by Jalees Rehman
Political jokes were no laughing matter for the East German state security service., The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS, more commonly known as the “Stasi“) viewed humorous quips about the political leadership as a form of political resistance during the Cold War years. The culture of repression enforced by the Stasi in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the official name of East Germany) outlawed anti-government propaganda and sedition, and these anti-sedition laws enabled the Stasi to arrest citizens who shared political jokes.
Just a few months after the Berlin Wall was constructed, the Stasi arrested a 32-year old building painter at his workplace in the town of Sassnitz, hand-cuffed him and drove him to an undisclosed location. The Stasi agents provided no explanation for his arrest until late at night when he was lay down on a plank bed in a prison cell, trying to make sense of what crime he had committed. Exhausted and befuddled, he was just about to fall asleep when Stasi prison guards dragged him out of his cell into an interrogation room and informed him that he had been arrested for sedition. A Stasi interrogator wanted to know exactly what his opinions were about the party leadership, the relationship between the DDR and the Soviet Union and which Western radio channels he listened to. The painter provided all the details in a reasonably honest manner, without hiding his critical views.
The interrogator then asked him to write down every political joke he had ever heard or shared. He knew of nine jokes that he had told and wrote them all out for the Stasi. Here is one of the nine jokes:
Three DDR citizens are sitting in a prison cell and talking about why they have been arrested. The first says, “My watch always went ahead, and I would arrive too early to work so they said I was spying.” The second says, “My watch was always behind, I always came too late so they said I was engaged in sabotage. The third said, “My watch always worked perfectly, I always arrived on time, so they said my watch must have come from the West.”
After spending several months in Stasi custody where he underwent repeated interrogations, he was sentenced to three years in prison for engaging in anti-government propaganda and sedition by a penal court. The summary report by his Stasi interrogators was a central piece of evidence in the mock trial and it specifically listed the political jokes as well as the names of fellow citizens who heard him tell the jokes.