Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What You Forgot About Poland

On October 14, three vans were stolen in Hoppegarten, Germany, by some Polish thieves. One of the vans, as they found out on the way to wherever it was they were headed, turned out to have 12 coffins in it; the van was originally going to a crematorium.

Okay, who out there made a Polish joke just now? Show of hands.

Congratulations. You have just furthered the legacy of Adolf Hitler.

No, seriously. In August 2010, we covered how the Mongolian army brought a cavalry charge to the Russian front in World War 2. I billed it as the last cavalry charge in history, occurring in 1941. (As it happens, someone else came up with an even later one, made by the Italians in August 1942, also on the Russian front. Amazingly, the charge was successful, with hints that that might not have been the last one either. It's a matter of what kind of scale you think qualifies.) Anyway, the 'Polish joke' got started with another such cavalry charge, made by the Poles in 1939 right as the Nazis were invading. What happened was that a Polish cavalry division got the drop on a group of Germans from the rear, and while normally the cavalry would have dismounted and launched an on-foot attack, given that they had the element of surprise, they figured they could afford to go for it on horseback. And it was going well... right up until the point where the German tanks arrived as backup. That having effectively settled that, the Polish cavalry ran like hell.

Okay, so by this point we can somewhat establish that the use of cavalry was at the tail end of its effective life in warfare, but it was still capable of getting its hits in if you knew what you were doing and knew when you were overmatched. Clearly, this could not stand. So when a couple of the German officers that hadn't actually seen the battle reported back that the Poles had actually mounted a frontal assault against the tanks. All they knew were that there were horses, there were tanks, and there were dead Polish horses on the ground. It seemed a logical conclusion to them. This interpretation of events had the whiff of massive stupidity and stubbornness on the part of the Poles to it... so the Nazis made a meme out of it. All the better to help reduce sympathy for Poland- and make them easier to conquer without resistance- if everyone was making jokes about how inferior a race they were. The Soviets, also with designs on Poland, figured this served their purposes too, so they weren't about to go correcting anyone.

Before long, the meme took root. Those in the Polish community, at least those aware of the history, are pretty united in charging NBC with introducing the Polish joke to the United States in the 1960's and 70's... and in fact, expanding it into a 'stupidity' joke instead of the 'stubbornness' joke it started out as. And, in fact, continuing to do so. From that, stupidity jokes turned into just one of those things people do regarding Poland.

Still want to make the joke?

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