, 10,000 residents enacted the furies of the wider world in miniature. Absent the crises of war and depression that rocked the rest of Europe, Liechtensteiners embraced virulent Nazism and antisemitism amid relative peace and prosperity (and with one Jewish resident in 1930). Fervors rivaled those in Germany, and the majority of the populace came to support pro-Reich parties, against national self-interest. The passions of Liechtenstein highlight Nazism’s visceral appeal, as its promises of greatness reached the nooks and crannies of the continent, reshaping the political imaginations of millions.
The dark comedy follows the rise and fall of Nazism in Liechtenstein, particularly the nefarious plots of its devotees: intrigues, kidnappings, bombings, putsch attempts, and annexation requests to the Reich that (always) fell short in practice. The contrasts between the grandiose ambitions of Nazism and homespun efforts in Liechtenstein may have the effect of comedy — yet are deeply unsettling. A warning about our present moment, the story of Liechtenstein shows how personal ferocities can propel political beliefs, and how combustible identities can become.
Edith Sheffer is a historian of German central Europe and Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the prize-winning author of “Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain” (Oxford, 2011) and “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna” (W. W. Norton, 2018).
This event is sponsored by the Institute of European Studies, Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington