Beating Hitler with Humour

Written by Dr Clare George |

Following an interview with Clare George, Project Archivist at Senate House Library, for BBC Radio 4’s programme Beating Hitler With Humour (broadcast Sat 31 Aug 2019), about Martin Miller’s extraordinary parody which helped to bring down Hitler, we're sharing the original documents and the audio recordings we have in our archives.

The Power of Parody

Listeners of the programme heard an extract from one of the earliest satirical sketches to be broadcast, ‘Der Führer spricht’ (The Führer speaks’), a parody of a Hitler speech, containing the same warped logic of a real Hitler speech. The speech was originally written and performed by Austrian Jewish actor Martin Miller at an Austrian exile theatre in London, the Laterndl, in June 1939. BBC directors saw the theatre performance and commissioned Miller to play it for a live broadcast on the German Service on 1 April 1940. The audio recording of the speech reveals Miller’s ability to capture Hitler’s vocabulary, rhythm, intonation in a speech, and was judged so successful that the BBC commissioned a series of Hitler speech parodies by Miller that were broadcast between 1940 and 1942. The scripts of these speeches are in the Miller Archive along with a photograph of Miller at the original theatre performance and an audio recording of the first broadcast.

Martin Miller

Images (left to right): 1) MILLER 1/1/1. TYPESCRIPT OF ‘DER FÜHRER SPRICHT’ (‘THE FÜHRER SPEAKS’), 1940 2) MILLER 3/1/1/2. MARTIN MILLER AS THE FÜHRERLATERNDL, JANUARY 1940 3) MILLER 2/16. BBC CONTRACT FOR HITLER SPEECH PARODY RADIO BROADCAST, 1940

Broadcasting Satire

Also explored in the programme was the archive of Robert Lucas, another Austrian refugee writer of anti-Nazi satire in the Second World War. Lucas, also an Austrian Jewish refugee, began his long career with the BBC when he translated Neville Chamberlain’s post-Munich agreement speech for the very first broadcast to Germany in September 1938.

Lucas went on to work for the BBC throughout the war and beyond, writing one of the most successful satirical features series used as anti-Nazi propaganda over the airwaves, Die Briefe des Gefreiten Hirnschal (Letters from Corporal Hirnschal). The series ran from December 1940 to 1945, and as Dr George explained in the programme, each episode featured a letter from Corporal Hirnschal, posted on the German war front, to his wife back home. Whilst appearing to echo the official Nazi line, his words would simultaneously undermine it by revealing the contradictions and inconsistencies behind it. The Lucas archive contains many of the scripts of the Hirnschal series as well as letters of gratitude for the broadcasts sent to the BBC in the post-war period from listeners who had tuned in secretly in Germany, including one from the West German Chancellor in the 1950s, Konrad Adenauer.

Clare George

Exploring Archives of German-speaking Refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe

WiToC

Some of the most fascinating records of the work of German-speaking refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe are contained in the archives of the Institute of Modern Languages Research held here at Senate House Library. You can explore the role played by refugees in BBC’s effort to win over hearts and minds in Nazi territories during the Second World War in the archives as well as seeing a book illustration by Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag currently on display in our exhibition Writing in Times of Conflict (free entry – runs until 14 December 2019).

About the author

Clare George
Project Archivist at Senate House Library working on the Miller Archive for IMLR, University of London

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