Mad Myths in History that Just Won't Go Away
Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away

Khalid Elhassan - March 24, 2022

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Hitler and Stalin honeymoon after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. Wikimedia

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Stalin overseeing the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Euromaidan Press

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
The divvying up of territory in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Wikimedia

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
The Middle Ages are often depicted as drab. Fifteen Eighty Four

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
The facade of Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims today. Big Seven Travel

7. The Medieval Era Was Actually a Riot of Colors

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
The facade of Notre Dame Cathedral lit up with lasers to depict how it would have looked in the Middle Ages. Pinterest

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 façade of Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims today. The second photo is a laser projection on that façade, of how it would have looked like in the 1400s, based on paint remnants in the stone’s pores.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Japan’s military strength in what was still left of her empire on August 15th, 1945, when the Japan government finally agreed to surrender. United States Army Center of Military History

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Chinese civilians had to kowtow before marching Japanese occupation soldiers. Thing Link

5. The Alternative to the Atomic Bombing of Japan

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Operation Olympic. Karen Karr Studio

4. The Horrific Costs of an Invasion of Japan

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Japanese child soldiers. Quora

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Japanese soldiers training women to fight expect Allied invaders with sharpened bamboo spears. Quora

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.

Mad Myths in History that Just Won’t Go Away
Japanese schoolgirls training to fight off expected Allied invasion soldiers with pointy sticks. Flickr

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

Alston, David – Slaves and Highlanders: Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean (2021)

Atkinson, Rick – An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1342-1943 (2003)

British Psychological Society – The True Colours of the Middle Ages

Christman, Al – Target Hiroshima: Deak Parsons and the Creation of the Atomic Bomb (2014)

Christofferson, Thomas Randy and Michael Scott – France During World War II: From Defeat to Liberation (2006)

Chun, Clayton – Japan 1945: From Operation Downfall to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2008)

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

Devine, Tom M. – Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection (2015)

Drea, Edward J. – MacArthur’s ULTRA: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan, 1942-1945 (1991)

Fest, Joachim C. – Hitler (1974)

Gogun, Alexander – Stalin’s Commandos: Ukrainian Partisan Forces on the Eastern Front (2015)

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

History Collection – A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths

Hoyt, Edwin Palmer – Japan’s War: The Great Pacific Conflict (2001)

Ireland Calling – St Patrick Myths and Legends

Lefebvre, Georges – The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (1973 English Translation)

Medievalists – Did People Drink Water in the Middle Ages?

Moorhouse, Roger – The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin (2014)

Newman, Robert P. – Truman and the Hiroshima Cult (1995)

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

North American Review, Vol. 137, No. 323 (Oct. 1883) – The Saint Patrick Myth

Ranker – Were Medieval People Really Drunk on Beer and Wine All the Time?

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

Roberts, Walter R. – Tito, Mihailovic, and the Allies 1941-1945 ­(1987)

Sceptical Scot – The Myth of Scottish Slaves

Schama, Simon – Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989)

Slate – What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe?

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

Tradition in Action – A World of Brilliant Colors

WWII Commemoration – Mediterranean Operations