Laughter in the Trenches: Humour and Front Experience in German First World War Narratives

Laughter in the Trenches: Humour and Front Experience in German First World War Narratives explores the appearances and functions of humor and laughter in selected novels and short stories based on autobiographical experiences written by authors during the war and in the Weimar Era (1919-1933). It focuses on popular and lesser-known works of German literature that played an important role in the socio-political life of the Weimar Republic: Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger (1920), Advance from Mons 1914 by Walter Bloem (1916), The Case of Sergeant Grischa by Arnold Zweig (1927), and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929). 

The author shows that these works often share surprisingly similar narrative strategies in describing humorous experiences and laughter of soldiers to justify direct violence and oppressive power structures, regardless of their ideological assignment and their popular and critical reception. 

This book also examines the parodic imitations of All Quiet on the Western Front, the German text All Quiet on the Trojan Front by Emil Marius Requark (1930), and The American film So Quiet on the Canine Front by Zion Myers and Jules White (1931) as significant polemical contributions that use humoristic strategies to stress or undermine the elements of the original text.

The study focuses on the appearances and functions of humor and laughter in non-humoristic German novels and short stories that thematize the First World War. The works, written during the war and in the Weimar era in Germany (1919-1933), were marketed and widely regarded as based on the autobiographical experiences of their authors and, because of the proclaimed "authenticity" of the narrative material, they were considered a source of valid information about the war. The works discussed in the study are the most popular German war novels from the post-war period, including the all-time bestseller All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929), the controversial Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920), The Advance from Mons 1914 by Walter Bloem (1916), which was once one of the top sellers in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich, and Arnold Zweig's The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927), which was published successfully as a serial novel in a newspaper and prepared the ground for the huge success of All Quiet on the Western Front

The rich artistic response to the war in Germany, not unlike in Great Britain and France, stems doubtlessly from the fact that the conflict affected, directly or indirectly, the majority of the population. The wave of war works in different genres also started from a similar impulse to give meaning to the historical event that ended the "long 19th century" and changed Europe. But, specifically for Germany, the popularity of the war works on the literary market derives from the very special place the literature written by soldiers, who serve as "witnesses" of the war events and guarantors of their authenticity, took in the political and social discourses in the new Weimar democracy. German works seeking an explanation of the war were instrumentalized in the contemporaneous power struggles to legitimize or deny legitimacy to the political and social institutions of the Weimar Republic, which had to address the question of the meaning of the lost war and the large human losses on the battlefields. As a result, the reception of the war narratives was (and, to a large degree, still is) strongly influenced by the ideological perspectives taken after 1918. 

Given the fact that the German war narratives took a special place in the debates about the First World War and shaped the image of the "seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century not only in Germany (as the world popularity of All Quiet on the Western Front demonstrates), the main focal point of the study is the way in which violence and power are represented in the works to be later used in the political and social discourses. Specifically, the study investigates how the justifications of military violence and oppressive power constructed by the novels are confirmed or questioned by the use of humor and laughter. It also examines the role of humor and laughter in the construction of gender roles, with a concentration on soldier masculinity. Through the frame of sociological theories of humor and laughter that concentrate on the roles humor and laughter have in shaping group interactions and hierarchies, the study intends to expose the subtle humor strategies used by the authors to legitimize institutions of power, the dominant gender-typical behavior, and the necessity of physical and verbal violence in the war. Such narrative strategies, subtly but very effectively employed in non-humorous works, are often overlooked by readers as well as by critics: up to date, there is no extensive study on instances of humor and laughter in non-humorous First World War German literature. 

The main argument of the study is that the distinction between the so-called "pacifist" and "pro-war" literature is no longer valid when we take a closer look at instances of humor and laughter in the narratives: all investigated works establish the same narrative conventions in the representation of humor and laughter. These conventions emphasize very conservative views on masculine and feminine roles and on military structures and institutions of state power even if the popular reception of some works, e.g. Remarque's novel, completely disregards this discrepancy and prescribes exclusively anti-oppressive tendencies to the works. 

In addition, parodic imitations of All Quiet on the Western Front (including German literary takes on the original, such as All Quiet on the Trojan Front by Emil Marius Requark from 1930, and the American film So Quiet on the Canine Front by Zion Myers and Jules White from 1931) are discussed as significant polemical contributions to the discussions on power and violence in the interwar period. They use humoristic strategies to undermine or stress elements of the original and can be analyzed as critical works, in addition to their entertainment value.

Table of Contents & Introduction

Laughter in the Trenches: Humour and Front Experience in German First World War Narratives, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

Border Visions: Identity and Diaspora in Film

Over the last several decades, the boundaries of languages and national and ethnic identities have been shifting, altering the notion of borders around the world. Borderland areas, such as East and West Europe, the US/Mexican Frontera, and the Middle East, serve as places of cultural transfer and exchange, as well as arenas of violent conflict and segregation. As communities around the world merge across national borders, new multi-ethnic and multicultural countries have become ever more common.

Border Visions: Identity and Diaspora in Film offers an overview of global cinema that addresses borders as spaces of hybridity and change. In this collection of essays, contributors examine how cinema portrays conceptions of borderlands informed by knowledge, politics, art, memory, and lived experience, and how these constructions contribute to a changing global community. These essays analyze a variety of international feature films and documentaries that focus on the lives, cultures, and politics of borderlands. The essays discuss the ways in which conflicts and their resolutions occur in borderlands and how they are portrayed on film. The volume pays special attention to contemporary Europe, where the topic of shifting border identities is one of the main driving forces in the processes of European unification.

Among the filmmakers whose work is discussed in this volume are Fatih Akin, Montxo Armendàriz, Cary Fukunaga, Christoph Hochhäusler, Holger Jancke, Emir Kusturica, Laila Pakalnina, Alex Rivera, Larissa Shepitko, Andrea Staka, Elia Suleiman, and István Szabó. A significant contribution to the dialogue on global cinema, Border Visions will be of interest to students and scholars of film, but also to scholars in border studies, gender studies, sociology, and political science.

At the heart of all fifteen chapters in the volume is the desire to depict alternative visions of borders as they are represented historically and currently in film. The volume is divided into five sections reflecting different perspectives on envisioning border crossings in film. The opening section, “Utopia and Dystopia: Border Visions and Alternative (His/Her)stories,” offers readers the first insights into seemingly limitless ways to express the visual and narrative imagination of the filmmakers who create compelling images of alternative realities in order to make optimistic or pessimistic commentary on the existing borders. The section “From the Center to the Margins: Ideological Dominance and Liminal Spaces” reflects the filmmakers’ interest in the invisible and ever-changing borders between the center and peripheries of colonial influences—discourses of “small homelands” and multiethnic and multicultural empires—posing questions about possibilities of identity construction in situations of conflicting ideological interests. The third section, “Vanished Borders: Memory, Nostalgia, and Homesickness,” focuses on representations of longing for a long-lost home, images of diaspora, and different ways of reconnecting with or creating communities. The chapters in this section examine films depicting the borders and moments of border crossings as past phenomena and nostalgically recreating the boundaries in the narratives. The chapters brought together in “Growing Up on the Road: Crossing Borders and Identity Formation” are linked by their interest in films that comment on personal identity formation as related to border-crossing experiences, choosing children and young adults as their protagonists. The last section, “Narrative Transgressions: Crossing Genres and Border Crossings,” aims at showing the representations of borders in cinema also as a form of experimental storytelling, where media and generic conventions are subject to transgression, revealing new formal and aesthetic possibilities.

Kazecki, Jakub, Karen A. Ritzenhoff, and Cynthia J. Miller, eds. Border Visions: Identity and Diaspora in Film. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013.

Heroism and Gender in War Films

This edited collection treats several aspects of the mythical underpinnings of the construction of heroism in war and combat in fiction, propaganda, as well as documentary films. The discussion includes but is not limited to, the ways in which mythical motifs in war film narratives are used to justify a specific ideological position, shape the understanding of past and current military conflicts, support political agendas and institutions, and influence collective memory by providing images of heroism from past wars. 

In this context, the debunking of war myths is particularly relevant. The questions that inform this area include those about the process of creation of myths about heroism in war and war heroes in media, their propagation in diverse cinematic forms, and their reception among different audiences and in different historical and political contexts. Of further interest are also ways in which the myths are deconstructed in specific cinematic genres (i.e. anti-war film, comedy) or subverted by various humorous strategies (such as parody, grotesque, spoof, exaggeration, etc.) in both humorous and non-humorous genres. 

The authors in this volume also discuss issues related to race and gender codings of heroism and their connection to myth-making processes: establishing and questioning male heroism in combat, the heroism of women in non-combat situations but in the context of war, and the different ways of representing male and female heroes in war narratives.

The volume explores mythmaking in contemporary films about the war in various national cinematographies. Scholars from the United States, Canada, Austria and England specializing in different national film traditions and genres are contributing to this volume.  

The multi-disciplinary essays discuss Historical Leaders and Celebrities: Their Role in Mythmaking in the Cinema (i.e. Mary Pickford’s WWI patriotism). Hollywood’s War Myths in the 1940s and 1950s; Ideologies, Nationality, and War Memory; Masculinities and Trauma: Heroes and Anti-Heroes; Female War Heroes: Carnage and Courage (ie. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as well as Myth & Spectacle in The Hunger Games); Historical Reality, Authenticity of Experience, and Cinematic Representation.

Kazecki, Jakub, and Karen A. Ritzenhoff, eds. Heroism and Gender in War Films. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.