A Polish joke is a conditional joke intended to mock the Polish people in the English language based on the hostile stereotypes about them. A 'Polish joke' belongs to the category of jokes whose understanding requires prior knowledge of what a Polish joke is, because similar to all conditional jokes, they depend upon the audience's preconceived notions and affective dislikes for entertainment. The relationship between these internalized negative stereotypes about the Polish people and the disturbing persistence of ethnic jokes about them is not easy to trace, although they can be understood by many. Often an offensive term for the Poles themselves is used in the joke description as well, i.e. the Polack joke in English.
Some of the early 20th century Polish jokes might have been told originally before World War II in disputed border-regions such as Silesia, suggesting that Polish jokes did not originate in Nazi Germany, but a lot earlier, as an outgrowth of regional jokes rooted in historical social class differences. Nonetheless, these jokes were later fuelled by ethnic slurs disseminated by German warlords and National Socialist propaganda that attempted to justify the Nazi crimes against ethnic Poles by presenting them as dirty and relegating them as inferior on the basis of not being German. Polish jokes were used to spread anti-Polish prejudice to justify atrocities against Poles (Jewish and non-Jewish) by the German Nazi army.
Polish Americans became the subject of derogatory jokes at the time when Polish immigrants came to America in considerable numbers fleeing mass persecution at home perpetrated by Frederick the Great and Tsar Nicholas I. They took the only jobs available to them, usually requiring physical labor. The same job-related stereotypes persisted even as Polish Americans joined the middle class in the mid 20th century. "These degrading stereotypes were far from harmless. The constant derision, often publicly disseminated through the mass media, caused serious identity crises, feeling of inadequacy, and low self-esteem for many Polish Americans." During the Cold War era, despite the sympathy in the US for Poland being subjected to communism, negative stereotypes about Polish Americans endured, mainly because of the Hollywood/TV media involvement.
Some Polish jokes were brought to America by German displaced persons fleeing war-torn Europe in the late 1940s. During the political transformations of the Soviet controlled Eastern block in the 1980s, the much earlier German anti-Polish sentiment—dating at least to the policies of Otto von Bismarck and the persecution of Poles under the German Empire—was revived in East Germany against Solidarność (Solidarity). Polish jokes became common, reminding some of the spread of such jokes under the Nazis.
According to Christie Davies, American versions of Polish jokes are an unrelated "purely American phenomenon" and do not express the "historical Old World hatreds". This view is challenged by the Polish American Journal researchers who argue that Nazi and Soviet propaganda shaped the perception of Poles.
Debate continues whether the early Polish jokes brought to states like Wisconsin by German immigrants were directly related to the wave of American jokes of the early 1960s. Since the late 1960s, Polish American organizations made continuous effort to challenge the negative stereotyping of the Polish people once prevalent in U.S. media. In the 1960s and 70's TV shows like All in the Family, The Tonight Show, and Laugh-In often used jokes received by American Poles as demeaning. The Polish jokes heard in the 1970s led the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to approach the U.S. State Department to complain, a move that ultimately had no effect. The 2010 documentary film Polack by James Kenney explores the source of the Polish joke in America, tracing it through history and into contemporary politics. The depiction of Polish Americans in the play Polish Joke by David Ives has resulted in a number of complaints by the Polonia in the US.
The book "Hollywood's War with Poland" shows how Hollywood's World War II (and onwards) negative portrayal of Polish people as being "backward", helped condition the American people to see Polish people as having inferior intelligence in the 20th century. The book supports the Polish American Journal's assertion that Hollywood historically was fertile ground for anti-Polish prejudice, based on its Left-wing/Soviet sympathies.
The Polish American Congress Anti-Bigotry Committee was created in early 1980s to fight anti-Polish sentiment, including "Polish jokes". Notable public cases include protests against the use of Polish jokes by Drew Carey (early 2000s) and Jimmy Kimmel (2013), both joking at the ABC network.
In the 1990s, popular culture in Germany experienced a surge of Polish jokes. In their televisions shows, entertainers like Harald Schmidt or Thomas Koschwitz used to make jokes about Polish economy or increased automobile theft in Germany attributed to Poles:
- Was ist der neueste Werbeslogan der Tourismus-Branche für Polen?
- "Kommen Sie nach Polen - Ihr Auto ist schon da."
- What is the latest motto for tourism to Poland?
- "Come to Poland! Your car is already here!"
The Bild tabloid employed stereotypical headlines about Poland. This triggered public outrage among German and Polish intellectuals, but in the latter half of the decade, fears of theft had even led to a decrease in German tourists visiting Poland. Still in 2003, it was observed that the public image of Poland in Germany was largely shaped by stereotypical jokes.
- Ted Cohen (1999). Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. University of Chicago Press. p. 21. ISBN 0226112306. Retrieved 2009-09-10.
- Ted Cohen (1999). Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, p. 78. Retrieved 2011-07-22.
- Christie Davies, The Mirth of Nations. Page 176. Aldine Transaction, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4128-1457-7.
- Tomasz Szarota, Goebbels: 1982 (1939-41): 16, 36-7, 274; 1978. Also: Tomasz Szarota: Stereotyp Polski i Polaków w oczach Niemców podczas II wojny światowej; Bibliografia historii polskiej - 1981. Page 162.
- Critique of Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore from University of California in Berkeley in The Mirth of Nations by Christie Davies
- Maciej Janowski, Frederick's "the Iroquois of Europe" (in) Polish liberal thought before 1918, Central European University Press, 2004, ISBN 963-9241-18-0 Accessed August 4, 2011.
- Liudmila Gatagova, "THE CRYSTALLIZATION OF ETHNIC IDENTITY IN THE PROCESS OF MASS ETHNOPHOBIAS IN THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE. (The Second Half of the 19th Century)." The CRN E-book. Accessed August 4, 2011.
- "January Uprising RSCI", The Real Science Index; in: "Joseph Conrad, March 12, 1857-August 3, 1924"; Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003
- "The Origin of the 'Polish Joke'," Polish American Journal, Boston New York.
- Dominic Pulera, Sharing the Dream: White Males in Multicultural America Published 2004 by Continuum International Publishing Group, 448 pages. ISBN 0-8264-1643-8. Page 99.
- John C. Torpey, Intellectuals, Socialism, and Dissent Published 1995 by U of Minnesota Press. Page 82.
- Christie Davies, The Mirth of Nations ibidem. Page 181.
- IMDb entry for Polack, 2010 documentary
- Homepage of Polack 2010 documentary, including credits and press announcements.
- Marek Czarnecki, Commentary on the play "Polish Joke", posted at the American Council for Polish Culture website.
- Hollywood’s War with Poland, 1939-1945: A Review
- "WWII and Holocaust: Just A Big Joke At Disney’s ABC-TV"
- Jäger-Dabek, Brigitte (2012). Polen: Eine Nachbarschaftskunde für Deutsche [Poland: A Neighbourhood Study for Germans] (in German). Ch. Links Verlag. p. 137. ISBN 9783862841530.
- Lewandowska, Anna (2008). Sprichwort-Gebrauch heute: ein interkulturell-kontrastiver Vergleich von Sprichwörtern anhand polnischer und deutscher Printmedien [Today's Use of Proverbs: An intercultural constrastive Comparison of Proverbs using Polish and German Print Media] (in German). Peter Lang. pp. 258–259. ISBN 9783039116553.
- Urban, Thomas (2003). Polen [Poland] (in German). C.H. Beck. p. 84. ISBN 9783406447938.
- David Ives, Polish Jokes and other plays, ISBN 0-8021-4130-7