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What with all the propaganda, prejudice, and humanity's tendency to reduce the complexities of history to Michael Bay films, World War II remains one of the most misunderstood wars ever fought. If you're a history buff, a war nut, or a really old dude with a hell of a life story, you might already know some of the following things. But if you're like us and got most of your World War II knowledge from fighting Hitler in a robot suit, you might think that ...

5
Hitler Was In Undisputed Control Of The German Military

General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Myth:

Hitler wasn't the military genius pop culture usually portrays him as, but at least the guy commanded some loyalty. Dude was the Fuhrer, after all, and we know he was a captivating leader -- we've seen those videos of him delivering terrifying, passionate speeches to the tune of riotous cheers.

But Actually:

Shockingly enough, being cuffed in the ears by Nazis every time they stepped out of line wasn't openly embraced by 100 percent of the population. The German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, was fiercely loyal to the state, but harbored a deep-seated distrust of politicians and their shenanigans. Erich Raeder, the Grand Admiral for the first half of the war, actively resisted any and all attempts to Nazify the Navy, and gained some notoriety for his up-to-two-hour shouting matches with Hitler. After Raeder's inevitable resignation in 1943, his more Reich-minded successor allowed the Nazi mentality to seep in, but even he continued to keep the Party at an arm's length.

Die Kriegsmarine Magazine
This month's featured story: "27 Secret Codes For Telling The Fuhrer To Suck It (To His Face)."

The Navy even had a rule that people who joined had to leave the Nazi Party before taking part in any missions, but that didn't mean the Kriegsmarine were passive-aggressively condemning the evils of Nazism. They were mostly just too Christian and conservative to buy into this new-wave Nazi stuff. Still, the Navy was an apt breeding ground for dissenters like Admiral Canaris, who collaborated with generals on the Eastern Front to use a wine bottle to blow Hitler up in 1943.

Thede Palm
Which resulted in him being stripped nude and lynched, with his body left up to rot and bloat. Um ... YOLO?

Speaking of the Eastern Front: Invading the Soviet Union didn't go well for the Germans, and the troops' opinion of their supreme commander was directly proportional to the depth of the frozen shit creek they found themselves in. Starting in 1942, the Wehrmacht began taking in Soviet citizens to bolster their ranks, and when Hitler told them to stop recruiting racially inferior people into his army, the officers politely told him to screw off. By the end of 1942, 700,000 of the three million soldiers in the Axis army were Soviets. Additionally, a type of German machine gun called the Sturmgewehre proved invaluable on the Eastern Front ... after it was developed against Hitler's orders.

United States Military
He presumably wanted only pure German weaponry, like schnitzel cannons and bratwurst bombs.

Basically, disobeying Hitler was the main reason the Nazis didn't lose the Eastern Front so quickly that the D-Day troops would have landed in the middle of a Normandy-wide vodka-and-borscht beach party.

4
Nazi War Prisoners Got What They Deserved

United States Army

The Myth:

Being a Nazi POW must have been rough. How could it not have been? Look at what they did to the people they put in prison camps. How do you say "karma" in German, motherfuckers?

Oh, it's still just "karma"? Well ... shut up. Jerks.

But Actually:

Tons of Nazi war prisoners got away virtually scot-free ... and we helped them. America took in over 400,000 German prisoners, and an estimated percentage of who-the-hell-knows were unrepentant Nazis. The U.S. had relatively little experience dealing with POWs, and the sudden influx of up to 30,000 of them per week required quick thinking. So they rounded them up, took them to a bunch of prison camps, and ... treated them super fine. They were fed well, and even given wine and beer with their meals, because it's always a great idea to give alcohol to hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers on your soil when your own army is on another continent.

Camp Hearne Museum
Light beer didn't exist back then, so they couldn't even torture the POWs with that.

The prisoners even got pretty well along with the locals, after (we assume) the obligatory wacky misunderstandings. Sure, there was some forced labor, but even that was strictly governed by the Geneva Convention accords, paid, and mostly the kind of manual labor (farm work, etc.) they were used to anyway. The most common stated grievance was boredom. As such, escape attempts remained minimal, and some prisoners stated that their life in a POW camp was way better than it had been back in the German military.

After the prisoners were returned to their war-ravaged homeland by 1946, some of them kept in contact with the American friends they had made, and many eventually returned to the U.S. Ironically, these positive U.S./German relations (along with the CIA) enabled thousands of registered Nazis to eventually settle in America and gain citizenship.

Mariner Books
Like your regular neighbors, but even more likely to ignore property lines.

But the U.S. didn't get blitzed or anything, so it makes sense that they'd go easier on the Nazis than the more involved nations, like the Soviets. You'd think that, and you'd be wrong. In 1943, Stalin gave orders that the treatment of all Axis prisoners, including Germans, be improved. As a result, Axis POWs had it better than Soviet civilians while in captivity. It's a wonder surrendering didn't become the hottest fad in the Third Reich years earlier.

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3
World War II Was A ... Well, A Big, Worldwide War

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Myth:

World War II began when the Nazis invaded Poland and ended when the United States nuked Japan. Sure, it may not have become Hollywood World War II until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in '41, but the point is that if the Second World War were a tombstone, it would read "1939-1945," and its cause of death would read "America."

But Actually:

What we handily label a giant, globe-spanning "World War II" was in fact a whole bunch of different conflicts, occasionally fought completely independently of each other over the course of more than a decade. Attempts to pin down a specific starting date is a matter of dispute among scholars. Oh, the German invasion of Poland in 1939 is a narratively convenient way to kick-start the story with the European main villain's first major power play, but that was still a local thing between two countries. You could arguably have a stronger case that the war became truly global in 1941, thanks to Pearl Harbor and Hitler's invasion of Russia. Or you could take things back a bit and note that there were way, way worse things going on globally well before the Nazis curb-stomped the Polish. The equally conquer-happy Japan had already been locked in the Second Sino-Japanese War with China since the summer of 1937, killing more than 20 million Chinese (almost all of whom were civilians) over the course of eight years. Who's to say that shit doesn't count? Not even the Soviet Union suffered that many civilian casualties.

Kokusai Joho Sha
When the war is so devastating that the soldiers have to dress like its the end of the world,
then it's part of the fucking world war.

Speaking of 1937, that was the same year Italy joined the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan, effectively forming the Axis powers. At that point, Italy had already been in full-scale war with Ethiopia for nearly a year -- their second war of the decade -- and Russia and Japan had been waist-deep in a series of serious border clashes since 1932.

Collezione cartoline Albertomos
"Ending one war and starting another" was a nice change of pace
from Italy's usual "Ending one government and starting another."

In short, what the Western world labels "World War II" is more of an era in history, rather than a singular conflict. If we view it as such, then the war was already underway, complete with armies, navies, and war crimes, for nearly two years before Hitler even managed to anger-mustache his way into a chancellorship.

2
The Axis Were The Ones Committing War Crimes, While The Allies Tried To Stop Them

Deutsche Fotothek

The Myth:

It's not like the U.S. or UK ever did anything that bad during World War II, never mind anything comparable to the atrocities of the Germans. The Allies were fighting to put an end to that stuff, for Pete's sake!

But Actually:

Please bear in mind that we're about to discuss a bunch of war crimes committed during the single most violent ... anything in human history, so be warned: We are officially entering bunny territory.

amenic181/iStock/Getty Images
Scroll back here as often as you need.

Soak in those bunnies. Here we go:

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-08778-0001 / Hahn / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Those were a fraction of the 18,000-25,000 civilians killed during the bombing of Dresden, a wholly unnecessary air raid carried out by more than 2,000 U.S. and UK bombers for the purpose of "exploiting the confused conditions" of the terrified city. Dresden was one of the many cities subjected to such bombings by the Allied forces.

Deutsche Fotothek

But that's enough about bombings ...

Because there are so many other atrocities to talk about!

There's the internment of innocent Japanese, German, and Italian civilians by the U.S., the British, and even the Canadians. Rampant massacre of captured soldiers and civilians. Allied troops collecting gold teeth from corpses and keeping Japanese skulls as trophies during the war in the Pacific. The list goes on, even if you really wish it would stop ...

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1
The Atomic Bomb Was The End Of The War

U.S. National Archives

The Myth:

Even if the entire conflict is hard to pin down, we know exactly what marked the end of things on the Pacific front. (Hint: It went bang.)

But Actually:

From Japan's point of view, the A-bombs that America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were essentially grenades. Terrifyingly destructive ones, granted, but far from enough to immediately make them roll over. According to Japan's own leaders, the moment they knew they lost the war had less to do with the atomic bomb and more to do with America's heavy overall bombing campaign of the summer of 1945, which killed more than a quarter of a million people and injured hundreds of thousands more. That's more casualties than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

United States Air Force
"One bomb per person" is an extremely effective demoralizing strategy.

That was the point at which the Japanese knew they'd lost the war, though not the point of surrender. Instead, they attempted to negotiate an armistice that would preserve most of their empire's pre-war borders and protect their emperor from incrimination for war crimes. Since such terms did not even passingly resemble surrender, President Truman rejected them. It was going to take something bigger for Japan to quit warring, and no, Hiroshima still wasn't enough. Or Nagasaki. It took the atomic bombing of Japan and the surprise Soviet invasion of Manchuria on the very same day as Nagasaki to convince Japan that tapping out was an acceptable option.

Back in February of 1945, at the Yalta Conference, Stalin agreed to enter the Pacific Theater, which he did with a spectacular military maneuver. One minute after midnight on August 9, 1945 (the same day Fat Man dropped), Stalin shoved a ridiculous 1.5 million men, 3,704 tanks, and 3,721 aircraft so far up Japan's ass that they tasted borscht for a decade.

Yevgeny Khaldei / Library of Congress
Pictured: the inevitable result of what's scientifically known as "making your goddamn point perfectly fucking clear."

The atomic bombings of Japan were a horror show, of course. But ultimately, it took a carefully planned joint effort between the U.S. and the Soviets to truly end the war. But that doesn't fit America's favorite narrative, which is "America rules, everybody else drools," so we tend to gloss over the whole pesky Soviet bit.

Jacopo della Quercia is the author of two books you need to own now, so click here. Adam Koski also recommends you go get Jacopo's book.

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