5 Stories That Prove Everyone Gets WW2 Wrong
Pop culture has given us a wealth of historically accurate World War II properties, from Wolfenstein 3D to Inglourious Basterds. We know literally everything about the war now. Absolutely nothing could surprise us at this point. Now if you'll excuse us, we must take an incredibly long sip of coffee, then pop in our monocles to better read the following article ...
The United States Turned Away Hundreds Of Jewish Refugees For Fear Of A Few German Spies Slipping In
In May of 1939, the MS St. Louis set off from Germany with Captain Gustav Schroder at the helm and a belly full of Jewish refugees. After being denied entry to Cuba at Havana harbor, the St. Louis set route for Florida, in hopes that the land of the free would be more accommodating. It was not.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had recently cracked down on immigration, restricting it to those with the financial means to support themselves. (At that point, the average German Jew's checkbook register read simply "Property of der Fuhrer.") As 1940 approached, and with it news that Nazi Germany was invading ... uh, everything, the American public began to regard Jewish refugees as potential threats to national security. FDR, who had previously canceled the expiration of up to 15,000 Germans' visas rather than, y'know, send them straight to Hell, caved to pressure from Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who rallied Southern Democrats and threatened to remove their support for the president if a certain boatful of refugees didn't disappear real sudden-like.
The St. Louis, denied entry at the port of Miami, turned back for Europe. About a third of its passengers ended up in Great Britain, while the rest were sprinkled throughout Western Europe, aka "the place where the Nazis were." By June of 1940, FDR had drunk deep of the Conspiracy Kool-Aid, stating: "Now, of course, the refugee has got to be checked because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries. And not all of them are voluntary spies -- it is rather a horrible story but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies."
And by golly, he was right: In 1942, the United States convicted Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr of being a Nazi spy posing as a Jewish refugee -- the single known instance of such a thing happening. Of the 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis, 254 died in the Holocaust. In 1945, Cordell Hull was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Karma's a lovely idea, isn't it?
The Japanese Did Not Invent Kamikaze
You know what a kamikaze pilot was: A suicide bomber with a really fancy bomb. It was a uniquely Japanese practice, one that could only come out of a culture that already placed death before dishonor. But it's not like they went straight to suicide missions. Why on earth would they? It wasn't until late 1944 that one-way kamikaze missions came into vogue, and that was an act of utter desperation at a time when the Japanese had fewer planes than the Allies had ships. Oh, also there was absolutely nothing "uniquely Japanese" about it. They didn't even invent the practice. That would be the Russians.
The first instance we know of involved Pyotr Nesterov taking down an Austrian reconnaissance plane by way of aerial ramming. When the war broke out, aiming a spent warplane at a valuable target had become an official Russian tactic known as taran. Of course, these weren't technically suicide attacks, there being an infinitesimal chance that a sufficiently skilled pilot could bail out before the kaboom.
For the Poles, going in for the ol' explosive headbutt was what one did when out of ammo. And shortly after the U.S. entered the war, USAAF Captain Colin P. Kelly Jr. was portrayed as the first true American hero of the conflict when he piloted his tattered B-17 directly into the smokestack of a Japanese battleship. That story turned out to be complete horseshit (Kelly kept the plane in the air long enough for his crew to escape before going down in a non-battleship-related crash), but it nevertheless elevated him to bona fide rock star status at a time when the American public needed it. All cultures have had suicide missions in some form or another -- it's just that when the other guy does it, it's crazy and barbaric, but when we do it, it's tragic yet necessary. You know, like double parking.
A Million Russians Fled Stalin To Join The Nazis
While much of the world was willing to overlook the awfulness of Joseph Stalin's Russia until such time as his Red Army was no longer essential in quashing the Nazi hordes, this was not the case for the nearly one million Soviets who enlisted in the German army. An estimated one out of every ten German soldiers captured by the Allies on D-Day was a Soviet citizen.
They were largely recruited from POW camps (Stalin's active opposition to providing humanitarian aid for Soviet POWs in Germany came in quite handy for the recruitment effort), and formed the Russian Liberation Army, a force led by former Red Army general Andrei Vlasov. The RLA earned high praise from Heinrich Himmler himself for their fighting vigor in early 1945, but as the year progressed, the inevitable course of the war had become clear. The Soviet turncoats, being turncoats, figured they could turn those coats one more time and took over Prague. They fought their way through the German Wehrmacht in order to surrender to Allied forces, and asked them to pretty pretty please not return them to Russia.
When the Allies denied that request, the Russian / Nazi / briefly Allied POWs resorted to rioting, attempted mass suicide, and tried to sabotage the engines of their transports -- anything to avoid being shipped back to Russia. Regardless, the vast majority were indeed sent back to the Motherland. And we'll go ahead and assume Stalin laughed it all off as a case of "boys will be boys." Too many of these entries are ending on a bummer.
Nazi Foot Soldiers Were Not "Just Following Orders"
While common knowledge regards the Wehrmacht as hapless "in the wrong place at the wrong time" soldiers, history doesn't bear that out. And if the Wehrmacht was largely responsible for carrying out der Fuhrer's grotesque wishes, that begs the question: How can one follow the orders of a monster without himself becoming a monster?
While it's comforting to imagine that all the lowly German soldiers and police officers were decent human beings stuck in an impossible situation, the uncomfortable truth is that there was always a choice. For instance, during the massacre of the 1,200 Jews from the Polish village of Jozefow (what remained of the village's 1,800-strong population after the fittest were shipped off to work camps), officers were allowed to bow out if they found the "work" distasteful. Nevertheless, 80 goddamned percent of them kept shooting until the job was done, mostly citing their desire to have a continued career after the war as justification.
Career is important, of course, but it's rarely "slaughter 1,200 innocent people" important.
Germany And Japan Broke Allied Codes All The Time
In the Pacific theatre, the Battle of Midway hinged on Captain Joseph Rochefort and his codebreakers predicting Japanese naval movements. Over in Europe, Alan Turing became a household name for breaking the Nazis' infamous Enigma Codes. Meanwhile, Wilhelm Tranow of B-Dienst was crackin' codes and takin' names, and those names were also in code, and he probably cracked those suckers, too.
What's that? Who in the ever-loving hell is Wilhelm Tranow? Tranow was Turing's Nazi doppelganger. Initially a battleship radio technician during the First World War, Tranow found he had a knack for breaking the British Navy's encrypted codes -- the ones they never bothered changing, like your old Hotmail password. So when war broke out again in 1939, Germany already knew where the Allied fleets were. From 1940 to 1943, the Nazis read 80 percent of all British naval communications, and knew the exact positions of more than half of all Allied convoys at any given time. The British would develop a new cipher after a devastating loss to German U-boats. Tranow and his team would crack the new cipher. Repeat ad infinitum. Historian David Kahn once said, "If one man in German intelligence ever held the keys to victory in World War II, it was Wilhelm Tranow."
It was largely due to the efforts of the B-Dienst that the Nazis were able to waltz right into Norway virtually unopposed. Only with 1943's development of the Typex cipher machine (basically a souped-up Enigma) did Britain effectively hide Allied movements from the Nazis.
Not that America did any better, mind you. Most of the world had already cracked America's codes, and were routinely eavesdropping on our top-secret diplomatic cables years before Pearl Harbor. Thank god the U.S. learned its lesson from all that, and now guards its classified information very closely.
For more war facts not taught to us by Steven Spielberg, check out 5 Bizarre Ways Everyone Gets World War II Wrong and 5 Insane True Stories That Change How You Picture WWII.
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