The historical context: The November pogrom
The character of “little Cohn”
The cabaret act “The Three Rulands”
This program was broadcast two weeks after the November pogrom. On November 9 and 10, 1938, hundreds of synagogues, thousands of stores owned by Jews and countless Jewish homes were destroyed by National Socialist thugs in all parts of Germany. According to official reports, 91 Jews were killed during the pogrom, and numerous suicides were recorded during those days. Moreover, during the night of the pogrom and the following days, about 27,000 Jewish men were deported to concentration camps, where hundreds of them died. After the pogrom, the Jews had to pay for cleanup and repairs and were forced to make a contribution in the amount of one billion Reichsmark as “sanction” for “the Jews’ hostile attitude towards the German people.” Their insurance claims were confiscated by the government. Eventually, the “Aryanization” of Jewish property was expedited at a great pace. Jewish business owners had to either close or sell their businesses—usually at prices far below market value.
Among Germans, the violence and deliberate destruction of private property met with a lot of criticism: “Local reaction among all classes is one of shame and disgust,” a report by the British Consulate in Hamburg read. Frank Bajohr / Christoph Strupp (eds.), Fremde Blicke auf das “Dritte Reich”. Berichte ausländischer Diplomaten über Herrschaft und Gesellschaft in Deutschland 1933-1945, Göttingen 2011, p. 63 (a typo was corrected). As a consequence, the Nazi regime started a massive propaganda campaign the same month in order to justify its policy. Until the end of the month of November, reports on “Jewish Crimes against the People” [Volksverbrecher], “Jews as warmongers”, and similar topics were broadcast almost daily. Alan E. Steinweis, Kristallnacht 1938. Ein deutsches Pogrom, Stuttgart 2011, pp. 135 f. In this polyphonic chorus of hate, “The Three Rulands” were just one example among many actors.
The manner in which these three Berlin cabaret artists deal with the events of November 1938, namely a mix of downplaying and justifying, was exactly what the National Socialist propaganda machine had in mind. Violent excesses against a defenseless minority, numerous deaths, destruction and looting, concentration camps overflowing with Jewish inmates—none of this is mentioned. The factual expropriation of the German Jews is played down (“businesses trimmed”). Consequently, “The Three Rulands” speak of the one billion Reichsmark “sanction” as a relatively small sum. They dismiss the outrage the violence of November 9 caused among the international public, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, with ironic platitudes. At the same time, their cabaret number attempts to legitimize the “Aryanization” of Jewish property, which culminated in 1938 / 39, by suggesting that German Jews had acquired their property by dishonest means such as “hoarding,” “graft,” and by “filth.” The choice of words itself (“done their business”) puts Jewish business in the realm of the unclean.
“Little Cohn,” the main character in this cabaret number, was not an invention by “The Three Rulands,” but a laughing stock which originated in the early 20th century. He first appeared in a music-hall song which became a hit in 1902. The song’s theme was a classic motif of humorous entertainment, infidelity, which it broached in a rather harmless manner. It was about a man named Cohn who had taken a “harlot” out in order to commit adultery, but then had to bail quickly since his wife unexpectedly appeared. The song’s great success inspired countless copyists to use the figure of “little Cohn” in numerous jokes, songs, and caricatures. Since the last name Cohn was a well-known Jewish name, “little Cohn” soon became a very popular laughing stock in antisemitic circles. Postcards featured caricatures of “little Cohn” as a hook-nosed outsider trying in vain to become part of German society or as a greedy midget having the pavement torn up in order to find a coin he lost. In short, “little Cohn” grew into an antisemitic symbol within just a few years. Thus “The Three Rulands” could easily pick up on this tradition.
Who were these three cabaret artists who were happy to serve as mouthpiece for National Socialist propaganda in 1938? “The Three Rulands” were singers Wilhelm Meißner, Helmuth Buth, and Manfred Dlugi. Beginning in 1933, they had performed as the “3 Katakombenjungens” [“The Three Boys from the Catacomb”] in Werner Finck’s Berlin cabaret venue “Die Katakombe” [“The Catacomb”], where they quickly made a name for themselves due to their musical style, which was reminiscent of the “Comedian Harmonists.” When “Die Katakombe” was closed for political reasons in 1935, Meißner, Buth, and Dlugi changed the name of their act to “Die Drei Rulands” [“The Three Rulands”] and continued to perform. It is noteworthy that none of these three cabaret artists had any record of political activity. According to the files maintained by the Reich Chamber of Culture Reichskulturkammer since 1933 / 34, none of them was a member of any National Socialist organization. Nor can their names be found in the NSDAP’s membership register, which is housed in the German Federal Archive Bundesarchiv Berlin today. This suggests that Meißner, Buth, and Dlugi were not active National Socialists. In fact, the trio fell out of favor only a few months later, in early 1939, when it mildly ridiculed the gigantomania of Speer’s and Hitler’s plans to rebuild Berlin. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who considered their program an “impertinent mockery of both the state and the party,” Elke Fröhlich (ed.), Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels. Teil I, Bd. 6, München 1998, p. 244 (31.1.1939). saw to it that Dlugi, Meißner, and Buth were excluded from the Reich Chamber of Culture Reichskulturkammer, which amounted to an occupational ban.
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Michael Grüttner, Prof. Dr. phil., born 1953, is professor for Contemporary History at the Techincal University of Berlin. His focus of research: German and European history of the 19th and 20th century, history of Nationalsocialism, history of scholarship and higher education.
Michael Grüttner, The “Rulands-Eck.” Antisemitism in Cabaret (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-98.en.v1> [June 04, 2023].