So ingrained is the widely accepted narrative of World War II that we can recount the conflict’s history in a short series of mere phrases: Hitler rises, France falls, the Holocaust begins, Pearl Harbor burns, D-Day commences, the bomb drops.
However, this narrative — even in its most fully fleshed-out form — misrepresents why and when the war started, how and where it progressed along the way, and why and when it ended. This narrative likewise conceals both the greatest devastation committed by the war’s “villains” and the greatest triumphs achieved by its “heroes.”
Did you know, for example, that the war didn’t begin in 1939 and didn’t end because of the bomb? Did you know that Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t even the deadliest bombings of the war, that 400,000 Axis soldiers made it onto American shores, or that the body count of the Holocaust is about twice as big as you think it is?
The facts and photos above begin to reveal the story of the war as it actually happened, not the narrative propagated by its most powerful victors after the fact. These are 21 World War II myths that desperately needed to be debunked.
Myth: American forces were filled with eager volunteers
A large part of the naive yet persistent American notion that World War II was “the good war” is the idea that countless young American men volunteered to fight because they simply knew that it was the right thing to do.However, consider the following: During World War II, two-thirds of U.S. forces were drafted, not enlisted. Yet during the Vietnam War — the ugly, evil twin to World War II’s “good war” — two-thirds of U.S. forces were enlisted, not drafted.
Myth: The Holocaust’s total death toll was 6 million Jews
It is unequivocally clear that approximately 6 million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis.However, that oft-quoted number says nothing of the other nearly half of the Holocaust’s total death toll. In addition to the 6 million Jews, the Nazis used their death camps to exterminate a further 5 million civilians coming from many diverse groups including communists, Roma, Serbs, Polish intelligentsia, homosexuals, the disabled, and more.
Myth: The largest civilian death tolls were among European Jewish populations
While the whopping 6 million Jews killed in Europe were most likely dispatched with more despicable and ruthless intent than any other civilian group during the war, that figure pales in comparison to not one, but two others.Current estimates suggest that the civilian death toll for the Soviet Union was about 13 million and that the civilian death toll for the Chinese (at the hands of the Japanese) was about 14 million.
Myth: Axis soldiers never set foot on American soil
Few seem to realize that 400,000 Axis soldiers landed in the U.S. between 1942 and 1945. Thankfully for the Americans, however, those 400,000 were prisoners of war.Dozens of American prison camps across the country housed the hundreds of thousands of prisoners that the European Allies, namely the British, simply didn’t have room for.
And by all accounts, the conditions in these camps were pretty good. Prisoners were paid for their labor and provided with amenities like theater, games, and books — it was a “golden cage,” one prisoner later said.
Myth: The Nazis were the only ones that committed war crimes
Some students of World War II history may already know of the horrifying war crimes committed by the Japanese, including the 250,000 civilians that the notorious Unit 731 subjected to stomach-turning medical experiments, the 100,000 civilians that they executed in Manila in one fell swoop, or the thousands upon thousands of American POWs they tortured and killed.But far fewer people likely realize that the Allies committed their share of hideous crimes as well. There’s the recent study suggesting that American soldiers raped approximately 14,000 women in England, France, and Germany as well as 10,000 in Okinawa.
Myth: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most destructive bombings of the war
While the instant death tolls at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are as high as 80,000 and 70,000, respectively, the U.S. saved its deadliest bombing raid appropriately enough for the Japanese capital of Tokyo.On March 9 and 10, 1945, 279 U.S. bombers dropped 1,665 tons of bombs on the city, destroying 16 square miles, killing at least 100,000 and leaving another million each injured and homeless.
Myth: The atomic bombings convinced Japan to surrender
What many people don’t realize is that on the very same day that the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb, the Soviet Union invaded Japanese territory.Before the atomic bombs, the U.S. had already firebombed 66 Japanese cities. “If you look at it from the perspective of the Japanese military, it doesn’t really make a big difference whether people are dying from fire bombing or atomic bombs … it is [just] two additional city centres that are destroyed,” saidTokyo’s Temple University director of Asian Studies Jeffery Kingston.
Myth: The U.S. saved the day
There are many reasons why this notion — naturally, held almost exclusively in the U.S. — is patently false, but let’s go straight to the most glaring: When World War II ended and the Cold War began, the U.S. and its Western Allies were loath to write a history of the war that attributed the lion’s share of their victory to their former ally who was now their enemy: the Soviet Union.More than any other single country, the Soviet Union is responsible for defeating the Nazis. The ratio of total military losses on the Eastern Front versus the Western Front was an astonishing nine to one, and more than 80 percent of Germany’s military deaths occurred in the east.
This, of course, came at an extraordinary cost for the Soviet Union, which lost somewhere around 10 million military personnel (in addition to 13 million or so civilians). The U.S., on the other hand, lost just about 400,000 troops.
Myth: American forces led D-Day
Myth: It was one big war
It was the world against the Nazis…or so the story goes.However, the far more complicated truth is that the war was a diverse collection of both related and unrelated geopolitical conflicts that had been building for years, even decades, until enough countries had reached their breaking points that something had to be done — a tangled morass that had finally reached critical mass.
Among these conflicts were Japan’s incursions into China, Italy’s incursions into Africa, border disputes between the Soviet Union and Japan, fighting between communists and anti-communists in eastern Europe and on and on and on.
And that’s just the beginning…
Myth: It wasn’t really a “world” war
This truly worldwide war wasn’t simply the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France versus Germany, Japan, and Italy.While the main combatants, in terms of raw numbers of troops deployed, do indeed consist mostly of the nations above, the war eventually elicited official declarations from virtually the entire world, with just a tiny handful of countries remaining neutral.
From naval action in South America to oil fields in the Middle East to land operations in north Africa to reinforcements coming up from New Zealand, no corner of the globe was off the hook.
Myth: It started in 1939
Most history books tell us that World War II began on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. Hell, some Americans probably think the war started on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.However, many historians suggest earlier starting points including the Soviet-Japanese fighting in Mongolia in May 1939, the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and even the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
But, a war’s victors are always the ones who later write its history. And so the world powers on the winning side of World War II ultimately pegged the start of the war as the moment when they got involved.
Myth: Pearl Harbor was a surprise sneak attack
While the timeline is complicated and the evidence is fuzzy, it does seem to be true that the Japanese intentionally launched the attack without a formal declaration of war, but to call the attack a “surprise” is a mischaracterization.Tensions between the U.S. and Japan had been high for well over a decade before Pearl Harbor, with the U.S. even drawing up an official war plan for action against Japan way back in 1924. Thirteen years later, the Japanese even bombed an American ship in China.
By the time negotiations began between the two countries in 1941, everyone knew things were nearing the breaking point — even those outside of the corridors of power. A Gallup poll taken in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, showed that 52 percent of Americans expected war with Japan while just 27 percent did not.
Myth: The U.S. stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbor
While the U.S. had indeed declared no war and deployed no troops before Pearl Harbor, the country was absolutely involved in the war before that point. A full six months before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. enacted the Lend-Lease program, which ultimately sent the modern equivalent of $659 billion worth of supplies to overseas allies fighting the war.Furthermore, it was America’s economic sanctions against Japan in 1941 that directly precipitated Pearl Harbor.
To suggest that the U.S. was sitting alone minding its own business before December 7, 1941 is simply not accurate.
Myth: The Nazis were duly punished for their crimes
Until once secret documents came to light just a few years ago, hardly anyone realized that as many as 9,000 Nazis and Nazi collaborators instrumental in orchestrating the Holocaust escaped justice, largely in South America, just after the war.For comparison, just 6,495 Nazi war criminals ever stood trial. And what’s more, many of those who escaped did so with government help from German, South American, and even French leaders who were complicit in Nazi crimes.
Furthermore, thousands of Nazi scientists even went on to play key roles in the space race and weapons development programs for the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Myth: It was the first fully mechanized war
While World War II was indeed mechanized, filled with planes and tanks, like no other war before, it was also far less technologically modern than you realize. Look no further than the classic symbol of pre-mechanized warfare: the horse.During the war, the Soviet Union employed 3.1 million horses while Germany employed 2.75 million, and also had three times more horses than vehicles when the war began.
Myth: Polish soldiers on horseback stupidly charged German tanks
On September 1, 1939, often believed to be the very first day of the war, the story goes that a group of Polish soldiers on horseback foolishly attacked a German division that had tanks and were thus obliterated easily.Not only is this not true — the tanks only arrived after the indeed better-equipped German forces had dispatched the Poles — but the way that the Nazi propaganda machine spun the story both informed a stereotype of Polish stupidity that reverberates to this day and singlehandedly obfuscated a Polish war contribution that involved 400,000 troops.
Myth: France simply folded out of weakness
The reason that the Germans conquered France in just six weeks in early 1940 is because, purely on a tactical level, the French simply weren’t ready for the radical new style of combat that the Germans were employing. Known as blitzkrieg, this approach saw German units pierce through enemy lines at unparalleled speeds in the hopes of coming back around to encircle the enemy.The retreating British forces in France, on the other hand, were simply able to escape with hundreds of thousands of troops back across the English Channel. Yet somehow Britain, as a country, didn’t acquire a reputation for cowardliness — nor should they have, just as France shouldn’t have.
Myth: The French Resistance played an important role
Current estimates suggest that as little as two percent of the French population engaged in resistance activities of any kind, with a far smaller subsection, as little as half a percent, actually taking on practical missions of sabotaging the Nazi war effort.Moreover, as historian Robert Paxton wrote in The New York Review of Books, “It is inescapable that most resistance actions within France failed…The bottom line is that the Resistance did not change the war’s outcome. The Allies were going to win, whether the French Resistance helped them or not.”
Myth: Winston Churchill was a universally revered wartime hero
If Churchill was the beloved wartime leader some historians say, why would he and his Conservative Party suffer the single largest defeat in British history in the 1945 elections, before the treaty with Japan was even signed?Among other things — including policies that had severely underserved social welfare at home for nearly a decade — that 1945 defeat surely had a lot to do with Churchill’s irrationally hawkish mindset as the war was finally about to end.
For one, there was Churchill’s appropriately named Operation Unthinkable in mid-1945. This mission, obviously never executed, would have immediately sent American, British, and, craziest of all, re-armed German forces into a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union (whose troops outnumbered the Allies four to one).
Myth: The Western Allies pretty much consisted of the U.S., Britain, and an already defeated France
Setting aside the whopping 10 million or so Soviet soldiers who died during the war, even the non-Soviet Allies don’t look quite like you think they do.Yes, Britain and the U.S. each sustained military death totals of about 400,000. But sadly forgotten are the death totals of at least 300,000 each from Hungary, Romania, and Yugloslavia, the 240,000 from Poland, the 87,000 from India, the 3.5 million from China and on and on.