Book Insider: Hammer and tickle- A history of Communism told through communist jokes by Ben Lewis
It's hard for people nowadays to imagine how people who lived under Communism put up with all the shortages and lack of freedom, times when
“despite all the shortages, toilet paper in East Germany was always 2-ply, because they had to send a copy of everything they did to Russia.”
Many were imprisoned and never got their lives back (most of the time without real reason), many even died during their imprisonment.
“A new convict arrived at a prison camp. The inmates began questioning him about the length of his sentence.
“Twenty-five years,” replied the newcomer.
“Nothing. Didn't do a thing. I am innocent.”
“Don't give us that story. The innocent only get five years.”
But most of them lived on and got to tell the story to their children. Some in the history books, others in fictious, metaphorical accounts of the Regime, and many more lived on laughing. Not happy or rejoicing, but mocking the system in any way they could use for going on.
Ben Lewis, who has won numerous international awards for his documentaries, and is also a television presenter and writer, who contributes regularly to “Prospect”, the “Evening Standard” and the “Sunday Telegraph”, has found and gathered “evidence that the jokes were linked to resistance not apathy. Communist jokes – albeit certain kinds – I now knew, accompanied the fall as well as the rise of Communism.”
Some collect stamps, some dry flowers or dead insects. Others jokes. Romanian Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, former Party member and an amateur statistician, mounted a sociological analysis of Romanian Communist jokes during the eighties. In the last ten years of Ceauşescu's regime, in the same time-frame as the construction of the People's Palace, Stefanescu noted down every joke he heard, where he heard it, and when; what the social background appeared to be of the person who said it, and their age group. After the fall of the Communism, he published his data in a book, “Ten Years of Black Humour in Romania”. The print run was tiny and the volume remains virtually unknown, but it is one of the most significant texts of the Communist Era – not only because of the surprising exactitude of the science, but also because of the heroic impossibility of the exercise. It contains over 950 jokes collected between August 1979 and December 1989.
“Hammer & Tickle” takes us on a unique journey through the Communist era, and tells its real history through subversive jokes and joke-tellers. Humorous, culturally poignant and historically revealing, this is the story of a political system that was (almost) laughed out of existence. His documentary film “Hammer & Tickle: The Communist Joke Book” was broadcast on BBC4, and on a score of other TV channels across the world, in 2006. His article on Communist jokes for “Prospect” magazine received the greatest number of hits on their website of any article that year.
Ben Lewis is an award-winning director with a reputation for making funny films about serious subjects. His previous work includes Nicolae Ceausescu: The King of Communism (read more about it here, where you could also find some excerpts from the documentary)
Short films created by Ben Lewis below. The last one includes parts from Romania.