In a cartoon series about Eurozone asylum policies, a Greek is shown donning a blackshirt’s hat, Golden Dawn buckler, and club to beat two Africans to death – whom the other Eurozone countries refer to as pimples. Israel is showing putting up an umbrella to keep out a rain of migrants and refugees, who end up getting stuck next door, in Egypt.
And the Italian navy watches on as a wave capsizes a raft of Libyans, commenting that the problem has solved itself. The last one, which is also about the 2011 Libyan conflict, bites particularly close to the bone today after this month’s maritime disaster off of the island of Lampedusa.
Is this a set running in Charlie Hebdo? No, it’s from a subreddit, established a few years ago by way of 4chan’s German-language clone Krautchan, called r/polandball. These comics are all part of a multinational meme that began as a silly joke about the similarity of the Polish and Maltese flags, quickly turned into a board for Internet trolls to vent their ethnic stereotypes, and now occupies an odd space online, between the politics and comments section of an online newspaper.
As a genre, the Polandball comics on 4chan, reddit, Facebook, imgur, and a host of other sites can be part Gates of Vienna in their depiction of Muslims, and part Der Stürmer in their Jewish caricatures. They are also, of course, wholly offensive to all nationalities and creeds, defunct or otherwise. Amerindians are brown seven balls from a pool set, while Asians not affiliated with particular countries are yellow nines. Images from early on in the medium’s life are constantly appropriated and reappropriated – usually the most offensive ones. Israelcube (one of the few non-balls) started out as a gross Holocaust joke, but has since come to be depicted as a box in which Palestineball (sometimes with a suicide vest or not – Polandball pretty much succeeds in offending everyone) sits.
And for some Facebook pages, the countryballs are not even used a parody of right-wing nationalism, but instead have been appropriated by said rightists: Karabakhball for instance, proudly proclaims “Kebab 100% remuv” – “kebab” being shorthand for “Muslim” and a reference to an infamous Serbian propaganda video made in the 1990s calling for ethnic cleansing. Unsurprisingly, there is now an animated Polandball version including Israelcube, Serbiaball, Polandball, and Armeniaball. (Serbiaball, for its part, elsewhere proclaims that “fucking Albanian took my eyeball and my Kosovo” – which is sometimes called “the kebab” by other Balkanballs.) It’s impossible to tell if the nationalism in is meant to be a parody or not. Which with this meme, is exactly the point.
For those trying less hard to play a stereotype out, stock caricatures are common. Russiaball can be a piss drunk homophobe, USAball a morbidly obese gun nut (thus, “remove hamburger!” shouts the global South,) or Japanball, a lisping pervert who may or may not be plotting to go on a killing spree.
The anonymity of the posters makes it difficult to tell when countryballs are given grotesque distortions to make a point about racism, or because the racism is sincerely felt by the cartoonist. The quality of caricature and shock humor varies so much. Polandball shorthand, for instance, shows migrants and asylum seekers from Africa as uniform black eight balls, like those in a pool set, even when the commentary is trying to make a cogent point about the questionable behavior of countries towards immigrants and asylum-seekers.
Some comics display an astounding degree of specific political knowledge. Belgium has been depicted as a red, black, and yellow ATM that (blood) diamonds go into and assault rifles come out – purchased by Sierra Leoneball and Liberiaball, who then comment on their use of child soldiers. Or of historical esoterica, with maps of Europe showing Celt, Khazar, and Visigoth “country” balls. More common, though, are cheap shots across all religions and political ideologies. Unsurprisingly, Polandball is a microcosm of Internet commenters. The bulk are rather mundane and poorly written out, a few rise above, and many more are just meant to troll.
Polandball is in fact, surprisingly, a reference of most significant political arguments and cultural events in Europe since 1945. Sophomoric, perhaps, but even then, the popular view of such issues is worth discussing because that view is what prevails in conversation. Most of the comment is contemporary: Today, Polandball is reduced to cleaning toilets for UKball; Turkeyball “cannot into EU”; and Greeceball mistakes “nein” for “nine” and so believes it has “9,999,999,999 monies.”
Though focused on Europe (which includes both Turkey and Israel,) other countryballs reference NSA wiretapping, Tibetan self-immolation protests, Somali piracy, and the Arab Spring. The historical gamut runs across an even larger spectrum, with countryballs existing for non-entities like the Ottomans, the Golden Horde, and the Romans. Non-countries are also shown, like al Qaedaball, a rendering of the group’s banner as a keffiyeh-wearing terrorist … ball. As noted above, migrant workers and asylum seekers are undifferentiated except by skin color, though a recent FIFA-related cartoon specifically showed Nepalese guest workers being whipped by Qatarball.
Polandball is generally more political than the content of, for example, “Scandinavia and the World” (SATW,) a much more light-hearted (and inoffensive) look at the European community. SATW takes in mostly the Nordics plus Britain and her former colonies. Eurovision parodies are the biggest transnational feature on the site, followed perhaps by poking fun at Finnish stereotypes. The latter is probably the most apparent aspect of SATW that has found its way into the world of Polandball. shock humor is generally absent on SATW, while for Polandball it’s the bread and butter of the images.
Polandball has also been influenced by a Japanese TV show called Axis Powers Hetalia, which can only be described as “Heil Honey I’m Home!” meets FanFiction.net (an incestuous Belarus who wants to “become one” with Russia, for instance, and depiction of the Axis Powers as bland schoolboys) – primarily in that it greatly exaggerates the stereotypes therein and generally rejects “cute” portrayals” of any countries.
Within Europe, the Polandball stereotypes are fairly well-known to the world: UKball wears a top hat and monocle, through which it sometimes sees older versions of Commonwealthballs in their 19th century livery. Franceball has a beret, most often, and some a combination of baguette, mustache, wine glass, and cigarette as well. Irelandball is a heavy drinker; Italyball talks like Mario; Netherlandsball is totally baked.
Everyone has a love-hate relationship with somebody. Franceball and UKball are popular. Recently they sang a duet from the musical “Wicked” about “the strange exhilaration” of mutual loathing. But usually the dishonor goes to Germanyball, because of the world wars.
Germanyball’s image is particularly interesting, because it started out primarily as a way for commenters to make crude Holocaust and Nazi jokes. GDRball exists too, but is neglected, despite the availability of black humor from Cold War wiseacres about life there. But with the growth of the meme, Germanyball is now primarily shown in the context of the Eurozone: Germany as reluctant “hegemon.” And much like how protestors and radio hosts in central and southern Europe responded to Berlin’s austerity with Nazi caricatures of Chancellor Merkel, the response to Germany’s Eurozone domination is reflected in the “Reichtangle” meme of polandball.
Like all depictions of post-1989 Germany in pop culture, Germanyball is extremely timid about showing “nationalism” or “leadership” because of Nazi flashbacking – in SATW’s depiction of Germany as a mild-mannered Eurocitizen (as opposed to his swatiska-bedecked historical counterpart.) His eyes go into a “blue screen of death” whenever the war years come up. And one of the more famous polandball original comics involves Germanyball inoffensively waving a German flag, followed up by a panel depicting a newspaper with the headline “GERMAN NATIONALISM ON THE RISE.”
Germanyball is depicted as the long-suffering spigot for “Yuromonies,” which it must “gibe ploix” to Greeceball, Spainball, Cyprusball, Polandball, and Irelandball, no questions asked (such misspellings and bad grammar are informal rules of the meme). So Germanyball – aka Germonieball – loses its cool and “Reichtangle” comes out. Earlier in the meme’s history, Germanyball simply reverted to its Second and/or Third Reich color scheme when it went “bad,” and talked in a heavy Gothic front. Reichtangle, which uses the red, black, and white tricolor of Wilhelmine Germany, comes forth when Germanyball hulks out over a perceived slight to its national honor, or simply cannot talk all the gibbering from the Eurozone countryballs it is bailing out.
It puts on a Pickelhaube, and begins reducing Polandball or Belgiumball to bloody smears on the ground. For Austriaball, it sneaks up from behind and announces, its beady little eyes narrowing as Austriaball’s eyes widen, “Surprise Anschluss.” The Reichtangle meme has heavy rapist overtones – which says almost as much about the shock value of the Internet culture Polandball emerged from as certain European perceptions of a unified Germany.
Screenshots courtesy of the author