21. The Myth That the Aztecs Thought Cortes’ Conquistadors Were Gods
A common myth claims that the Spanish victory over the Aztecs was helped by the natives’ belief that Hernan Cortes and his men were gods. That is false. The Aztecs were extremely religious, and had many weird notions, but they were not so idiotically naÃ¯ve so as to believe that the Conquistadors were gods.
The Aztec emperor Montezuma II was fully aware that the Spaniards were humans who came from far away. Indeed, Montezuma was sufficiently informed so as to know that Hernan Cortes was not acting with the consent of his king, Charles V (Charles I of Spain). The Aztec ruler even tried to go over Cortes’ head, by attempting to negotiate directly with king Charles. He failed, but it is clear that Montezuma knew that he was dealing with people, not gods.
20. The Myth of the Cynical Treaty That Backfired on the Soviet Union
A common myth has it that the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, AKA the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed a week before Germany invaded Poland, was calamitous for the USSR. It is true that Stalin proved disastrously wrong in trusting Hitler to honor the agreement, and in stubbornly ignoring warnings of impending German attack in 1941. However, the fault there lay with Stalin, not with the Pact.
The Pact itself actually served Soviet interests, and while they did not make the best use of it, the USSR was better off for having signed it. From a Western and Polish perspective, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was calamitous. But from a Soviet perspective, it made good sense.
As the Soviets considered whether to side with the Western Powers during the mounting crises leading up to WWII, they had cause for concern. Britain and France had demonstrated their unreliability during the Munich Crisis, exhibiting greater distaste for dealing with Stalin than with Hitler. 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 ended up appeasing Hitler.
It is a myth that, as things presented themselves at the time, the Soviets acted against their best interests by agreeing to a treaty with 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 if they were attacked by Germany, were astonishingly shortsighted. The Pact bought the Soviets nearly two years in which to prepare for war. Poor as the Soviet military’s performance was in 1941, it was even less prepared for war in 1939.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also gave the USSR half of Poland, and pushed the border hundreds of miles westwards, giving the USSR additional buffer. Space and distance proved decisive to Soviet survival in 1941: the Germans came within ten miles of the Kremlin before they were turned back. Without the 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, would likely 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. If they had sided with Britain and France against Germany, the Soviets were expected to do the bulk of the fighting and dying. From a Soviet perspective, it 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 they opted instead for benevolent neutrality with Germany.
It is probable that sometime 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, butâ¦“, the meme asserts that Irish Americans were enslaved just like African Americans. However, they are doing much better than blacks today, and their descendants never complain about their ancestors’ enslavement.
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. The whole thing is a myth.
16. Some Irish Were Indentured Servants, But That is Not The Same as Slaves
Irish immigrants arriving in America often had it rough. However, 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.
Indentured servitude was not the same thing as slavery. 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. The myth that Irish Americans were also slaves is just that: a myth.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the racist 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 of the pictured people have an Irish surname.
14. The Myth of the Italian-American Mafia’s Avoidance of Dealing Drugs
One of the most persistent myths about the Italian-American mafia claims that the mob traditionally avoided drugs like the plague. The myth is belied by the career of the modern American mafia’s founder, Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897 – 1962). Luciano was a visionary crime mafia boss who founded today’s Genovese crime family – one of New York City’s five mafia families.
He is also credited with establishing The Commission – a committee running the Italian-American mafia and arbitrating its internal disputes to avert bloody struggles disruptive to business. Lucky Luciano is considered the founding father of the Italian-American mafia, and the key architect who created modern American organized crime as we know it. He was also America’s biggest drug dealer.
13. Before the Latin American Drug Cartels, There Was the Italian American Mafia
Lucky Luciano, who emigrated to America at age nine, was a criminal since childhood. By age ten, he was involved in shoplifting, mugging, and extortion. At age nineteen, Luciano was sentenced to six months for selling heroin. In 1920, he joined Joe Masseria’s crime family, and became his chief lieutenant, running his bootlegging, prostitution, and narcotics operations.
Challenging the myth that the mob stayed away from drugs is the fact that Lucky Luciano was America’s biggest narcotics trafficker and distributor. Contra the notion popularized by movies and works of fiction that the mob traditionally avoided narcotics, dealing drugs was one of the mafia’s biggest moneymakers since the earliest days of the American mafia.
It is often asserted that the Mafia had a long standing prohibition against drug trafficking – either because of morality, or because of the public stigma attached to drugs. That is pure bunk. The notion that the mafia stayed away from drugs is just a myth, popularized by fiction and Hollywood hits such as The Godfather.
In reality, the mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start. Long before the days of Pablo Escobar, pioneering mafioso Lucky Luciano became America’s – and one of the world’s – biggest narcotics kingpins. For decades, the mafia was the biggest importer of hard drugs into the US, particularly heroin. It was not until cocaine supplanted heroin as the hard drug of choice, and the rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1970s, that the mob lost its top billing as America’s biggest drug trafficker.
William Tell reportedly strode through Altdorf, Switzerland, with his son, one fine day in 1307. There, an agent of the ruling Habsburgs, 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 would 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. However, he 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. However, the hero freed himself, killed Gessler, and triggered a rebellion that overthrew the Habsburgs and led to Swiss independence. Awesome story. Unfortunately, it is a complete myth.
William Tell is Switzerland’s national hero, and it is difficult to find a town in that country that does not have a statue or monument commemorating him and celebrating the myth of his exploit. 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.
Tell’s most famous 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 every year. 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.
It would be awesome if the myth of William Tell was real. However, 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 Habsburg agent, Albrecht Gessler, had ever existed.
The whole story was actually 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. The Swiss were so attached to the Tell tale, however, 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.
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 generals trying to explain getting beaten by “Asiatic untermenschen“, whose easy defeat they had anticipated when they invaded the USSR in 1941.
That perception is based not on fact, but on myth. 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.
The wehrmacht did inflict disproportionately high losses on the Red Army. However, 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.
Casualty statistics bely the human wave myth. When the Soviets shifted to the offensive – when you would expect them to make the most use of “human wave” attacks – their casualty ratio against the Germans actually 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.
Although there are some documented cases of massed attacks by Soviet forces during WWII, they were few. 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 notion that massed attacks were standard Red Army practice is just a myth.
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 try to do when attacking.
5. Overwhelming Soviet Numerical Superiority Was Also a Myth
The myth of the Soviet military’s reliance on 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.
It is often bandied about that the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. While that year is usually viewed as that empire’s traditional end date, the notion that it came to an end in 476 is a myth. The empire’s end was actually a gradual process, not an abrupt one. Contemporaries hardly noticed that anything special had happened in 476. What did actually happen that year was that a military strongman, Odoacer, beat another military strongman, Orestes, to become the power behind the throne – Western Roman emperors having long since been reduced to puppets by then.
Odoacer then forced Orestes’ son, the sixteen-year-old Emperor Romulus Augustulus, to abdicate. Augustulus’ imperial regalia was sent to the other Roman emperor, in Constantinople, who confirmed Odoacer as ruler of Italy in the now-sole Roman Emperor’s name. On the ground, little changed in Italy or the rest of the Western Roman Empire. Most people who lived in 477 would not have noticed anything particularly different from 476.
3. The Myth That Alexander the Great Conquered History’s Greatest Empire
Alexander the Great was one of history’s greatest conquerors, widely credited with conquering history’s greatest empire until then. The man was undoubtedly great, but his empire’s size was not the greatest to date. When Alexander died in 323 BC, history’s largest empire until then was still the Persian Empire. The map above is of Alexander’s empire at its greatest extent. The map below is of the Achaemenid Persian Empire under Darius the Great (490 BC).
Alexander’s and Darius’ empires mostly overlap. However, the territory that Darius did not rule in Greece and Thrace is more than made up for with territories he ruled in Arabia, Central Asia, Libya and the Caucasus, that Alexander never conquered. All in all, the difference amounts to about 300,000 square kilometers in favor of the Persian Empire at its peak: 5.5 million square kilometers, vs 5.2 million for Alexander’s realm. It took another two and a half centuries after Alexander’s death before the Achaemenid Empire’s size record was finally bested, by China under the Han Dynasty.
People visiting the Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia might come across a bit of Civil War history that 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 âThe 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: it is a myth.
There is a solid consensus among Civil War scholars and historians 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 myth, Trump retorted: “how would they know that? Were they there?”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading