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World War 2 gave the world its very first meme

And people are still making jokes about it.


Marlon Ettinger


Posted on Mar 25, 2024   Updated on Mar 27, 2024, 12:57 pm CDT

By the end of the Second World War Europe lay in ruins, with swathes of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific also engulfed in flames.

The war raged for just over six years, drew in almost every country in the world, and killed between 70 and 85 million people, profoundly transforming the globe into the modern world as we know it today. 

Political innovations like the United Nations, the European Union, and decolonization redrew the borders of the world. Technological revolutions like the atomic bomb, containerization, and communications technology broke down those borders and drew the world closer than it had ever been before.

The Second World War also launched one of the world’s first modern memes—that is to say, a reproducible visual joke that spread around the world, all the while being riffed on.

That meme, the iconic “Kilroy was here” graffiti, supposedly started because a shipyard inspector named Kilroy wrote that, well, he’d been there on every piece he inspected. The phrase swept across the world along with the U.S. military, cropping up in all sorts of pop culture along the way. 

That meme might actually have been the very first meme of them all.

Today, we don’t need to trek over to the nearest shipyard to see memes. Just pull out your phone or hop on your laptop and take a trip back to the most bloody and tragic period of the 20th century.

And while it would be impossible to categorize every single WW2 meme, here are the ones that stand out.

ww2 meme

WW2 Memes: Germany and Italy memes

Before there was Nazi Germany there was fascist Italy, with Benito Mussolini coming to power years before Adolf Hitler did. Hitler was inspired by Mussolini at first, but quickly came to view the vainglorious duce as a junior partner in the fascist conquest of Europe.

This meme of Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump being chewed out by his drill sergeant for not taking orders sums up a popular, jokey conception of the relationship between the two Axis powers, where Italy had one job, and one job only: following orders.

Pearl Harbor memes

WW2 started in 1939, but the Americans didn’t get involved until 1941, when the Japanese launched a sneak attack on an American naval base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

This was despite long-running logistical support for the Allied war effort by President Franklin Roosevelt (leading some to accuse the president of allowing the attack to happen to draw America into the war).

The U.S. lost 2,403 people, including military and civilians, lost 188 aircraft, as well as at least 15 ships, and Roosevelt called it a “day that will live in infamy” in a famous address the following day, announcing the country’s entry into the war.

But it wasn’t the first time that America entered a war because its ships had been hit: during the First World War, the official pretext for American entry into the battlefield was the sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger liner crossing the ocean, by a German U-boat.

And so we have Dennis Reynolds, shouting in divine glory:

Blitzkrieg memes

Before the U.S. entered the war and the Nazis made the ill-fated decision to turn their arms on the mighty Soviet Union, Hitler’s armies swept across much of Europe with a pioneering new tactic called the Blitzkrieg, or the “lightning war.” 

The strategy was characterized by deadly, lightning-quick offensives of combined tanks, motorized artillery, and artillery pummeling through a narrow front and diving deep into enemy territory, with German Air Force bombs providing close support.

And it makes for extra cheeky visualizations in the 2024. 

WW2 memes: Here we go again

While many Germans were initially excited about Hitler’s European conquests after a devastating defeat for the country in the First World War, the Second World War was the deadliest war of all time—and no less so for the ones who started it. 

German troops, despite early successes, were pushed into meat grinders by the time the tide turned in 1942. During the Stalingrad campaign against the Soviet Union, the Germans lost half a million men. By the end of the war, between civilian and military deaths, the nation lost between 6.6 and 8.8 million people, according to an estimate by the National World War 2 Museum. Germany was occupied, devastated, and dismembered: they wouldn’t be going again any time soon.

Given the similarities between the result of the first war and the second, it’s no surprise someone recreated the “Ah, shit, here we go again me” from Grand Theft Auto in German.

ww2 meme

D-Day Memes

On June 6, 1944, the Allied powers began the liberation of Europe from Nazi yoke by sending 7,000 ships from Britain to the German-occupied European coast. By the end of the month, 850,000 men were on the shores of Normandy, in the north of France, and less than a year later, Germany signed an unconditional surrender. 

But the smashing victory came at a huge human cost. Landing troops on the beaches of Normandy was a death trap for thousands of men, with murderous German machine gun nests and relentless artillery waiting for them. 

The brutal landing was graphically dramatized in Saving Private Ryan. On the first day alone, 4,414 Allied troops died, and more than 5,000 were wounded. The landing parties included soldiers from the U.S., Britain, Canada, France and several other countries—but by the end of the day, many from every nation gone, just the Spiderman villains who dropped like flies after tangling with Peter Parker.

ww2 meme

And while the massive loss of life should be no laughing matter, that’s never how the internet sees things.

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*First Published: Mar 25, 2024, 7:00 am CDT