Rules, Regulations, and the Reich: Comedy under the Auspices of the Propaganda Ministry

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Published in Essays on Twentieth Century German Drama and Theatre, ed. Helmuth Rennert (Frankfurt: Lang, 2004), pp. 196-201.


When the National Socialist regime assumed power in Germany on January 30, 1933, it set about immediately to formulate regulations, edicts, and policies for a "renewal" of the German theatre. Adolf Hitler had an interest of long standing in the theatre, and Nazi strategies for controlling, supporting, and re-generating the theatre went into effect over a period of about eighteen months. On September 22, 1933 Hitler's cabinet passed the Reich Cultural Chamber Law (Reichskulturkammergesetz), giving Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels charge of an organization the new Law created, the Reich Cultural Chamber. The legislation stipulated seven individual chambers subsumed under the Reich Cultural Chamber, one ofwhich was the Reich Theatre Chamber. It in turn had seven organizations (the Nazis seem to like the number seven) subsumed under it.

The Theatre Chamber's presidium retained the right to license productions for any theatre performance; but like most bureaucracies, it expanded its domain of authority, increased its budgetary needs, and consolidated its power. The Reich Theater Act (Reichstheatergesetz) in 1934 sustained those efforts. On September 15, 1935, the "Theatrical Trade Guild (Fachschaft Bühne) was founded in accordance with the so-called Nuremberg Laws, which redefined the legal status of several classes of citizens within Germany. Dr. Rainer Schlosser was named Reich Dramaturg, with authority over all aspects of repertoire selection in the Reich. His Reich Dramaturgical Bureau considered itself "the intellectual nerve center of German theatrical season planning," and within this viper's nest of intrigue some of the most significant occasions of legal circumvention during the Third Reich took place. The Reich Dramaturgical Bureau (R.D.B.) had published a "List of Abusive and Undesirable Literature for the Stage" (Liste des schädlichen und unerwünschten Bühnenschrifttums) and the list was constantly being upgraded and expanded. Some playwrights, such as Franz Arnold, Bertolt Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, and Bruno Frank got on the list at the beginning and stayed there through the end. Others temporarily got on the list, then got off it, then got back on it again, and in some cases got hired by the regime which had initially banished them to write screenplays!

Circumvention of laws regarding repertoire selection was especially curious in the case of comedy. The idea performing comedy, and performing a lot of comedy, during one the most systematic reigns of terror the world has ever known may at first blush seem somewhat degraded; researching comedy during the Third Reich may appear downright perverse, but even Nazis were capable of innocent laughter. The perception of most people, especially in the English-speaking world, is that "German comedy" in the first place is an oxymoron. The fact is that of the more than 42,000 productions were staged between 1933 and 1944 in the Third Reich, and the majority were of comedies.