Humor will tell you a lot about current happenings and values in a culture. Take, for instance, a letter that John Weidner wrote to a colleague at the end of October 1942.*

“I returned to Lyon two or three days ago after adventures that I hope to have the “pleasure” of telling you about some day. Let me just say that I was in prison for a day and a half and my hands were chained. Fortunately, it all came out alright. So now after the war I can respond to question 18 on the Dutch questionnaire: “have you been in prison”, and I won’t have to fill out question 19 “if not, why not?”.”

Both men, the author and the recipient, were extremely upright Dutchmen coming out of strict religious families. Incarceration would have been an almost unbearable scandal before the war. And yet in the middle of the Second World War, if a day and a half in chains isn’t cause for rejoicing, it’s not something to be ashamed of or hidden. Quite the contrary, there’s a clear expectation that after the war it will be a matter of pride.

This one joke leads us to two insights about the cultural effects of the war. First, the moral dimensions of the war which the Nazis were waging on the civilian population of Europe led good, respectable people to enter into illegality and to fully accept that their actions ran afoul of the law. Neither John Weidner nor his colleague would have considered disobeying the law before the war, but they certainly made a habit of it during the war in order to rescue others whom they considered to be innocent victims of the skewed and unacceptable Nazi morality.

Second, the good people who had lost their prewar respectability through their wartime illegality expected an accounting after the war. They expected a purge in which the Dutch government held its citizens to a standard of moral behavior that clashed with the Nazis’ values enough to land those citizens in jail.

*Weidner wrote in French; the translation is mine.