"You can't just take a comedy act and stick it into Google Translate!"

Henning Wehn on silly puns and why Stewart Lee is wrong about joking in German.

Henning Wehn styles himself as "Germany's comedy ambassador", intent on defying stereotypes and proving that his country can produce comedians. I spoke to him about German puns, silly words and performing stand-up in a second language.

How did you learn to be a stand-up?

By doing it, really. I came over to the UK nine years ago, and was working in football marketing for Wycombe Wanderers. Then one night I walked past a pub that said "Tonight: Stand-up Comedy" and thought, I'll have a look. I watched it and thought I'd like to have a go, so I treated the headliner - Gary Delaney - to a few beers. In return, he wrote me down a few phone numbers for open mic nights. It became a hobby and then, two years later, a job.

What was the first gig that you did like?

It was the Purple Turtle on Essex Road. It was a rough place and a half. The pub dogs were barking more loudly than any of the acts. But I realised the concept of standing on stage worked, and I was hooked.

The idea of doing jokes in a foreign language seems incredible to me. Did it worry you?

Not really, as the gig I watched, most of the acts were appalling. I was fortunate that my first contact with comedy was horrendous - if I'd gone to the Comedy Store things might have been different.

Have you done stand-up in German?

I haven't, for no other reason than to do that I would have to back to Germany and go through the clubs and build up and polish an act. You can't just take a comedy act and stick it into Google Translate! The reference points have to be known for the comedy to make any sense. I don't have the time and energy to do that. Whenever I've performed in Germany it's been for international audiences who want a gig in English.

I remember a Stewart Lee piece where he suggested it was harder to joke in German because of the sentence construction.

Much as I respect Stewart, that's not true. He suggested you couldn't make a pun in German, but you can. And I contest the idea that there's no humour in the German language.

Is there anything in the idea that humour varies with nationality?

Certainly. The "pub jokes" in Britain and Germany are the same, but in the UK there's more importance attached to humour - in adverts, you'll see "good sense of humour". The idea of self-deprecation, too, that's a massive difference. In UK, you can make any mistake at the workplace, as long as you can then tell the tale in an entertaining way, you'll be all right. Whereas in Germany, people would say, "First, you messed it up and now you're trying to make light of it". That would make it twice as bad.

Britain has a better developed "humour industry" too. There are comedy clubs in every small hamlet; there are comedy clubs for kids - aimed at pretentious parents who'll drag their spoilt kids to an arts centre to listen to some jokes they won't get! It's a very British thing to say: even the kids have to learn how to laugh. It's every little bit as wrong as it sounds.

What is day-to-day life actually like as a stand-up?

You're self-employed - actually, the German translation works better. It's selbständig - on your own constantly. You're the managing director of your company, and you have to move the business forward. I've always got a pen and paper with me, and I have a box at home where I chuck all my loose scraps of paper. Once a month, I type everything up and process it.

For something like the Edinburgh festival, where I have a one-hour show to write, I approach it knowing the show title - No Surrender this year - and a vague idea of the narrative arc, and I have to find stories that go hand in hand with that. That's a more methodical approach.

For a radio panel show, you'll get a topic. I did QI, and they were doing The Puritans, which was a subject I knew nothing about, so I had to do the background reading and think about it. Now I have material about the great bestiality panic in New England and no idea when I'm going to get to use it again!

Best man speech?

Maybe.

Are there too many panel shows?

The answer has to be no. As a performer, the impact of being on a show is diminished by their being so many of them; but then again, because there are more shows, more people get on them. It's a double-edged sword.

How's the Edinburgh show coming along?

Last year's show was called My Struggle, about my struggle being the German Comedy Ambassador to Britain for the last nine years. No Surrender will deal with success, failure and authenticity - although I'm not sure I should use something that's got a "th" in it.

It's largely inspired by my trip to Australia earlier this year. I was at the Melbourne Comedy festival. I've never really been to Australia, so there was no hope in hell I would get good houses. On the first night, I said to the woman who ran the venue, "How are we doing for tickets?" I didn't expect to have sold any. She said we had sold 60.

On the opening night, I stood at the entrance, waiting to shake hands with the 60 people who are coming, and [there were] eight people. Eight. I asked her why she had told me 60, and she said: "I didn't want to bring you down before your first show." You should always lower other people's expectations. She should have told me she sold two.

German has plenty of words British people find amusing -- "Handy" for mobile phone. Are there any English words that sound ridiculous to you?

Helter skelter? At least it's your own word, though. I hate it when people act as if they don't have a language of their own. In English, you have "bum bags" and in German, we just say "body bag". I'm sure we should be able to find our own word.

Henning Wehn's show No Surrender will be on at Edinburgh between 4 and 28 August. For more details, visit his website.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster