4 Icons of World War II That Are Big Ol’ Lies
Fewer than 20 percent of Cracked readers fought in World War II, leaving us all to rely on historical sources to learn anything about the conflict. We look to iconography from the time and think of people back then viewing these same images, and we imagine how they felt.
We’re wrong about some of those icons, though. Because as famous as they are today, people back then never saw them at all.
No One Back Then Saw the ‘We Can Do It’ Poster
You probably know the above mascot as Rosie the Riveter. That’s your first mistake. Rosie the Riveter was an actual person, Rosalind P. Walter, who managed a riveting performance at the Vought Aircraft Company early on during the war. In 1942, some people wrote a song about her. In 1943, Norman Rockwell painted an illustration titled Rosie the Riveter, showing a riveter whose lunch pail is labeled “Rosie” stomping on a copy of Mein Kampf.
Rosie came to represent the millions of women who entered the workforce during World War II, and the government used that Rockwell art to advertise war bonds. But We Can Do It, which you know so well, was not commissioned by the government or used to inspire women to seek work in factories. One company, Westinghouse, hired an ad agency to make it as a motivational poster for its existing workers. These specific workers weren’t riveters, by the way, but were making helmet liners. “Work hard at your current task,” was all the poster meant, even if it used a veneer of war and patriotism to drive the message home. Here’s another poster from the same series:
The big question is how the entire country came to rally around a poster pinned on the walls of one random factory. Well, the fact is, they didn’t. No one saw the poster during World War II, other than the few people who happened to work on that particular factory floor during the two weeks when it was posted. But the National Archives preserved the poster, and 40 years later, the Washington Post Magazine did a piece of the Archives’ poster collection, and they included “We Can Do It.”
Suddenly, the poster went viral — or what passed for viral back then. The Smithsonian stuck it on a magazine cover. The postal service made it into a stamp. Feminists interpreted it as a call for female empowerment, but that’s not exactly what the poster originally meant. Again, it was just designed to ease labor-management relations (i.e., to boost productivity and discourage workers from striking).
No One Saw ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ Either
Keep Calm and Carry On, on the other hand, really was commissioned by the British Government as propaganda, exactly as you previously imagined. The government printed 2.5 million of the posters. That was more than one poster for every 20 people in the entire country.
However, Britain never got around to distributing them. They distributed posters labeled “courage” and “freedom is in peril,” but “keep calm and carry on” was deemed a message to be reserved for darker times. These words did not aim to uplift spirits while men fought overseas. These words aimed to keep people going once Germany started massive, continuous civilian attacks, turning all of England into a battlefield. Eventually, German did launch the Blitz, but before then, Britain experienced a paper shortage. As such, they pulped nearly all the Keep Calm posters and recycled them.
The poster entered public consciousness decades later, taking even longer than We Can Do It. In the year 2000, one bookstore in England bought a box of used stuff at an auction and found one of the original posters. Five years later, someone from The Guardian saw it hanging in the shop, asked for a copy and published it. It became famous after that. When you say the phrase now, you’re not hearkening back to World War II. You’re hearkening back to mid-aughts meme culture.
Germans Never Got the Volkswagen Beetle Under the Nazis
Many people don’t think of World War II at all when they think of the Volkswagen Beetle. Depending on when you grew up, seeing one might make you think about that movie about the living car, or make you punch a sibling, or make you think about that other movie about the other living car. But for people with some knowledge of history, the Beetle reminds them of Volkswagen’s status in Nazi Germany and how Hitler himself had VW come up with the Bug so everyone had the option of buying a cheap car. The Volkswagen Beetle was a Nazi product, just like the autobahn and Fanta.
The above photo is dated to 1939. Like most photos you see of happy families from decades past, it is not really representative of anything. In 1939, the Beetle was still in pre-production. Nearly a decade after Volkswagen first began tinkering with the idea, it remained in the prototype stage. They built up new factories ready to mass produce the car, and they marked the debut of the car in 1938, but they only rolled out a handful of them.
Then came the war. All manufacturers found themselves a little too preoccupied to unveil major advances in consumer automotive design. Volkswagen did not get to cranking out Beetles till after the war was done and the Nazis were defeated. So, despite a few photos of Hitler smiling at model cars, the Beetle, when it was a hit, was never a win for the Nazis. And oh yeah, the big engineer behind the car’s design, Josef Ganz, was Jewish.
No One Heard Churchill’s ‘Fight Them on the Beaches’ Speech, Not Even You
If you know only one thing Churchill ever said, it’s either something he belched at a woman while drunk at a party or the inspiring speech he delivered on June 4, 1940. We shall fight them on the beaches, said Churchill. We shall fight them on the landing grounds. We shall fight them in the fields and in the streets and on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Britain shall never surrender!
There’s quite a bit we misremember about that speech. For example, many people mentally scratch out the next lines of the speech, in which Churchill allowed for the possibility that Britain may well fall, that the island may be left “subjugated and starving,” in which case the British Fleet would retreat and head to other parts of the Empire. Those were not terribly encouraging words, but they spoke to the real point of his speech. He meant that Britain would fight till they could fight no more, at which point America better come and rescue and liberate them.
Suddenly, it sounds like the millions of people listening to the speech on the wireless might not have felt so inspired after all. You shouldn’t worry about that, though. Because no one was listening to the speech on the wireless. It was never broadcast. Churchill simply delivered it to the House of Commons. People read extracts of the speech, and radio announcers quoted it, but no one outside that room heard him deliver it.
The audio was not broadcast, and the audio was in fact never even recorded. If you feel like you’ve heard the speech before, that’s because you heard a recording that Churchill did years later, in 1949. By this point, he wasn’t really declaring anything, and he wasn’t even prime minister, just an ex-politician doing a theatrical performance for posterity.
Lastly, let's mention one more misconception about the speech. We quoted it wrongly above. Churchill did not say, “We shall fight them on the beaches.” He said, “We shall fight on the beaches.” It was a good speech, but it was not written in perfect trochaic tetrameter.
Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.