West's jokes about eastern Germans reflect fears

December 02, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- A new breed of joke has sprung up in Germany: the East German or "Ossi" joke. A child of German unity, the jokes are the rage of the smug west but resented in the east, where people maintain that they really don't try to correct misspellings on a word processor with correction fluid.

Most of the jokes have a common thread: The eastern German is the helpless pre-modern man confronted with high-tech machines and a fast-paced lifestyle. They want to be good Germans but just can't seem to tell the difference between a washing machine and a television.

Even cans pose a problem in one joke, where a former East German policeman has a job in a restaurant. He's told to open cans of sauce and enthusiastically rips open the box, yanks out a can but can only dent it with the electric can opener. Frustrated and impatient, he finally whips out a wooden spoon and beats the can, yelling out: "Open up, police!"

Bad as they are, the jokes have been analyzed and reflect the eastern Germans' position at the very bottom of the social ladder, even below guest workers, according to popular culture researcher Lutz Roehrich. One joke, for example, has an eastern German asking a Turkish guest worker for directions. The Turk not only knows the way but also corrects the German's faulty grammar.

"The Ossi is made fun of for two reasons. For some people it's just harmless fun, but for others it symbolizes a deeper fear that these people are dragging our standard of living down and threatening to take over our jobs," Mr. Roehrich said.

Many West Germans were completely ignorant of East Germany and, now that they have had a chance to see how run-down the country is, feel that they've been stuck with a massive, expensive problem they didn't deserve, Mr. Roehrich said.

"The jokes are told ironically but often the person really means what he says," he said.

For example: What's the difference between a terrorist and an East German? The East German doesn't have any sympathizers.

Many eastern Germans, of course, resent the implication and are always quick to point out to strangers that they aren't to blame for the economic problems. Eastern author Clement de Wroblewsky, who recently published a book about political humor in the east, said the jokes are a form of aggression.

"They aren't jokes; they belie a fear of outsiders. It's a way of attacking," he said.

But eastern Germans for their part can't make jokes about western Germans, Mr. de Wroblewsky said, because the West German system is considered the ideal. Since most easterners want to become just like their western partners, they can't cut down the west, he said.

Formerly, East Germans reveled in telling jokes satirical of their political leaders. United Germany's new political leaders, however, are broadly supported by the former East Germans and so are off limits, Mr. de Wroblewsky said.

One group, however, is happy about the changes. People living in East Friesland, an area in the northwest of the country, used to be the butt of national jokes, just like the Bavarians before them. Now, however, they have been relieved of this onus and are free to join in poking fun at people even more ignorant of the modern world than they were reputed to be.

Nowadays, even people in East Friesland know how to read a digital watch. Not the Ossi, who proudly shows it off to his wife, who asks what time it is. "Exactly 9 divided by 12," he said. "But you'll have to calculate it yourself."

According to Mr. Roehrich, the level can go lower. "The real economic problems have yet to come. Then we'll see a massive lowering of the level of jokes," he said.

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