21. The Untrue Belief That Medieval People Seldom Traveled
A widely held belief about the Middle Ages has it that people were sedentary and seldom ventured far from home or traveled any significant distance from where they were born. To an extent, that is true, especially in the case of peasants and those who lived in the countryside. However, that could be said for the majority of people throughout most of history, until relatively recently in the modern era. That should not be taken to mean that medieval people never traveled: many of them did.
Pilgrimages to holy sites were popular. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, revolves around pilgrims who traveled from London to Saint Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. That was a relatively short quest. Other pilgrimages took the pious to holy sites hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home. Traders also traveled far and wide to buy, sell, and transport high-value goods. The medieval long-distance trade economy featured among other things amber and furs from the Baltic, spices from India transported through the Middle East, silks from China.
20. Just How Close Was Germany to an Atomic Bomb in WWII?
Another WWII dramatic myth revolves around what would have happened if Hitler had ever gotten his hands on an atomic bomb. An untrue narrative developed after the war to the effect that German physicists were on the verge of unlocking the secret of fission and giving Hitler a nuke. It was not born in a vacuum. During the war, the Manhattan Project had operated on the assumption that Hitler had an advanced nuclear program that might bear fruit at any time.
Those in the know thus viewed the US as being in a race against Germany over which country would first produce nuclear weapons. However, it was discovered after the war that the German nuclear program was not as advanced as had been assumed. Early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn and followed it away from the path that leads to nuclear weapons. The war could have lasted another decade, and Germany would have been no closer to an atomic bomb in 1955 than in 1945.
19. Germany’s Nuclear Weapons Program Never Came Close to Giving Hitler an A-Bomb
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901 -1976) was the key scientist in the Third Reich’s nuclear weapons program. Although widely – and rightly – lauded as a genius, it is untrue that he ever came close to a nuclear bomb. Heisenberg had nebulous ideas that splitting the atom could produce a powerful weapon, but he never understood how to put in practice nuclear fission. In Germany’s last test in the spring of 1945, scientists failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction that the Manhattan Project achieved in 1942.
Criticality was the crucial foundation without an atomic weapon program could not have succeeded. The failure of German scientists to achieve that fundamental step meant that their atomic weapons program was nowhere close to success. Additionally, Germany’s nuclear program lacked the necessary support for success. After Manhattan Project scientists achieved criticality, it took America almost three years, with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state, to successfully test 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.
18. Untrue Beliefs Can Produce Profound Consequences
Sometimes the belief in untrue things could lead to profound, history-altering consequences. For example, Ancien regime France’s peasants and urban poor, abused for centuries, came to see their aristocratic oppressors as more than a parasitic class that lived in luxury off their toil and sweat. The part about a patristic class was not the untrue bit – it was very much true. Where things began to go off the rails is when many of France’s oppressed began to see the nobility as demonic figures who did evil for the sake of evil.
Conspiracy theories abounded about what the elites were up to, and chief among them was the Pacte de Famine, or Famine Plot. It was born of a poor understanding of the economics of supply and demand. From 1715 – 1789, France’s population had increased by 6 million, from 22 million to 28 million, without a similar increase in grain output. Higher demand for the same amount of grain led to higher prices. However, many attributed the price increases not to basic economics, but to a plot by the elites to deliberately withhold grain in order to starve the poor into subservience. As seen below, things spiraled from there in ways few could have predicted.
17. France’s Peasants Supported the French Revolution for Reasons That Had Nothing to Do With the Revolution
In 1789, grain shortages in France led to higher bread prices that hit the lower classes hard. In their distress, the poor’s belief in the Famine Plot evolved to include not only diabolical schemes to starve them but to murder and burn them as well. Driven by a widespread panic aptly named The Great Fear, France’s poor took matters into their own hands and went after the elites. To be fair, France’s upper classes had it coming for centuries of exploitation. However, they were innocent of the Hunger Plot.
The 1789 French Revolution is often viewed through the lens of Paris. Dramatic events took place there, and the key figures who grabbed the limelight were in the French capital. However, without support from the peasants – the bulk of France’s population – or at least their consent to do away with the aristocratic order, the revolution would have fizzled. Ironically, peasant support did not result from their understanding and approval of what was going on in Paris. Instead, it was caused by a flood of fake news and untrue rumors that drove them into a panic. To wit, the elites were putting the final touches on the Famine Plot.
16. Sometimes It Does Not Matter Whether Something is Untrue, but Whether People Believe it and Act Based Upon That Belief
As revolution swept France in 1789, the peasants believed that the aristocrats had engineered grain shortages to starve and debilitate them. The end goal was to force the downtrodden back into submission and obedience to their social betters. That was not enough, however. To speed things up, the nobility had also summoned foreigners to burn the peasants’ crops, and hired bandits to loot their meager possessions, abuse and have their way with the women, murder the men, and burn their houses. All of that was untrue, but what mattered at the time was not whether it true or not. What mattered was whether the peasants believed it.
The peasants might not have understood the Enlightenment ideals and issues being debated in Paris in 1789. However, they understood the fear of evil elites plotting to harm them. So they acted based on their belief in “the Famine Plot”, even if that plot was untrue. In so doing, the peasants supercharged and saved the French Revolution. From July 22nd to August 6th, 1789, what came to be known as “The Great Fear” swept rural France. Armed peasants, sometimes supported by artisans and local bourgeoisie, went after aristocratic estates, as well as those of privileged clergy. Their chief aim was to find and burn documents that granted the nobility and clergy their privileges.
15. Untrue Facts That Nonetheless Produced a Good Result
The French peasants’ main goal was to burn feudal documents that placed them under the thumbs of the aristocrats and clergy. While they were at it, they were not above burning aristocratic manor houses, church estates, or assailing nobles and clerics. Their panic-driven actions often caused more panic. Armed peasant bands, out to save the peasantry from the elites, were often mistaken by other peasants for bandits and foreigners supposedly hired by the elites to carry out the Famine Plot. It was untrue, but it did not matter.
The peasants armed themselves, or if already armed, redoubled their vigilance and hatred of the aristocrats and clergy who had hired the bandits and foreign marauders seen roaming the countryside. To appease the peasants and avert further rural unrest, the newly-created National Constituent Assembly abolished the feudal regime and its privileges on August 4th, 1789. So the Great Fear turned out to be one of those rare instances in which a mass panic, caused by false rumors and fake news, produced something good. The abolition of feudalism brought the rural turmoil to an end, but peasant unrest boiled over in various parts of France for years afterward.
Resistance movements in WWII have rightly garnered significant attention and earned a place in the hearts of all freedom lovers. However, the resistance’s romantic image led to the proliferation of many untrue narratives about its significance. Especially Western European resistance movements, commonly assumed to have been widespread, to have tipped the balance in the Allies’ favor, and to have spelled the difference between victory and defeat. It is true that Eastern European resistance movements, such as the Soviet and Yugoslav partisans, contributed materially to victory with intense sabotage and guerrilla activities. However, the greatest contribution of Western Europe’s resistance lay in intelligence gathering: their sabotage and guerrilla efforts were negligible.
It took great courage, and the men and women of the Western European resistance risked their lives on a daily basis. However, their impact was more symbolic than substantive. They contributed more to the locals’ pride and self-esteem for having done something, than to the actual winning of the war. The disparity between the resistance movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans versus those of Western Europe is due to the manner in which the Nazis treated their conquered subjects in different parts of Europe. Jews excepted, German occupation of Western Europe, while severe, never approached the levels of psychotic cruelty and mindless brutality meted out to the conquered in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
13. Untrue and Highly Romanticized Narratives Have Surrounded the Resistance Both During and After WWII
For the most part, Western European civilian populations exhibited little willingness to risk the horrific reprisals and atrocities the Nazis were prepared to inflict upon restive subjects. An exception was the communists – who made a drastic turn from acquiescence to German occupation during the period of Russo-German friendship to fierce resistance after Hitler attacked the USSR. The inaction was not due to lack of courage, but lack of incentive. Because they were not treated as atrociously as were, e.g.; Soviet or Yugoslav civilians, Western Europeans’ backs were not as much against the wall to where they felt they had nothing to lose.
Accordingly, Western Europeans did not flock to the resistance in the kinds of numbers that transformed it into a mass popular movement as happened in the Balkans and the USSR. Western European resistance was not as widespread or intense as is often depicted in film or fiction. Contra the untrue narrative of massive resistance, far more people accepted German occupation and made the best of a bad situation than resisted and risked German vengeance. E.g.; many more Frenchmen collaborated with the German occupiers than joined the Resistance. French Resistance numbers only boomed following the successful D-Day landings, after which late arrivals swelled the resistance ranks.
12. The Untrue Narrative That People in the Middle Ages Did Not Drink Water
One of the more widespread – but untrue – narratives about the Middle Ages has it that people back then only drank beer and wine instead of water. Supposedly, that was because water in those days was too dangerous to drink safely, as it was often contaminated with deadly pathogens. That is false. In the medieval era, for example, water was the most popular drink – as it was throughout all of humanity’s existence, for that matter – for the simple reason that it was free.
It is true that medieval people did not have the kinds of water purification treatments that the water coming out of our faucets nowadays usually goes through. Contamination was a concern, to be sure. However, medieval people – like all humans since our species first walked upright – knew enough to spot and avoid obviously contaminated water. In short, people in the past had enough common sense and common knowledge to know that swampy, muddy, and cloudy water was not good for drinking.
11. Medieval People Actually Praised Water’s Health Benefits
Not only is it untrue that water was disfavored as a drink in the Middle Ages, medical texts from back then praised water as being good for peoples health. So long as it came from good sources, of course. Indeed, medieval authorities went to great lengths to supply people with drinking water. For example, London constructed âThe Conduit’ in the 1200s, with lead pipes to bring fresh water from outside the city walls to the city’s center, where people had free access to it.
Although people in the Middle Ages did not avoid water per se, they still preferred beer and wine. Assuming of course that they could afford such beverages. People did drink a whole lot of beer and ale and wine in those days. However, it was not because their water was bad. Instead, they consumed those alcoholic beverages simply because they liked both their taste and effect. The authorities knew and catered to those preferences, such as during public celebrations in London.
10. Was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a Mistake From the Soviet Perspective?
Another widespread but untrue narrative about WWII and the events leading up to it has developed around the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, commonly known as Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Signed a week before Germany invaded Poland, the Pact supposedly proved calamitous for the USSR. To be sure, Stalin made a huge mistake in trusting Hitler to honor the agreement, and in stubbornly ignoring warnings of impending German attack in 1941. However, the fault lay with Stalin, not with the Pact. The Pact itself served Soviet interests, and while they did not make the best use of it, the Soviets were better off for having signed it.
From a Western and Polish perspective, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was calamitous. From a Soviet perspective, it made good sense. The Western Powers had demonstrated their unreliability during the Munich Crisis and preferred to deal with Hitler than with Stalin. The Soviets made solid offers to defend Czechoslovakia, but the Poles refused them permission to march through Poland to reach Czechoslovakia, while Britain and France negotiated halfheartedly and appeased Hitler. After Munich, the USSR had something to offer both sides. The Germans negotiated seriously and made attractive offers, while Britain and France did not. And the Poles, looking at the only force that could physically come to their defense, were astonishingly shortsighted.
9. What is True and Untrue About the Impact of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact bought the Soviets nearly two years in which to prepare for war. Stalin did not make the best use of that time, but it is untrue that the USSR did not benefit from that period of peace. Poor as the Soviet military’s performance was in 1941, it was even less prepared for war in 1939. Moreover, the Pact, which gave the USSR nearly half of Poland, pushed the Soviet borders hundreds of miles westwards. That gave the USSR additional buffer space. Space and distance proved decisive to Soviet survival in 1941: the Germans came within 10 miles of the Kremlin before they were turned back. Without the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Germans would have launched their invasion from a start line hundreds of miles further to the east.
The same effort that ran out of steam within sight of the Kremlin might have pushed far beyond had it started hundreds of miles closer to Moscow. As the Soviets saw it, they owed the Western Powers and Poland nothing. Indeed, they had outstanding border claims against Poland. The Germans offered to satisfy those claims, while the British and French offered little. The Soviets were expected to do the bulk of the fighting and dying in a war against Germany. It thus seemed like chutzpah for Germany’s foes to offer so little in exchange for the high price the USSR would pay for siding with them. So the Soviets chose instead to sign a benevolent neutrality agreement with Germany.
8. The Untrue Image of the Middle Ages as a Drab Period
To go by modern depictions of the Middle Ages in movies and on TV, we would have to conclude that the medieval era must have been a pretty drab one. Just about everybody is shown in dull brown clothes, occasionally broken by a bit of black. Buildings are either plain brown wood for the lower classes’ dwellings or unadorned stone grey for the castles of the aristocratic elites or the churches and cathedrals of the usually brown-clad clergy. The image conjured up is untrue to the reality of how the medieval era actually looked.
People in the Middle Ages, far from restricting themselves to shades of brown and black, tried to get as colorful as they could whenever possible. Medieval folk liked to take a paint brush to anything that couldn’t move and tried to pack as many colors into their wardrobe as possible. Those with means would decorate their walls with vibrant tapestries and frescoes, and clothes would have a splash of color by way of a trim, or the entire outfit might be dyed.
Hollywood’s depiction of medieval castles and churches as unadorned plain stone is untrue to reality. People in the Middle Ages went for vibrant – even garish – colors when it came to buildings. New cathedrals, for example, were riots of color when they were inaugurated. Walls, saints, and even gargoyles were coated in the brightest paints available. Over the years, however, the paint faded. Then, as tastes evolved – and budgets diminished – repainting in the original vibrant colors was done less and less often.
Eventually, such repainting was abandoned all together. Because of that, what we see of surviving medieval churches is that they are usually plain and unadorned. We are mistaken, however, when we assume that how those buildings look today is how they looked back in the Middle Ages. For example, the first photo, above, is of the faÃ§ade of Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims today. The second photo is a laser projection on that faÃ§ade, of how it would have looked like in the 1400s, based on paint remnants in the stone’s pores.
6. The Untrue Narrative that the Atomic Bombing of Japan Was Unnecessary
A persistent narrative about WWII’s end posits that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was on the verge of surrender. The Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have come to its senses sooner rather than later, and thrown in the towel. That is untrue, and a variety of factors make that take nonsensical. The first is that the war when the atomic bombs were dropped was not limited to the Japanese home islands and the choice of whether to invade or simply blockade them.
The Japanese Empire in August 1945, still occupied vast territories in Asia and the Pacific. Japanese occupiers misgoverned hundreds of millions of conquered subjects. Those unfortunates endured daily horrors from their overlords, from casual brutality, to torture, assaults, murder, and massacres. Their plight would have continued every day the war dragged on. Japan also had millions of soldiers stationed in her overseas empire, who fought millions of Allied opponents, producing thousands of casualties on both sides every day. Nor, as seen below, was that all.
Japan also held hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war, and subjected them to barbaric treatment every day, beating, starving, withholding medication from, or murdering them. Casualties from continued fighting and from Japan’s atrocious treatment of POWs would have continued to mount every day the war continued. There is an even more important reason, however, that explains why the narrative that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary is untrue. The alternative was a massive invasion of the Japanese home islands, which the Japanese government was determined to resist via national suicide.
Scheduled for November 1945, Operation Olympic was to be the first stage of an Allied invasion of Japan. Its goal was to secure the southern third of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main home islands. The seized territory would provide airbases for land-based aircraft, and serve as the staging area for an even bigger invasion. That was to be Operation Coronet in the spring of 1946, directed at Honshu, the largest and most populous of Japan’s home islands. The operation was to commence with amphibious landings on three Kyushu beaches. Unbeknownst to planners, the Japanese had accurately predicted US intentions and landing sites.
Japanese geography meant that the only viable beaches for large amphibious landings were the ones selected by the planners of operations Olympic and Coronet. The Allies would still have prevailed in the end: the resources committed to the operation dwarfed those of the D-Day landings in France. They included 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, 400 destroyers and destroyer escorts, tactical air support from the Fifth, Seventh, and Thirteenth Air Forces, and 14 divisions for the initial landing. Casualties, however, would likely have been horrific.
Worst case scenarios envisioned over a million Allied and tens of millions of Japanese casualties. Such high estimates are lent support by the fact that Japanese authorities were busy training even women and children to fight the invaders with spears and pointy sticks. At the time, Olympic’s planners were unaware of the highly secretive Manhattan Project. When the US successfully tested an atomic bomb in July 1945, nuclear weapons’ potential was not fully understood by planners. Envisioned simply as “really big bombs”, they had nebulous ideas of using nukes in the November invasion to support the amphibious landings.
3. Japan’s Leaders Were Determined Upon National Suicide
The use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, instead of in the planned invasion of Japan later that year, shocked the Japanese government to its senses. It abruptly ended the war, and eliminated the necessity for Operations Olympic, Coronet, and their expected butcher’s bills. Japan’s leaders were morally bankrupt and cowardly and had refused to confront the fact that they had taken their country into an unwinnable war and lost. Ethical leaders would have shouldered the responsibility for getting their country into such a fix.
Unfortunately, Japan’s leaders were not ethical. They sought to escape the burden of their responsibility via histrionics and determined to immolate themselves and their country with them. So they sought to save face by training women to fight off heavily armed invaders with bamboo spears and training little boys and girls to fight soldiers with pointy sticks. Rather than sacrifice themselves in order to spare their country, Japan’s leaders sought to sacrifice their country in order to spare their egos from the humiliation of surrender.
2. Japanese Leaders’ Dishonorable Notions of Honor
Japanese leaders’ dishonorable notions of honor meant that the estimated cost of an invasion of Japan was upwards of a million Allied casualties, and tens of millions of Japanese, most of the latter civilians. Compared to that, the 200,000 casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an acceptable price. Morally speaking, there was nothing exceptional about the innocent victims of the atomic bombings that would have justified sparing them at the cost of the millions of other lives that would have been lost elsewhere had the war continued.
Another untrue narrative about the atomic bombings posits that Japan was nuked because of racism against the Japanese. The theory goes that atomic bombs were not dropped on Germany because the Germans were Caucasian, and neither the US government nor US public opinion would have stomached nuking them. The Japanese on the other hand were racially different, which made the decision to nuke them easier. While there was undoubtedly intense racism against the Japanese during the war, far exceeding that directed at the Germans, the theory is untrue for a variety of reasons.
1. The Untrue Narrative That Racism is Why Japan Was Nuked While Germany Was Not
It is untrue that racism had anything to do with why Japan was nuked bombed while Germany was not. Germany was not atomically bombed for a simple reason: it surrendered before the atomic bomb was ready to drop on anybody. Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th, 1945. The first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16th, 1945, more than two months after Germany’s surrender. The US atomic program began with a letter from Albert Einstein to FDR advising him of German research into atomic weapons and the danger should Hitler get an atomic bomb first. Nuclear research was viewed and pursued as a life and death race to beat Germany to the atomic punch. The entire goal of the Manhattan Project was to develop atomic bombs to drop on Germany before Germany developed atomic bombs to drop on America and its allies.
The Germans were fortunate in that they surrendered before the Manhattan Project bore the fruits that had been intended all along for Germany. Also, nuclear weapons were not viewed at the time with the same repugnance with which they are viewed today. Far from horrific last resort weapons whose use would be unthinkable except in the direst emergency, atomic bombs in August of 1945 were new weapons whose potential and impact had not yet been thought through. They were simply seen as another bomb, albeit a big and exceptionally devastating one. Modern abhorrence of nuclear weapons did not exist to the same extent when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. Thus, if the US had atomic weapons before Germany’s surrender, there would have been little reason to refrain from dropping them on German cities.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading