»Das Recht, beleidigen zu dürfen:« An Overview of German Political Visual Satire

Visuelle Satire: Deutschland im Spiegel politisch-satirischer Karikaturen und Bildergeschichten reviewed by Lynn M. Kutch

»Wenn einer bei uns einen guten Witz macht, dann sitzt halb Deutschland auf dem Sofa und nimmt übel.« Although published in 1919, this line from Kurt Tucholsky’s oft-cited essay »Was darf die Satire?« has remained relevant throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, as the arguments contained within Visuelle Satire: Deutschland im Spiegel politisch-satirischer Karikaturen und Bildergeschichten attest.

With a range of approaches to varied and richly presented primary source material, the essays in this volume consider the creators of these jokes, the criteria for a good joke, and why satire still retains the supreme power to offend. The contributions to the collected volume primarily regard trends in hand-drawn or photographic political satire from both East and West Germany, especially at significant turning points such as 1945 and 1990. Chapter authors read German history through the lens of satire, but they more remarkably treat examples of caricature or satire as historical artifacts and critical documents in their own right. More specifically, Visuelle Satire considers creative differences between artists from the East and the West, what distinguishes humor among groups of satirists, and, perhaps provocatively, what actual power art and satire wield in the context of controversial political debates. The volume’s editor, Dietrich Grünewald, illustrates the seemingly obvious but central point that, although the craft of caricature has been referred to as a »geistige Waffe,« the artists possess no real political power, unlike the objects of their criticism (14). Each essay in turn investigates in its own way this contentious dynamic between those who brandish satirical weapons and their targets, who often vehemently react in spite of this considerable imbalance of power. By moving their readers to laugh at otherwise serious and even taboo subject matter, caricaturists do have the ability to influence opinion and judgement. Their common aim, however, is not necessarily to offer practical solutions but instead to encourage critical consideration and dialogue about the issues.

In his introduction, Grünewald provides an overview of satire, its characteristics and the nature of its authority, as well as a thorough background of comics characteristics and research. He also includes technical details on how pictures, especially those used in visual satire, have the ability to build a narrative. Grünewald has divided the anthology into four parts: »Der analytische Blick,« »Der historische Blick,« »Der ästhetische Blick,« and »Der Blick der Produzenten,« with each section contributing answer – both through the written word and an abundant number of full-color reprints of visual satire – to the central guiding questions mentioned above.

In her essay »Schluss mit lustig,« Gisela Vetter-Liebenow discusses the transformation of satire’s role since the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Central to her reading of the debate and the consequences of the attack on the acceptance of satire in general is Charlie Hebdo’s pronouncement: »Wir sind grausam aber nicht böse« (37). Vetter-Liebenow uses an analysis of the incident within the context of the steadfast principles of satire to highlight that readers do not have to share the caricaturist’s opinion in order to protect and preserve the rights of free expression and free debate.

Achim Frenz, director of the caricature museum FrankfurtMuseum für Komische Kunst, also elaborates on the »Recht, beleidigen zu dürfen« (45). He tells his story within the context of the Charlie Hebdo attack, which many in the volume acknowledge as a significant turning point for satire. He discusses a very controversial Mohammed look-a-like contest that the museum had sponsored and that, as could be expected unleashed fervent anger and criticism. As a way to present a balanced argument on this much-discussed topic, he describes in his chapter a nearly equal level of outrage from Christians about images of the Pope that the German satire magazine Titanic published. A valuable added feature in this chapter is an illustrated chronology from the time of the original Titanic publication, to the eventual lawsuit by the Vatican against Titanic, to the ultimate outcome. The chapter quite fittingly presents a current story about visual satire and its consequences with reprints of Titanic pages, letters to the editor, press coverage, and an entire reprinted written legal defense of satire against charges of character assassination and blasphemy.

Antje Neuner-Warthorst presents a history of satire in both East and West Germany, citing a »Teilung in zwei Humornationen« (73) and elaborating that in the East, where the caricaturists officially worked for the state, humor no longer played a part in satire (75). In that same section, East German Andreas J. Müller, in his article »Anpassung und Widerstand: Karikaturen mit und ohne Druckgenehmigungsnummer« describes the everyday life of an East German caricaturist from an insider’s perspective. Müller offers an extremely concrete idea of the significant role that caricature played in the lives of East Germans by highlighting that a comics exhibit in Leipzig attracted 78,000 visitors: 8,000 more than the Montagsdemonstration that took place on October 9, 1989. The author characterizes East German satirists in one of two distinct ways: »anpassungsfähig« or »kritisch« (92); and sums up »denn in Diktaturen versteht man keinen Spaß, erst recht nicht, wenn er ernst gemeint ist« (95). Despite the constant threat of censorship, among other fears, Müller tells a fascinating story about how artists evaded censors, often by the use of wordless but visually loaded panels, the vagueness and interpretable messages of which allowed some key politically critical points to slip by.

Most of the volume’s authors agree that reading and understanding visual satire requires active viewer participation. In his article »Entlarvung durch Verlarvung: Metaphorik der visuellen Satire« Dietrich Grünewald expounds on the prerequisite visual background information that a reader must have in order to understand the message fully. Grünewald makes the additional vital point, however, that the artist also carries large responsibility in this mutual relationship to present information for which most viewers within the culture presumably have prior knowledge. Appealing to commonly understood German cultural imagery, Grünewald goes into depth, for example, on the implementation of the ship as visual representation of state, Germany as Germania, and the recurring figure of Michel, the night-capped figure who represents the simple German citizen.

Daniela Kaufmann, in her article »Affenzirkus: Die Mensch-Tier-Darstellung in der visuellen Satire« also contemplates the requirement for audience participation, specifically the culturally recognized symbolism of various animals. Following a brief discussion of the history of animal imagery in satire, particularly in Goya’s work, she provides an insightful reading of the ways that German caricaturists employ the same tools in order to represent German politicians and historical events. Concluding Visuelle Satire is a comprehensive look, through copious reprints, at the work of the political caricaturist Luff, complete with and greatly enhanced by Luff’s own commentary as he looks back over his career.

The specific challenges of the visual satirist that Luff identifies – avoiding clichéd or trite work and bringing viewers close to serious issues in a humorous way – pertain to all of the artists discussed in this volume. Indeed after reading Visuelle Satire, readers may achieve the same ultimate »schönes Gefühl« as Luff when he finally has a »Karikatur im Kasten« (176). For Luff and the other caricaturists, however, their work is never done. Similarly, Visuelle Satire does not offer the last word on the topic of politically charged and controversial visual satire, as this volume has surely stirred interest in these topics for future scholarship. Visuelle Satire’s diverse assortment of well-researched articles constructs an authoritative source text for the genre of visual satire. Thus, the easily readable and skillfully presented and organized volume is highly recommended for, but certainly not limited to, scholars of visual art, humor, satire, and their ethical and political applications.


Visuelle Satire
Deutschland im Spiegel politisch-satirischer Karikaturen und Bildergeschichten
Dietrich Grünewald (Hg.)
Berlin: Christian A. Bachmann Verlag, 2016
186 S., 29,90 Euro
ISBN 978-3-9410-3088-6