These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today

Khalid Elhassan - November 6, 2022

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Black chattel slaves cutting sugar cane in the West Indies. National Museums, Liverpool

False Historic “Facts” in Support of a False Historic Narrative

To shore up the myth of Scottish slaves in the New World, advocates often point out the descendants of Scotts in Caribbean islands like Jamaica. However, such individuals are overwhelmingly descended from indentured servants who entered into indenture voluntarily, not from Scottish prisoners forcibly sent to the island by the English. Caribbean planters preferred Scottish laborers, who were viewed as hard workers and more honest than indentured servants from other parts of the British Isles. However, they were indentured servants, not slaves.

Advocates of the myth also point out the proliferation of Scottish surnames in Jamaica – Campbell, for example, is the most common Jamaican last name – to support their position. In reality, Scottish names are common in Jamaica not because the island held many Scottish slaves. They are common because many mixed race children were born from sexual violence visited upon black slave women by white slave owners and their overseers. Many of those predators were Scotts, and many of their enslaved offspring and human chattel took their surname.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
An indentured servitude contract. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Indentured Servitude Differed Greatly From Chattel Slavery

Marriages or long term relationships between black slaves and indentured servants, whether Scots or otherwise, were rare in the New World. For a white indentured man, any children he fathered upon a slave woman became the slaves of her master. For a white indentured woman, pregnancy was dangerous. It constituted breach of contract, and could entail harsh criminal penalties such as whipping, and extra time added to her indenture as punishment. However, unlike black slaves, white indentured servants, whether Scottish or otherwise, could look forward to an end of their term of service. That created tensions between the two groups. Especially since white indentured servants were not above racial prejudice against blacks.

Racism enabled many indentured servants to feel less bad about their circumstances. Bad as things were, they were at least free, unlike the enslaved blacks. Black slaves in turn often mocked the prejudice of white indentured servants, and pointed out how little value they had to their white masters despite their skin color. As a rule of thumb, white indentured servants who survived their indenture integrated into mainstream white society, or forged their own communities. Of those who did not return to Britain, many became smallholders with their own farms, and tried to compete with the large slave plantations. Some prospered, and joined the colonial elites – something that was not an option for black slaves.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
A 1910 photo of child laborers, often falsely claimed to depict enslaved Irish children. Public Radio International

No, the Irish Were Not Enslaved in America

The myth of Irish slavery is similar to that of Scottish slavery, but is even more pernicious. 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 who prefaces statements with “I am not racist, but…“, the meme asserts that Irish Americans were enslaved just like African Americans. Yet, they have fared much better than blacks, and their descendants never complain about it. In reality, the main reason why Irish people do not complain about their ancestors’ enslavement is that their ancestors were never enslaved.

Irish Americans have fared better than African Americans because the Irish in America never faced the generations of institutionalized racism to which blacks were subjected. Irish immigrants 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 fixed 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.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Children picking cotton in Texas in 1913, often falsely claimed to be enslaved Irish children. Humanities Texas

The Holocaust Denier Behind This Myth

The treatment of Scottish and Irish indentured servants differed greatly from that of black chattel slaves. The latter were subjects of 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, for their entire lives. Slave status attached to the slaves’ children from birth to death, as well. Blacks were enslaved. Irish Americans were not. Unsurprisingly for a racist myth, the untrue narrative 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.

A 2000 book written by a non-historian, who claimed with zero evidence that Irish slaves were branded like cattle, further amplified the Irish slavery myth. For good measure, he added the salacious but equally untrue tidbit that Irish slave women were sold to stud farms. That is simply untrue. 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.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
A French Resistance cell in Corsica, 1942. The Economist

Has the Effectiveness of WWII Resistance Been Exaggerated?

A common myth romanticizes the WWII resistance movements, particularly in Western Europe. The gist is that resistance was widespread and that the efforts of those clandestine groups tipped the balance in the Allies’ favor, and 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.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
French Resistance members in the summer of 1944. All That is Interesting

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. It contributed more to the locals’ pride and self-esteem after the war because they had done something, than to actually winning 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.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
WWII Soviet Partisans. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Resistance in Western Europe vs in Eastern Europe and the Balkans

Western Europe’s communists 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 rest of the civilian populations in the main did not exhibit a willingness to risk the horrific reprisals and atrocities the Germans were prepared to inflict upon restive subjects. It 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. So they never flocked to the resistance in the kinds of numbers that transformed it into a mass popular movement as happened in the Balkans and the USSR.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Members of the French Resistance during the liberation of Paris, 1944. El Pais

During the war, the resistance in Western Europe was not as widespread or intense as is often depicted in film or fiction. Far more people were willing to accept German occupation and make the best of a bad situation, than were willing to resist and risk German vengeance. For example, far greater numbers of Frenchmen collaborated with the German occupiers than joined the Resistance. Indeed, membership boomed only after the successful D-Day landings, after which late arrivals swelled the resistance ranks.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Crop circles. Evansville Courier and Press

The Crop Circles Myth

In 1976, people in Wiltshire, England, were baffled by a wheat field whose crops were mysteriously flattened in a circle. Soon, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began to appear in other fields throughout Britain. Once the phenomenon became widely known, it attracted self-declared experts, who offered mystical, magical, and pseudo-scientific explanations for the mystery. Theories ranged from secret weapon tests, to restless spirits and ghost, to Gaia, the primal Mother Earth, distressed at what humans had done to her planet.

Early on, one explanation that gained great currency was that the circles were created by space aliens. Presumably, extraterrestrials were trying to communicate with mankind in code. Needless to say, all the pseudo-scientific and mystical explanations were pure bunk and a myth. The argument that aliens were behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. Many had attributed the Australian circles to UFO landings, and labeled them “[flying] saucer nests”.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Crop circles in Wiltshire. Wiltshire Times

The Drunk Conversation That Birthed a Myth

Wiltshire, in southwest England and where the first British crop circle appeared, is located near Stonehenge. The region is full of burial mounds and ancient marker stones. New Age types had long claimed those landmarks were linked to others throughout Britain via “leys” – mysterious energy paths. For years, the region had also been a hotbed for UFO watch parties – England’s Roswell, if you would. So it seemed apt that the first crop circles, or saucer nests, would appear nearby.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. YouTube

Before long, theories that combined Stonehenge, ancient Druids, mystic energy paths, and the recently revealed crop circles, were combined in a complex explanation for the phenomenon. The circles themselves became magnets for New Age mystical tourism. In reality, the crop circles were the brainchild of Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, while drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, the duo began to talk about UFOs, aliens, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. As seen below, it turned out to be a momentous conversation.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Crop circles grew ever more elaborate over the years, as more and more pranksters joined in on the fun. Revista UFO

The Cringe Moment When a Crop Circles “Professional” Was Confronted With the Reality That The Whole Thing Was a Myth and Hoax

As Doug Bower and Dave Chorley downed the booze and shot the breeze one night in 1976, Bower suddenly had a brainstorm. Midway through the conversation, he suddenly said: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“. As they confessed in 1991, it had been incredibly easy. They demonstrated their technique to print and TV journalists, and created other crop circles in mere minutes. All it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line.

A “cereologist” – a crop circle “expert” who had made a living for years from books and lectures about the crop circles phenomenon, was called in. He declared the circles authentic. Then the hammer was dropped on him, when it was revealed to that it had been a simple hoax and prank all along. As Bower and Chorley explained, they had created all crop circles up to 1987. Then other pranksters discovered how to make their own circles and patterns, and joined in on the fun.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Swiss soldiers in WWII. Pinterest

The Myth of Swiss Impregnability

When France fells to the Nazis in 1940, Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis-controlled territory. The Nazis wanted to gather all ethnic Germans into a single country, and that included Switzerland’s German speakers. Hitler was appalled that the German-speaking Swiss felt closer to their French and Italian speaking countrymen than they did to Germany. He opined that “Switzerland possessed the most disgusting and miserable people“, and that the Swiss were “a misbegotten branch of our Volk‘. He considered democratic Switzerland an anachronism, and ordered plans drawn for its conquest and absorption into the Third Reich.

The result was Operation Tannenbaum. It envisioned a two-stage conquest with 21 German divisions – a force later deemed excessive and downsized to 11 – plus 15 Italian divisions. It would begin with conventional attacks from Austria, southern Germany, and occupied France, assisted by paratroops dropped behind Swiss lines. They would overrun lowland Switzerland, where most of the population and economic activity was located. In the meantime, the Italians to the south would mount diversionary operations. As seen below, contra the myth that Switzerland was an impregnable mountainous fortress, its conquest by the Germans was quite feasible. Indeed, Swiss children are taught in Swiss schools that the narrative of Swiss impregnability is just a myth. Switzerland has been successfully invaded and conquered many times in its history.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Operation Tannenbaum. Automatic Ballpoint

The Nazi Plan to Invade Switzerland

Operation Tannenbaum focused on the early conquest of the more important parts of Switzerland. Once that was done, follow up attacks were to be made against Swiss army remnants in the “National Redoubt” – a fortified zone in Switzerland’s mountainous south. Much has been made of Switzerland’s mountainous terrain as a defensive feature, to the point that a myth grew that the Swiss are practically invulnerable to attack. This, despite the numerous invaders who had conquered Switzerland, from the Romans to the Habsburgs to multiple French, Austrian, and even Russian armies that crisscrossed Switzerland during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Against a potential German invasion in WWII, the Swiss army planned to take advantage of topography and retreat into the country’s mountainous parts.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the Swiss did not live high up in the mountains. They dwelt instead in the lower parts of the country, in valleys and foothills that were readily accessible to German invaders. Cutoff up in the mountains, one can only guess how long the Swiss forces in the National Redoubt might have been able to offer sustained resistance. Partisan and guerrilla warfare would have been an option. However, that would have required the Swiss to be markedly different from other Western Europeans whose countries had been occupied by the Nazis. They exhibited little willingness to risk the massive reprisals and atrocities Hitler’s Germans were ready to inflict on restive subjects.

These Common History Myths Are Still Being Taught Today
Swiss soldiers in WWII. War History Online

A German Conquest of Switzerland in WWII Was Quite Feasible

A common myth about Switzerland in WWII is that the Nazis feared a massive guerrilla war up in the Alps if they invaded. However, there is little reason to assume that such a war would have been waged. Bad as Nazi rule was in Western Europe, the Germans did not treat Western European – unless they were Jews – as atrociously as they did the Eastern European Slavs. Western Europeans thus never felt that their backs were to the wall and that they had nothing to lose. Not to the same extent as did, say, the Soviets or Yugoslavs, who responded with a fierce and widespread partisan resistance that had no equivalent in Western Europe. Despite Hitler’s dislike of the Swiss, he and the Nazis nonetheless saw them as Germans, to be incorporated into the Reich as fellow citizens.

The Swiss were thus unlikely to have been treated with the wanton cruelty that triggered widespread resistance in the East. Instead, the Nazis would probably have treated them better than they did other Western Europeans: they were ethnic Germans, after all. Fortunately, the order to execute Operation Tannenbaum was never given. While it would have emotionally gratified Hitler to invade, there was no need to do so. The Swiss had no aggressive designs, and surrounded on all sides by Axis territory, there was no security threat of occupation by the Allies to use it as a base for attacking Germany. Switzerland had no resources that were not readily available to the Germans via trade. Also, Swiss banks, combined with Swiss neutrality, made the country a convenient center for currency exchange and other international financial transactions that were useful to the Germans.


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

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

Automatic Ballpoint – Operation Tannenbaum

Boleslaw, Mastai – The Stars and the Stripes: The American Flag as Art and as History from the Birth of the Republic to the Present (1973)

Cannato, Vincent J. – American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (2009)

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

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

Cracked – 11 Myths We Were Taught About the United States

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

Dunninger, Joseph – Inside the Medium’s Cabinet (1935)

Furlong, William Rea – So Proudly We Hail: The History of the United States Flag (1981)

German Studies Review, 22.1, February, 1999 – German Plans and Policies Regarding Neutral Nations in World War II With Special Reference to Switzerland

Guardian, The, December 11th, 2003 – Keely’s Trickster Engine

Guardian, The, October 20th, 2013 – The Psychology of Spiritualism: Science and Seances

Hayes, Joseph, Atlas Obscura – The Victorian Belief That a Train Ride Could Cause Instant Insanity

History Collection – 16 Truths About the Rise of the Religious Right in America

History Network – Did Betsy Ross Really Make the First American Flag?

Journal of Victorian Culture, Volume 21, Issue 1, 1 March 2016 – Shattered Minds: Madmen on the Railways, 1860-80

JSTOR Daily – Pssst, Crop Circles Were a Hoax

Lock Haven University – The Keely Motor Hoax

Mann, Walter – The Follies and Frauds of Spiritualism (1919)

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

Museum of Hoaxes – Keely Motor Company

New York Public Library – Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One that Was)

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

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

Sceptical Scot – The Myth of Scottish Slaves

Smithsonian Magazine, December 15th, 2009 – Crop Circles: The Art of the Hoax

Smithsonian Magazine, November 22nd, 2011 – The True Story Behind Plymouth Rock

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

Urner, Klaus – Let’s Swallow Switzerland: Hitler’s Plans Against the Swiss Confederation