40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years

Khalid Elhassan - February 14, 2020

There is no shortage of historic “facts” circulating around, that are nothing but myths and whoppers. Did you know, for example, that Switzerland’s national hero sparked a war for independence after being forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head? Or that the Irish were enslaved in America? Or that a miscarriage of justice killed the only American soldier executed for desertion during WWII? None of the preceding ever happened, but it is accepted as true by many. Following are forty things about historical facts that are anything but factual.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Arrest of William Tell. Swiss National Museum

40. The Guy Who Shot an Apple off His Son’s Head

One day in 1307, William Tell strode through Altdorf, Switzerland, with his son. There, an agent of the ruling Hapsburgs, Albrecht Gessler, demanded that all passersby remove their hats as a show of respect. Tell kept his hat on, and was dragged before Gessler. He ordered an apple placed above his child’s head, and decreed that he’d let father and son live if he shot the apple with a single bolt from 120 paces.

Tell shot off the apple and Gessler freed him, but asked why, despite the challenge specifying a single bolt, he had placed a second bolt in his jacket. Tell replied: “If my first bolt had missed, I would have shot the second at you and I would not have missed“. The incensed agent ordered Tell locked up in a dungeon, but he freed himself, killed Gessler, and triggered a rebellion that overthrew the Hapsburgs and led to Swiss independence. Awesome story. Unfortunately, it never happened.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
William Tell monument in Altdorf, Switzerland. Wikimedia

39. The William Tell Legend

Today, William Tell is a Swiss national hero. Most non-Swiss know of him either as the guy who shot an apple off a kid’s head, or from the upbeat William Tell Overture finale from Loony Tunes cartoons or the Lone Ranger. In Switzerland, there is hardly a town that does not have a statue or monument commemorating him.

The most famous Tell statue is in Altdorf, where his heroics reportedly took place. It is the first stop in a pilgrimage of Swiss fathers and sons, and is visited by thousands of non-Swiss tourists. Next is a chapel on the site of Tell’s home, the lakeside pier where he was placed on a boat headed to a dungeon, and a ledge where Tell freed himself during a storm, sprang from the boat to safety, and drowned the baddie Gessler and his goons.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Toko the Viking shooting an arrow off his son’s head. Pintrest

38. The Hero Who Never Was

Unfortunately, all the statues, monuments, and sites on the William Tell pilgrimage circuit commemorate heroic deeds of derring-do that never occurred, and a man who never was. Today, historians and scholars agree that neither Tell nor the Hapsburg agent, Albrecht Gessler, had ever existed.

Indeed, the whole story was cribbed from a tenth century Viking legend about a man named Toko, who was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, and reserved a second arrow for the baddie who had made him do it. However, the Swiss were so attached to the Tell tale, that when an eighteenth century historian wrote a book detailing the legend’s Viking origins, they burned his book in public. They would have burned him, too, if he had not apologized.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Martin Sheen as Eddie Slovik in the 1974 movie ‘The Execution of Private Slovik’. Exec Privilege

37. The Miscarriage of Justice That Didn’t Happen

In 1974, The Execution of Private Slovik, starring Martin Sheen, was released. It posthumously catapulted Eddie Slovik, a US Army private executed for desertion during WWII, to fame. It also made his fate, which was depicted in the movie as a miscarriage of justice, into a cause célèbre for many, including death penalty opponents.

To the extent that people today know of Private Slovik, most associate him with the miscarriage of justice depicted in the film. In reality – whatever one’s position on the death penalty – Slovik’s fate was one he brought upon himself. As seen below, his conviction and execution stemmed from a cynical scheme he tried to carry out, that ended up backfiring in spectacular fashion.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Eddie Slovik’s wedding photo, 1942. History Net

36. The Hell Raiser

Edward Donald Slovik (1920 – 1945) was a delinquent and troublemaker from early on. Fighting, stealing cars, breaking into and burglarizing homes, were among the list of crimes he did, and did time for. Indeed, his record was so bad that when he tried to enlist in the Army in 1942, he was designated 4F on grounds of being morally unfit for service in the military, and rejected.

A year later, by which time Slovik had gotten married, the military felt a manpower crunch and had second thoughts. Slovik was reclassified as fit for service, and drafted. After basic training, he was sent to France in August of 1944, and assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. En route to his unit, Slovik happened upon a Canadian military police unit, and ended up staying with them for six weeks.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
American soldiers in France, 1944. National WWII Museum

35. Desertion

Slovik finally reported to his assigned unit on October 7th, 1944, and promptly decided that serving in a front line infantry company was not for him. The following day, he asked his company commander for reassignment to a unit in the rear, and threatened to run away if assigned to a rifle unit. Slovik’s captain told him that doing so would constitute desertion, denied his transfer request, and assigned him to a rifle platoon.

The next day, October 9th, Slovik deserted. He walked several miles towards the rear until he reached a headquarters detachment. There, he approached one of their cooks and provided him with a prepared note, confessing to desertion.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Eddie Slovik. Wikimedia

34. Slovik’s Confession

As Slovik confessed: “I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital.

The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. —Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Muddy and weary American infantrymen in WWII. Quora

33. Slovik’s Scheme

Slovik seems to have figured that confessing to desertion would get him sent to jail. As a former jailbird who had done multiple stints behind bars, jail held no terrors for him. As he saw it, staying safe, sound, dry, and well fed in a military prison was preferable to risking life and limb, and dealing with the cold and mud and other hardships of frontline combat.

Sure, desertion could be punished with death, but nobody had been executed for that offense. Let the other suckers get shot up or maimed, seemed to be Slovik’s logic. By inviting the military to punish him, and embracing that punishment, he would achieve his goal of avoiding hazardous duty, and sit out the war in safety. It was a foolproof way to game the system and manipulate it for his benefit. Or so he thought.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division, from which Slovik deserted, trudging through France. War History Online

32. “I’ve Made Up My Mind. I’ll Take My Court Martial”

Slovik’s note made its way to his commander, who read it and told him to destroy it and avoid arrest. He declined. He was taken to a higher ranking officer, who told Slovik that if he tore up the confession and returned to his unit, no further action would be taken. Immune to good advice, he refused. He was then instructed to write another note on the back of his confession, stating that he understood the legal ramifications of deliberately incriminating himself, and that his note could be used against him during a court-martial. He did, and was taken into custody.

A JAG (Judge Advocate General) officer offered Slovik a last chance, promising to drop all charges if he returned to his unit. He even offered a transfer to another infantry regiment, where no one knew what he had done, thus enabling him to start over with a clean slate. Slovik rejected the final chance to save himself, and stated: “I’ve made up my mind. I’ll take my court-martial.”

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Eddie Slovik’s sentence. United States National Archives

31. Choosing the Worst Possible Moment

Unfortunately for Private Slovik, he picked the worst possible moment to get cute with the Army. In the fall of 1944, Allied casualties in France were soaring, morale was at an all time low, and desertions were at an all time high. To restore order and discipline, the authorities needed to make an example of somebody. Along came Slovik: a jailbird openly defying the US military and daring it to do its worst. So it did.

Slovik was charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty, and got his day in court on November 11th, 1944. His confession was presented to the military tribunal, and he chose not to testify. Slovik was not surprised when he was convicted – it was what he had counted on. He was unpleasantly surprised, however, when the court sentenced him not to the relative safety and comfort of prison, as he had hoped, but to death.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
An American WWII execution squad, in this case executing a spy. Business Insider

30. The Execution of Private Slovik

Eddie Slovik’s death sentence was reviewed and approved by his division commander, who noted: “I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved it—if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose—I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.” A surprised and frightened Slovik, who knew that other deserters had been punished with prison and a dishonorable discharge, wrote General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, pleading for clemency. Eisenhower rejected the plea.

On the morning of January 31st, 1945, Slovik was strapped to a post near the French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. At 10:04 AM a firing squad of twelve soldiers from his regiment shot him with M1 Garand rifles, killing him instantly. Slovik was the only American soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War. During WWII, over 21,000 Americans received varying sentences for desertion, including 49 death sentences. Slovik’s was the only one carried out.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
The River of Blood plaque at the Trump National Golf Club. Pintrest

29. The River of Blood?

If you visit the Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia, you might come across a bit of Civil War history few had ever heard of. Situated between the 14th hole and the 15th tee in one of the courses is a plaque attached to a flagpole overlooking the Potomac River. Above a Trump family crest and President Trump’s full name is an inscription that reads:

Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’ It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River“. The plaque designates that portion of the Potomac as “The River of Blood”. As seen below, there is a good reason why few had ever heard of that engagement.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A Civil War battle. History Channel

28. The Fake Civil War Battle

Civil War scholars and historians agree that there is no battle or “River of Blood” designation associated with the Trump National Golf Club. When challenged about the accuracy of the plaque, however, Trump was adamant. As he put it, the area was: “a prime site for river crossings. So if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot – a lot of them“.

Unfortunately, scholars remain unconvinced, and refuse to accept the point-at-a-landmark-and-speculate method as valid historic corroboration. When informed that historians disagreed with his River of Blood designation, Trump retorted: “how would they know that? Were they there?

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A Soviet WWII propaganda photo depicting an attack. Imgur

27. Red Army Human Wave Attacks

There is a widespread perception that the Soviets won WWII on the Eastern Front with human wave attacks that smothered the Germans with bodies, until they ran out of bullets. It was a narrative popularized after the war by the Germans. Especially by German commanders seeking to explain getting beaten by “Asiatic untermenschen“, whose easy defeat they had anticipated when they invaded the USSR in 1941.

In reality, while human wave attacks were carried out by both Axis and Soviet forces on the Eastern Front, they were rare. They only happened in extraordinary circumstances, such as the Italian-led breakout from encirclement at the Battle of Nikolayevka in 1943, which was supported by a German-Romanian human wave attack.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Red Army soldiers attacking during the Battle of Stalingrad. Encyclopedia Britannica

26. Casualty Statistics Contradict the Soviet Human Wave Attacks Narrative

The wehrmacht did inflict disproportionately high losses on Red Army, but the main source of this disparity is captured Soviet soldiers during German offensive operations. In 1941, for example, the Soviets, who were on the defensive and reeling from a surprise massive attack, lost five million men, most of them prisoners, to the Germans’ one million casualties. It was a 5:1 loss ratio in the Germans’ favor.

However, when the Soviets shifted to the offensive – when you would expect them to make the most use of “human wave” attacks – the casualty ratio improved dramatically. During 1942-1945, when the Soviets were on the offensive, the loss ratio dropped to less than two to one. Other than the catastrophic 1941, when the Soviets were caught off guard, they suffered approximately 8 million casualties, while inflicting 5 million upon the Germans – a 1.6:1 ratio.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A Soviet attack. Imgur

25. Actual Soviet Massed Attacks Were Rare

There are a few documented cases of massed attacks by Soviet forces during WWII. However, far from being terrifying human waves that overwhelmed German divisions with bodies until they ran out of bullets’, they consisted of encircled Soviet troops desperately attempting to break out. Either that, or local militia with no military training and thus not knowing any better, trying to slow down the Germans.

The actual Soviet offensive operations that shattered German defenses were modern combined arms attacks, executed with integrated infantry, artillery, and armor. They did attempt to concentrate troops for the maximum superiority of numbers possible at the key point. However, nothing about that was unique to the Soviets. Concentration of forces to achieve maximum local superiority at the decisive point is what all armies aim for when attacking.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Red Army soldiers celebrating capture of the Reichstag and victory in Berlin, 1945. Get Wallpaper

24. The Myth of Overwhelming Red Army Numerical Superiority

The myth of the Red Army’s penchant for human wave attacks in WWII goes hand in hand with the myth that the Soviets enjoyed an overwhelming manpower superiority, which enabled them to afford such wasteful tactics. However, when the Germans attacked in 1941, they enjoyed an initial numerical superiority of 3.8 million men against 2.6 – 2.9 million Soviets. Eventually, the Soviets managed to gain a numerical superiority, but for most of the war, it remained at less than a 2:1 advantage.

That only began to change when the Soviets regained the vast territories initially overrun by the Germans. The manpower in the Nazi-occupied territories had been unavailable to the Red Army, but liberation changed that. Between access to fresh manpower reserves, and the Western Allies’ invasion of Europe, which forced the Germans to divert troops from the Eastern front, the Soviets finally began to enjoy an overwhelming numerical advantage.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A variant of the ‘Irish Slavery’ meme, in this case with a photo taken in 1908 of a group of mixed-race Afro-Europeans from Barbados, known as ‘Redlegs of Barbados’, none of whom had an Irish surname. Medium

23. Irish Slavery

Odds are that within the past few years, you have come across this meme or a variant thereof on social media. Frequently posted by somebody prefacing a statement with “I am not racist, but…“, the meme asserts that Irish Americans were enslaved just like African Americans. Yet, they are doing much better than blacks, and their descendants never complain about it.

The main reason why Irish people do not complain about their ancestors’ enslavement is that their ancestors were never enslaved. Additionally, Irish Americans have fared better than African Americans because the Irish in America never faced anything approaching the generations of institutionalized racism to which blacks were subjected.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A 1910 photo of American child laborers, often falsely claimed by purveyors of the Irish slavery myth as depicting enslaved Irish children. Public Radio International

22. Indentured Servitude vs Chattel Slavery

Irish immigrants arriving in America often had it rough, but they were never enslaved. In Colonial America, many poor whites – Irish and others – were indentured servants, either willingly via contract, or reluctantly because of a court sentence. Benjamin Franklin, for example, had been an indentured servant. While indentured servants were exploited, their indenture was for a limited term, typically seven years. Afterwards – provided they were white – they could do as they pleased, equal under the law to their former contract holders and everybody else.

By contrast, American chattel slavery was a unique institution that was based on race, had no end date, and was hereditary. Unlike indentured servitude contract holders, slave masters owned their black slaves outright, same as they owned their barn animals, for their entire lives. Slave status attached to the slaves’ children from birth to death, as well. African Americans were enslaved. Irish Americans were not.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
1913 photo of children picking cotton in Texas, often falsely claimed to be Irish slave children by purveyors of the Irish slavery myth. Humanities Texas

21. Birth of a Myth

Unsurprisingly for a racist myth, the myth of Irish American slavery grew from racist roots. Irish historian Liam Hogan traced the myth back to a 1990s book by Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman, that became a huge hit with white supremacists. The Irish slavery myth was further amplified in a 2000 book written by a non-historian, who claimed with zero supporting evidence that Irish slaves were branded like cattle, and Irish slave women were sold to stud farms. Nothing of the sort ever happened.

Incidentally, the photo used in the most prevalent Irish slavery meme is neither of Irish people nor of slaves. It is a 1908 photo taken in Barbados of people known locally as the “Redlegs of Barbados” – folk of mixed African and European ancestry. None of the mixed race people pictured were slaves – slavery had been abolished decades earlier. Nor did any of them have an Irish surname.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
German onslaught at the outset of Operation Barbarossa. The Atlantic

20. Was Operation Barbarossa a Preemptive Strike?

A WWII myth that found a home among conspiracy theorists and Eastern Front fringe scholars claims that Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 as a preemptive strike. Supposedly, Stalin was about to invade the Third Reich, so Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa to beat him to the punch.

The German preemptive strike thesis originated with Viktor Suvorov, a Soviet military intelligence officer who defected to Britain in 1978. Suvorov claimed that Stalin had lowered the conscription age to increase the Red Army’s manpower, and issued maps of Germany to soldiers in the field, as a prelude to attacking. Most historians scorn Suvorov’s claims, because they are bereft of evidentiary support.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A Soviet armored car column in Finland during the 1939-1940 Winter War. The Times

19. The Red Army Was in No Shape to Attack Germany in 1941

The Red Army was in bad shape in 1941, and Stalin, whose recent Military Purge had wrecked the Soviet senior military command, knew it. Included among the Purge’s victims were 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of the 9 most senior admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 corps commissars. The results were evident in the Red Army’s poor showing in the 1939-1940 Winter War against tiny Finland.

That dismal performance, and the frightening effectiveness of the German blitzkrieg in Poland and Western Europe, prompted a massive overhaul of the Soviet military to modernize its equipment and tactics. Soviet leadership estimated that the modernization would last into 1943 or 1944 before the Red Army was capable of defending against a German attack, and until 1945 or 1946 before the Soviets could attack the Third Reich.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
1941 cartoon depicting Hitler’s backstabbing of Stalin. Pintrest

18. Origins of the Preemptive Strike Myth

Attacking Germany was the last thing on Stalin’s mind in 1941. The Red Army’s recent farcical experience in fighting Finland had demonstrated that the Soviet military was poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led. Aware of his military weakness, Stalin grew obsequious in efforts to appease Hitler. He desperately sought to avoid giving the Fuhrer any excuse to attack the USSR, because he knew the Red Army was in no shape to fight a major war in 1941, let alone invade Germany.

Nonetheless, Suvorov’s assertion that the USSR was about to attack Germany in 1941 was embraced by the fringe. Hitler apologists, neo Nazis, and assorted white supremacists were eager to accept anything that portrayed the Fuhrer as having merely been defending his country against imminent communist aggression. However, there is no historic support for that theory.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
The Battle of Plassey. Amino Apps

17. The British Raj’s Greatest Victory Was More a Betrayal Than a Feat of Arms

On June 23rd, 1757, a British East India Company force of about 3000 men, commanded by Robert Clive, confronted a 65,000 strong Indian force, led by Siraj al Dawlah. The ensuing Battle of Plassey was a stunning upset, in which Clive brilliantly led his tiny force to rout the numerically superior enemy. The victory established the British in India for the next two centuries.

In reality, while Clive was an outstanding leader, his victory at Plassey owed more to his opponent getting betrayed on the field by his subordinates, than it owed to any great feats of generalship on Clive’s part. His opponent, Siraj al Dawlah, was double crossed by his chief genral, Mir Jafar, who defected at the start of the battle with most of the Indian army.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Mir Jafar meeting Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey. Wikimedia

16. The Greatest Double Cross in Indian History

Mir Jafar (1691 – 1765), an Arab by birth, had arrived in India as an adventurer. With deft politicking and a series of strategic betrayals, he rose high, especially after aiding a conspiracy that wrested Bengal from Mughal control in 1740. Jafar was commander of Bengal’s army when the British East India Company warred against Bengal’s ruler, Siraj al Dawlah. He promptly entered into secret negotiations with the British to betray his boss.

Fast forward to the Battle of Plassey, where notwithstanding the odds, Robert Clive was confident of victory. Aside from his men’s better training and higher morale, he had cut a deal with the opposing army’s commander. When fighting commenced, Mir Jafar defected with 15,000 cavalry and 35,000 infantry – the majority of Siraj al Dawlah’s army. The demoralized rump of the Bengal army was defeated, and their ruler fled, to be captured and executed later. The British rewarded Mir Jafar by appointing him their puppet ruler of Bengal.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Japanese soldiers bicycling down the Malay Peninsula. We Love Cycling

15. The Japanese Were “Natural Jungle Fighters”

During WWII, the Western Allies convinced themselves that Japanese soldiers excelled at jungle fighting. The British in particular believed that their foes were “natural” jungle fighters during the Malayan Campaign. Advancing from the north, the Japanese advanced the length of the Malay Peninsula, brushing aside or sidestepping all opposition. They capped the advance by capturing the fortress city of Singapore at the peninsula’s southern tip, despite being outnumbered by the British.

In reality, Japan has no more tropical jungles than does Britain, and the Japanese had no more natural aptitude for jungle fighting than any other people from well north of the Tropics. The Japanese prevailed in the Malay Peninsula because their troops were hardened veterans, while their opponents were inexperienced and ill trained. The Japanese were innovative and adaptable, as illustrated by their vanguard’s commandeering of bicycles to speed up the advance. By contrast, British commanders ranged from mediocre to incompetent.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Malay plantations as seen from the air. Quora

14. Why the Japanese Won in Malaya

British generals, examining the Malay Peninsula’s greenery, assumed it was impenetrable jungle dismissed the possibility of an attack through such terrain. When the Japanese invaded, British generals set up defensive positions, frequently anchoring their flanks to “jungle”. However, a significant portion of the Malay foliage was not jungle, but plantations. They looked formidable when seen from the air, but posed no barrier on the ground. The plantations consisted of rows of trees with wide spaces in between, carefully cleared of underbrush. They formed straight leafy boulevards, down which the Japanese easily bicycled or marched in the shade.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Malay plantations as seen from the ground. Quora

British commanders in far off headquarters set up defensive lines that seemed formidable on their maps, with flanks secured by “jungles”, only for those defenses to get outflanked by the Japanese strolling past them nearby plantations. The flabbergasted British convinced themselves that the ease with which the Japanese outmaneuvered them could only be explained by a preternatural gift for jungle fighting.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
The world’s first atomic bomb. Business Insider

13. The German A-Bomb

Many believe that if WWII had lasted just a little longer, the Germans would have won or at least secured a draw, because they had been on the verge of developing an atomic bomb when the Third Reich crumbled. The Germans were actually never close to developing a nuke. During the war, American and British scientists assumed that Germany had an advanced nuclear program that might bear fruit at any time. They thus saw themselves as being in a race to produce nuclear weapons.

After the war, however, it turned out that the German nuclear program was nowhere near as advanced as previously thought. Early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn, and followed it down a path that led away from atomic fission. The war could have lasted another decade, and Germany would have been no closer to having an atomic bomb in 1955 than she had been in 1945.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Werner Heisenberg and his wife Elisabeth in 1946. New York Review of Books

12. The Nazis Were Nowhere Close to Getting a Nuke

Werner Heisenberg, Germany’s chief nuclear physicist, knew that splitting the atom could produce a powerful weapon, but never figured out how to weaponize the concept. In their last nuclear test in the spring of 1945, German scientists failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction that the Manhattan Project had achieved in 1942. Criticality was the crucial foundation, without which an atomic weapon program cannot succeed.

Moreover, the German nuclear program lacked adequate support. After achieving criticality, it took America another three years, with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state, to detonate the first atomic bomb. The Germans had not accomplished the criticality breakthrough by the time the war ended, and their nuclear program had never received anything close to the support enjoyed by the Manhattan Project

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
British troops at Dunkirk in 1940. History Net

11. Hitler Deliberately Allowed the Encircled British to Flee From Dunkirk

The Western Powers were humiliatingly crushed in the 1940 Battle of France. The Germans swiftly routed the French and British armies and forced France to surrender, accomplishing in six weeks what they had been unable to do in four years during WWI. By late May, the wehrmacht had pushed the British army into a shrinking pocket surrounding the port of Dunkirk, and seemed on the verge of annihilating the defenders.

Then, with a decisive victory over the British in his grasp, Hitler inexplicably ordered his panzers to halt, and left the task of reducing the surrounded forces to the Luftwaffe. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the British pulled off a miraculous evacuation. That led to a myth explaining Hitler’s halt decision as a gesture of goodwill, deliberately allowing the British, whom he admired, to escape.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
The Dunkirk evacuation. English Heritage

10. A Merciful Fuhrer?

In late May of 1940, German panzers were within a few miles of the defeated and disorganized British milling about the beaches of Dunkirk. Then Hitler ordered them to halt for 48 hours to rest and refit. His generals loudly protested, but to no avail. What happened next proved them right: the British used the breather to organize a defense, that eventually allowed them to evacuate about 338,000 Allied soldiers to safety.

Most historians dismiss the fanciful notion of a merciful Hitler allowing the British to escape as a sporting or good will gesture: no evidence supports such a thesis. However, crackpot revisionists have embraced the notion that Hitler had let the British go so he could look like a magnanimous gentleman, and thus draw Britain into peace negotiations.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Hitler and Rundstedt. Wikimedia

9. A Silly Theory

Hitler was notoriously irrational, but deliberately allowing the British to escape from Dunkirk was too irrational even for him. Considering that he wanted to bring Britain to the peace table, holding hundreds of thousands of British POWs would have been quite a bargaining chip. More so than if those soldiers were back in Britain, armed and defiant.

The fatal halt order had not even originated with Hitler. A panzer unit commander who had lost half his armored forces and needed time to regroup, requested a halt from Army Group A’s commander, Gerd von Rundstedt. Rundstedt agreed, and passed it up to Hitler, who rubber stamped the order to halt. After the war, German generals – including Rundstedt – pinned the blame on Hitler for ruining their chance to win the war in 1940.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Throughout WWII, horse-drawn transport was the most common mode of German supply delivery. Quora

8. The Effectiveness of Germany’s Super Weapons

One of WWII’s more persistent myths revolves around Germany purportedly being miles ahead of the Allies in technological advancements. In reality, while the Nazis did develop and deploy some cutting edge weapons, they were far from being across the board advanced when compared to the Allies. The Germans had flashes of technological brilliance in some areas, but in the workaday everyday life of their military, they were technologically average, or even backwards when compared to the Allies.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Unlike the Germans, the Allies’ supply system was overwhelmingly motorized. Pintrest

Even in those areas in which the Germans exhibited technological brilliance, the result was often the deployment of weapons that not only failed to advance the German war effort, but actually ended up impeding it. Nothing better illustrates that than Germany’s “Vengeance Weapons”, particularly the V2 rocket.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A V2 rocket launch. Wikimedia

7. “Vengeance Weapon 2”

The V2, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile. It carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then plunged at unstoppable speeds to explode over its target. It was a revolutionary technological feat. It was also one of history’s most wasteful weapons. V2s inflicted relatively little damage that did not justify the vast resources devoted to their production. Those resources would have better aided the German war effort had they gone to more effective weapons programs or other uses.

Roughly three thousand V2s were fired between September, 1944, and Germany’s surrender nine months later. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. During the same period, the RAF routinely dropped over 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a bombing raid. The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
B-17s over Germany. Imgur

6. The Wasteful V2s

While the Germans tried to blast Allied cities with rockets, the Allies blasted German cities far more thoroughly with bombers, which were reusable, and thus far more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night. Each Allied bomber dropped more explosive tonnage on a German city than a V2 dropped on an Allied city, and unlike the V2, most Allied bombers repeated the process dozens of times.

During its nine months of use, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by V2s killed 2754 people. Most were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2. That gave V2s the tragic distinction of being the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Poster printed by German occupation authorities announcing the match. Wikimedia

5. WWII’s Most Dramatic Athletic Event

One of WWII’s most dramatic stories revolves around a soccer match that took place in German-occupied Kiev on August 6th, 1942. The game pitted Ukrainian side Start FC, composed mainly of Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotyv Kiev professional players, against a German team named Flakelf. The locals won 5 – 1.

Three days later, the two teams met for a rematch, that once again ended in the Ukrainian side beating the Germans, this time 5 – 3. The Germans turned out to be sore losers: upset that Slavic untermenschen had trounced Aryan ubermenschen, they rounded up and arrested the Ukrainian players, and had them executed. It is a gripping story, but it did not happen.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
The Death Match. Bundesarchiv Bild

4. Snitching, Not Sore Losership, Doomed the Ukrainian Soccer Players

German side Falkelf and Ukrainian team Start FC – whose players worked in a factory under Nazi management – actually did meet for two matches on August 6th and 9th, 1942. About a week later, the Gestapo arrested eight Start FC players. Five of them were eventually executed.

However, the arrests had nothing to do with the matches against Flakelf. Members of another Ukrainian team, that had been humiliatingly trounced by Start 8 – 0, had snitched to the German authorities, informing them that several Start players were former members of the NKVD (the KGB’s forerunner).

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Statue in front of the Dynamo Kiev stadium, memorializing the executed Ukrainian players. Ground Hopping

3. Birth of the Death Match Myth

Five of the eight Start FC players picked up by the Gestapo were eventually executed. However, their deaths were unrelated to their performance on the pitch against a German, and had more to do with their activities off the pitch against the German occupation authorities. Some of the Start FC players, as former NKVD agents, were suspected of having engaged in recent sabotage activities against the German occupation.

Engaging in resistance against the Nazis was heroic in of itself, but it was not nearly as dramatic as the “Death Match” narrative. Soviet authorities, eager to portray the heroism of the civilian populace during the war, decided to improve upon and embellish the story. After the war, the “Death Match” theme inspired a popular Soviet novel, and a hit movie, Third Time. As to the murdered Start FC players, they are commemorated in a statue in front of Dynamo Kiev’s stadium.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
Pervitin. Is It Paleo

2. The Nazi Super Soldiers

Early in WWII, the Germans swept through Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. The blitzkrieg’s speed and fury, and reports of “Nazi Super Soldiers”, alarmed observers. German success owed much to innovative tactics that integrated infantry, armor, and air, into a seemingly irresistible juggernaut. However, the Allies were baffled by the inexplicable energy and tirelessness of the German soldiers, who seemed indefatigable, advancing and fighting day and night, with little or no rest.

The reason was crystal meth, or Pervitin, which German troops were encouraged to pop in order to fight fatigue. The packaging read “Alertness Aid“, to be taken “to maintain wakefulness“. It was accompanied by a warning that it should only be used “from time to time“. However, once they began popping Pervitin, few heeded the warning. Things got worse when medical authorities realized that the effects of cocaine overlap substantially with those of amphetamines, with the added “benefit” that cocaine produces greater euphoria. So cocaine was added to Pervitin.

40 Historical Facts Accepted as Real For Many Years
A tweaking SS member. American Heroes Channel

1. German Soldiers Were Not Indefatigable: They Were Tweaking

The German military authorities’ spicing of Pervitin with cocaine resulted in an even more addictive drug cocktail. Millions in the German military could not get enough of their crystal meth, and especially not enough of their crystal meth after it got laced with cocaine. Many wrote home, requesting their loved ones to send them Pervitin via the military mail.

A typical example was Heinrich Boll, a German postwar author who won the 1972 Nobel Prize for literature. In a May 20th, 1940 letter to his parents, 22 year old Boll begged them to send him some Pervitin, which he said not only kept him alert, but also chased away his worries.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

All That is Interesting – How Drugs Like Pervitin and Cocaine Fueled the Nazis’ Rise and Fall

Clark, Alan – Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945 (1985)

Cracked – 5 Historical Landmarks (That Are Total Frauds)

Cracked – 5 People You Didn’t Realize Were Fictional Characters

Dixon, Norman F. – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (2011)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Plassey

Falk, Stanley L. – Seventy Days to Singapore: The Malayan Campaign, 1941-1942 ­(1975)

Glantz, David – When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (1995)

Groves, Leslie R. – Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (1983)

Guardian, The, September 25th, 2016 – High Hitler: How Nazi Drug Abuse Steered the Course of History

Hastings, Max – Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945 (2005)

Murphy, David E. – What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa (2005)

New York Times, March 17th, 2017 – Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves, Too

Overy, Richard – Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet Effort, 1941-1945 (1998)

Ranker – 22 ‘Facts’ About World War II That Just Aren’t True

Rhodes, Richard – The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)

Rolling Stone, August 17th, 2017 – Donald Trump’s Golf Course Plaque Honors Fake Civil War Battle

Smithsonian Magazine, August, 2004 – In Search of William Tell

SOF Rep – On This Day in History: The Only Death Sentence For Desertion in WWII is Carried Out

Southern Poverty Law Center – How the Myth of Irish Slaves Became a Favorite Meme of Racists Online

United States Army – The Army Lawyer: A History of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, 1775-1995 – The Execution of Private Slovik (2005)

Wikipedia – The Death Match

Wikipedia – Eddie Slovik

Wikipedia – Malayan Campaign

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