April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.
In May 2017, Stephen Colbert was mad. During his Late Show monologue, he went off on Donald Trump, who had insulted Colbert’s friend and CBS colleague John Dickerson while he was trying to interview the president. Defending “a fair-minded journalist and one of the most competent people who will ever walk into your office,” Colbert addressed Trump directly, declaring, “When you insult one member of the CBS family, you insult us all.” From there, Colbert delivered a litany of put-downs, culminating with “You talk like a sign-language gorilla that got hit in the head. In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”
The use of foul language offended some, but not as much as the joke’s homophobic bent. Colbert apologized later, saying, “I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” but the intention behind them was obvious. Because Trump always carried himself as a macho alpha-male, one way to belittle him was to demean his tough-guy persona — in this case, accusing the president of going down on his favorite dictator. It was a cheap shot that was intended as such, talking to the president with the same locker-room coarseness he himself loved to employ.
During his presidency, Trump was compared a lot to Adolf Hitler, and one thing they had in common was being mocked for their perceived lack of masculinity. There were plenty of songs written about Trump, most famously “FDT” by YG, but none of them claimed that he was missing a testicle. That honor went to the Führer, the subject of “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.”
All these years after Hitler’s death, there are still a few facts about the man that everyone knows. One is that he was a failed artist. The other is that he only had one testicle. If the former tidbit is meant to serve as a humanizing or humiliating element of his character — perpetuating the belief that this evil individual only got that way because he couldn’t hack it as a painter — then the latter is the sort of schoolyard jeer meant to make him seem freakish, less than a man. In last year’s documentary The Meaning of Hitler, which studied how Hitler lives on as a cultural totem, the filmmakers referenced this long-held societal assumption that the Nazi leader only had one ball. But where did the rumor start that Hitler had monorchism? “I’m not entirely 100 percent sure of this,” co-director Michael Tucker told me, “but I think the story about him having one ball is actually something that was seeded by the OSS during the war.”
Turns out, there are a few competing origin stories for how Hitler, supposedly, ended up with just one ball. In one version, according to Explaining Hitler author Ron Rosenbaum, “the testicle had been lost when the child Hitler … took part in an ill-advised barnyard prank in which he attempted to urinate down the mouth of a billy goat.” A different theory is that Hitler, while serving on the frontline during World War I, lost it in the Battle of the Somme. Blassius Hanczuch, a friend of army medic Johan Jambor, claimed that Jambor had told him what happened. “For several hours, Johan and his friends picked up injured soldiers,” Hanczuch said. “He remembers Hitler. They called him the ‘Screamer.’ He was very noisy. Hitler was screaming, ‘Help, help.’ His abdomen and legs were all in blood. Hitler was injured in the abdomen and lost one testicle. His first question to the doctor was, ‘Will I be able to have children?’”
However the theory first circulated, the spread of the idea that the Führer had but one nut served two purposes. Yes, it was a way to make him seem incomplete and insufficient physically, but it also fed into a notion that there was something monstrous about Hitler — and that his monorchism was the key to the riddle. Rosenbaum has noted, “There is even a school of Freudian ‘psycho-historians’ who view Hitler’s putatively half-empty scrotal sack as the root cause of his murderous character, his sexuality and his anti-Semitism.” Or, as Tucker told me last year, “Whether it’s physical, psychological or sexual, [we’re looking for] the thing that explains him. Rather than the obvious, [which is] looking at human nature and saying, ‘Well, [the possibility for evil] exists within all of us.’ We want to explain this great evil with something that’s digestible.”
Just as the origins of the theories around Hitler’s supposed monorchism are unknown, so too are the details surrounding the creation of “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.” But what’s for sure is the song that’s being parodied. It’s called “Colonel Bogey March,” although most film-lovers recognize it as the tune the British army is whistling at the start of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
“Colonel Bogey March” was written in 1914 by a British composer, Frederick Joseph Ricketts, a contemporary of John Philip Sousa’s. In his essay “Colonel Bogey’s March Through Folk and Popular Culture,” writer Greg Kelley notes that the song was Ricketts’ “masterwork and a significant commercial success. By the early 1930s, the sheet music of the march had sold more than a million copies, and the tune had been recorded countless times. Beyond licensing and recording, however, ‘Colonel Bogey’ enjoyed a vibrant other life in parody.”
That’s where “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” comes in. Because of its cheerful, rhythmic cadence, “Colonel Bogey March” was practically begging to be supplemented with naughty lyrics that undercut the tune’s strident pomp and circumstance. Who came up with the words for “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball”? Different people have claimed credit, and even the lyrics themselves have appeared in different forms. There’s no one “right” way to sing “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball,” but here’s a representative version that gives you the gist:
Hitler has only got one ball
Göring has two but very small
Himmler had something sim’lar
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all
In his essay, Kelley traces the history of the different possible geneses of “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball,” including one in which the song actually opens with the line “Göring has only got one ball.” But all of them put the tune’s inception around 1939, with Kelley writing that the parody eventually became “immensely popular among both British and American troops, who in transmitting this song were exercising something of a wartime convention by demeaning the sexual faculties of enemy leaders.” And at a time when “ballsy” was beginning to become a way to compliment someone’s gutsiness, “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” suggested that the Nazis were light in the courage department, equating bravery with manliness.
Eventually, the Allies were victorious, Hitler killed himself and life returned to normal. But “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” — and, by extension, parodies of “Colonel Bogey March” — didn’t go away. In fact, when director David Lean was working on his adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai, he hoped to use “Colonel Bogey March” when the captured British soldiers, led by Oscar-winner Alec Guinness, are marched into the Japanese prison camp. Lean hadn’t thought specifically of just “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” — he also had in mind another ribald parody of the period, with lyrics that went “Bollocks / And the same to you / Bollocks / They make a darn good stew” — but decided including any of the saucy lyrics was probably too risqué.
Film producer Norman Spencer recalled in Kevin Brownlow’s book, David Lean: A Biography, that·his old friend Lean told him, “I know, let’s have them whistling it, at least the English audience will know what we’re after.” However, it wasn’t easy convincing Ricketts’ widow to sign off on letting the filmmaker use the song. “She said, ‘No, because such a lot of rude words have been made up around the song and I don’t want my husband made a mockery of,’” Lean says in Brownlow’s biography. “[We] assured her that it was going to be used in the most dignified way and she finally agreed.”
The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, made “Colonel Bogey March” immortal, the whistled rendition becoming that film’s aural signature. But if Ricketts’ wife had hoped that, eventually, the parodies would drop away and her husband’s stirring original would endure, she was destined to be disappointed. Whether it was The Benny Hill Show or a Ricky Gervais stand-up special, “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” kept popping up in the culture — specifically, British culture. But perhaps the best callback occurred during a sketch on The Armstrong and Miller Show, which amusingly imagined how the song was written. Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller proposed that the British government tapped a parodist to concoct the tune after intelligence reports discovered something incredible: Hitler has only got one ball. The bit takes off from there.
In America, generations of kids have grown up hearing the rumor that Hitler had monorchism more than we’ve actually heard “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.” So when it pops up in movies and television, it’s always a bit of a surprise. Few saw the 2009 drama John Rabe, where Ulrich Tukur and Steve Buscemi drunkenly sing “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.” But it also appeared in the fourth season of The Man in the High Castle, in an episode appropriately titled “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.” In both cases, the song is meant as a rallying cry, a way to buck up our main characters as they deal with Hitler’s tyranny. It’s an attempt to cut a dictator down to size.
But the larger question — did Hitler, in fact, only have one testicle? — has remained. In his book Nazism and Neo-Nazism in Film and Media, professor Jason Lee noted that, “Hitler’s medical records appeared for auction in Bavaria in 2010, but were swiftly confiscated by the Bavarian government. It took until 2015 before Professor Peter Fleischmann of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg became the first person to analyze them. What he discovered was that Hitler suffered from right-side cryptorchidism, that is, an undescended right testicle. … This seemed to contradict the report and evidence given in 1943 by Hitler’s childhood doctor, when he was interrogated by the Americans and informed them that Hitler’s genitals were normal.”
It’s a weird barometer of a male leader’s importance that, sooner or later, the world starts obsessing over his package. (I haven’t even bothered talking about the other rumors forever swirling around Hitler, such as that he had a micropenis or was gay.) Notably, these rumors, true or not, are always meant to puncture Hitler’s terrifying essence. How do you mock a mass murderer and megalomaniac? By suggesting he’s lacking a testicle or into men — they’re juvenile taunts, an immature way of coping with the aggressive, frightening energy of an evil man. It’s childish, which probably explains why “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” has such a childlike quality to it. The song speaks to how we revert to kid behavior in the face of something deeply frightening. “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” was a dirty nursery rhyme that gave people a laugh when they desperately needed one.
Greg Kelley expanded his essay into the 2020 book Unruly Audience: Folk Interventions in Popular Media, examining how Ricketts’ marching tune continued to be co-opted by different militaries even after Hitler’s fall. “Some early baby boomers who had been exposed to World War II versions found themselves fighting in Vietnam,” he writes. “There, the song was reinvigorated with new themes and rhetoric suited to the context.” (Sample lyrics from the time: “Re-up / And buy a brand new car / Re-up / Show what a fool you are.”) Kelley even found a YouTube video of Iraq War footage juxtaposed with “Colonel Bogey March.” But “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” remains the most enduring of the parodies.
If you look up “Colonel Bogey March” on YouTube, sometimes the poster (or one of the commenters) will include the “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” lyrics — an impish little secret shared from one person to another about the original’s naughty afterlife. Adolf Hitler has been dead for more than 75 years, but as the memory of his atrocities lives on — as does our tendency to compare modern-day tyrants to him — so, too, does this strange little factoid about his genitalia. Hitler only had one ball. It’s the flaw in his seemingly impervious evil — an evil we still can’t comprehend. The man was unknowable, but we can all take a shot at his manhood by singing a song.