I work out on the Stairmaster four times a week. Okay, three. I show up, anyway, at my nearby Jewish Community Center gym.
There is, thank God, a TV screen positioned at the top of the machine, but since the JCC only subscribes to basic cable, the pickings are slim, and my bar is low: like, three-minute-commercials-for-LifeLock low. Like, the Susan Lucci Collection on QVC low. Like, test pattern low.
So, when, on some double-digit station, I saw the gate of a POW camp open, I didn’t change the channel, even though I recognized Hogan’s Heroes.
Finding humor in a World War II prison camp
Hogan’s Heroes was the unlikely CBS hit that aired from 1965-1971. It’s set in a German POW camp, and POW doesn’t stand for “Party on, Wiener Schnitzel.”
Bob Crane (word of advice: don’t Google him) plays Col. Hogan, ranking officer of a gaggle of Allied POWs: LeBeau (French) Newkirk (English), and two other Americans: Carter, and Kinchloe. Kinchloe is African-American, and, as played by Ivan Dixon, he gets big chuckles by posing as German officers on the phone. Dixon’s accent is the best of the bunch. Crane’s accent is the worst, but why are any of the German characters speaking to each other in German-accented English anyway? That was a common convention of television of the time, and the least of our problems here.
I didn’t watch it as a kid. In 1965, WWII had ended only 20 years before. If comedy is tragedy plus time, Hogan’s Heroes wouldn’t make the cut: that’s the year 2000 to you and me. Besides, if my mother had heard the Hogan’s Heroes theme song playing anywhere in the house, she would have had hysterics.
But, as I said, at the gym, the stakes are low (like, Friends low), and the alternatives few. So I kept watching.
Then I went home, where I subscribe to every cable channel available, including one in Tagalog, and taped an entire season.
It’s funny, but should it be?
Because — well, hang me out to dry and call me a bedsheet! — the show is funny. This is mostly thanks to the camp Kommandant, Col. Klink, and his staff sergeant, Shultz. They play classic schlemiels. In their bumbling, their sycophancy, and their ineffectuality, they become sympathetic. Hogan persuades Klink that a woman working for the underground is in love with him, and Klink laps it up like one of the camp guard dogs. Schultz’s feelings are hurt when the Allied prisoners say he’s a “meanie kraut.” “I’m a nice kraut,” he protests.
But the giant step required to make Klink and Schulz sympathetic is provided by the fact that both characters are played by Jews: Klink by Werner Klemperer (born in Germany) and Schulz by John Banner, born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two German officers who appear as regulars, Major Hochstetter and General Burkhaltar, are also played by Jews: Howard Caine (né Cohen) and Leon Askin (né Aschkenas).
So, what’s the harm in laughing? Mel Brooks believes that the best way to get back at Hitler is to make fun of him, as Brooks has many times, most memorably in The Producers: first, in the 1967 film, and later, in the musical adaptation.
You can certainly laugh at the pure ludicrousness of Hogan’s Heroes. The inmates have a listening device in a coffee pot that allows them to eavesdrop on everything that goes on in the Kommandant’s office. In one episode, Hogan requests that the underground drop a dose of penicillin to use on Klink. It arrives within hours.
Put your disbelief into a medically induced coma
Hogan also oversees an underground set-up so vast, so complex, and so obvious, that it requires not that one suspend disbelief, but that one put their disbelief into a medically induced coma. Hogan and his men come and go freely, using a network of tunnels that reach practically to Berchtesgaden. In the excavated area below their barracks they have a radio room where Kinchloe can call London, as well as a lab where Carter, the in-house weapons expert, can create whatever he needs to blow up whatever he wants, In the pilot, there was also an underground steam room, but the producers decided that was “too far-fetched.”
In every episode, Klink threatens the inmates. He’ll send them to “the cooler,” (a jail cell within the camp) or shoot them if they’re outside the barracks past curfew. Klink also likes to threaten Schulz with a transfer to the Russian front, but not as often as the higher-ranking Germans threaten Klink with the same. No one takes any of these threats any more seriously than my kids took my threats to curtail their TV privileges. Hey, I watched TV throughout my childhood, and look … never mind.
So, I was guiltily enjoying my binge-fest until the episode in which Hogan and his men convince Klink and the Gestapo Major Hochstetter that the war is over, using a fake radio broadcast and a dummy newspaper. I was going along with it until the major decides to releases the four leaders of the underground that the Gestapo has just captured.
This was a fatal mistake by the writers, at least if they cared about Donna Levin, which, admittedly, they may not have. Up until then, Hochstetter had never made good on any of his threats, but he remained in character as an actual German officer. Within the alternate reality created by the show, I was ready to believe that he’d fall for the ruse, but releasing members of the underground, who IRL would have been hanged by piano wire, was a bridge too far.
My comatose disbelief awoke and snapped its fingers under my nose, and shouted, “Achtung!”
I headed to the internet. If you’ve ever Googled yourself, you know that it’s sometimes a mistake. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you about Bob Crane.) I already knew that Robert Clary, who plays the Frenchman LeBeau, was also Jewish, but I’d forgotten that he spent three years in Buchenwald. And I didn’t know that, until the end of his long life (he died in 2014 at age 93), he carried the tattoo “A5714” on his arm. He, like John Bannon (who plays Schulz) lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
What made this show a hit?
This led me to wonder yet again, how could this show have been such a hit in the 1960s? Could it have been cathartic for that generation? As a Jew, it’s sometimes easy to minimize, by contrast, how much so many others suffered. We could start with the Japanese-American internment, but that would be only a start.
World War II and the Holocaust will be to children born in 2030 the same as the Civil War is to me. Which is a sobering enough thought that I feel compelled to say, Never Forget. And: Never Again.
Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.