Fake history: 3 historical untruths that shaped the world

Separating fact-based history from fake history is an ongoing challenge, with politics and culture continuously affected by incorrect or exaggerated narratives and outright lies about the past. Here, journalist and author Otto English opines three historical untruths that he considers to have had a big impact on society…

Black and white drawing showing King George V using a broom to sweep away several crowns adorned with the words 'Made in Germany'.

For many of us, history is a bit like a stew. A hotpot of nutritious five-a-day facts, the cabbage of half-recalled school lessons, the comforting E numbers of family sagas and the tasty off-cuts of myth.

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Add in the dark gravy of ‘good stories’ so beloved of us all and it can be very hard indeed to divine what is fact-based history and what is fake history.

It’s not always problematic. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter whether your auntie saw The Beatles at the Cavern Club in 1960, or whether she confused them with the Swinging Blue Jeans. Nor is it hugely consequential that chicken tikka masala wasn’t invented in Glasgow, or that Sir Walter Ralegh never threw down his coat in a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I.

But the big stuff matters, because false and alternative narratives of empire, war and slavery ever more inform our political discourse. Those notions arguably fed the rise of President Donald Trump in the US, both sides of the Brexit debate in the UK, and the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic in various parts of the globe. We also see it in Xi Jinping’s China, in the Scottish independence movement, and in the ongoing – and to many, tiresome – culture wars.

1

Britain was a small, ‘underdog’ nation that could have lost the Second World War

You might reasonably imagine that our grasp of recent history like the Second World War is better than almost anything else. After all, many of us know people who lived through it, and there is an almost endless cycle of documentaries and films on our TV screens that have familiarised us with the key events of 1939–45.

The Second World War still matters in Britain. After all, we are all told that 1940 was our “darkest hour” – and the idea still defines our collective national psyche. Most of us have been raised on the tale.

In May 1940, France fell. Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, with help from the ‘Little Ships’, Britain faced down the might of Hitler’s war machine until Russia and the US pitched up to help. In the meantime, the so-called ‘Blitz Spirit’ saw everyone through; the indomitable courage that still keeps our spirits up in times of peril. We know the speeches by heart, and posters of the era decorate our offices. When terrorist attacks or pandemics encroach on our lives, we tell each other to “keep calm and carry on”.

Many Britons persist in fundamentally misunderstanding the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain is a cracking story – a sort of 20th-century David and Goliath but with cups of tea, air raid wardens and Spitfires in place of slingshots, Philistines and stones.

But many Britons persist in fundamentally misunderstanding it.

For a start, Britain in 1940 wasn’t barely held together. It was a global superpower, capable of pulling on vast resources and men. And while Dunkirk was a disaster, we were never really in any imminent threat of invasion.

At the start of the Battle of Britain, the RAF and Luftwaffe were fairly matched – by July, the British were outproducing German aircraft by two-to-one. The British had the first advanced integrated radar system in the world, and – courtesy of code breakers – were capable of reading Enigma decrypts from August 1940 onwards. They also had the benefit of fighting in their own skies and lost half the number of pilots suffered by the enemy, many of whom were killed or captured.

As for a German invasion of Britain – well, even Hitler never really considered it feasible. The Royal Navy was the most powerful maritime force in the world. The idea that a seaborne invasion made up of converted barges could slip beneath the nose of the Royal Navy is something akin to fantasy. Indeed, German military commander Alfred Jodl said it would be like sending men into a “mincing machine”.

Wartime propaganda exaggerated the level of threat and, subsequently, millions of us have continued to buy into the story. Unfortunately, that has bolstered British notions of self-reliance and exceptionalism; the idea we ‘stood alone’ in 1940 so we don’t need anyone else now.

2

Ancient people thought the Earth was flat

Ask a selection of friends when they think people first began accepting that the world was round. If they’re like those who I asked while researching my book, you’ll tend to get a cluster of answers that place it somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries. In part, that’s because many of us still believe that one of the reasons that Christopher Columbus headed west in 1492 was to prove that the Earth was round.

This was not the case. Proving that the Earth was a globe wasn’t a priority because, in 1492, the vast majority of people knew that already. Indeed, as far back as the fifth century BC, Aristotle and others were already trying to work out its circumference.

However, the fact that so many people think otherwise is largely the fault of the American writer Washington Irving, who in 1828 produced a hagiography of Columbus that cemented the Italian explorer as the ‘discoverer’ of America (despite there already being some 60 million people living there) while attempting to prove that the Earth was round.

In 1492, the vast majority of people knew that the Earth was round…

Many regard Columbus as a terrible person, and the truth is that he wasn’t a much better sailor. Having miscalculated the size of the Earth by about 25 per cent, when he arrived in the Caribbean he thought he was off the coast of China, or somewhere east of Japan.

His subsequent treatment of everyone he came into contact with was so brutal that he was eventually arrested by the Spanish authorities and sent back to Europe in chains. And yet despite being as dreadful a sailor as he was a human being, Columbus came to be seen by millions of North Americans as the super-smart explorer who founded their continent. Statues were raised, books were written, films were made, and for 200 years Washington Irving’s Columbus was the only version on offer.

Attempts to place the actual, historical Columbus in context have long met opposition. In October 2020, Donald Trump attacked the “radical activists” who talked of the great man’s “failings”.

Many would rather we believe in unifying, but fundamentally false, myths that distort our understanding of the past and the people in it because it serves the narrative better; one of bold and insightful European sailors bringing light to the dark corners of the Earth, while proving that it was round. Such thinking shapes us all.

3

The royal family is German

Families excel at spin, forging tribal narratives about who we are and where we came from. We want our ancestors to be interesting – but we also want them to fit the narratives we have about ourselves. So that Irish forebear accounts for our charm and wit. So that great aunt who went to Oxford explains our passion for mathematics. So those relatives who fought in either world war are heroes or victims.

In the process, an awful lot of people get left on the cutting room floor. The whole distorts our view of ourselves and informs our past. We tag our relatives onto the big events of history and appropriate their memories on Platforms like Facebook.

Sometimes, the family history of others is weaponised and distorted. It happened with ‘birther narrative’ questions about Barack Obama in the mid 2010s, and for the last 200 years, many have sought to discredit the British monarchy by claiming that ‘they’ are ‘a bunch of Germans’ and therefore somehow not wholly legitimate. The notion stretches back to the Sophia Naturalization Act of 1705 and the subsequent arrival of a Hanoverian-born king on the British throne in 1714, who was crowned George I.

But the cosmopolitan nature of European royal family trees means that the Windsor family could, legitimately, just as well be described as English, French, Danish, Russian, Polish or even Arab, but many Britons are curiously comforted by the ‘bunch of Germans’ story. They like to concentrate on the name change in the First World War, and the idea feeds a broader Germanophobic undercurrent in the UK that still attempts to drag people down a peg or two by association.

Having an ancestor who was German does not make you ‘German’. Otherwise, two of our most recent prime ministers, David Cameron and Boris Johnson (who are also descendants of George I), would be regarded as ‘Germans’ too.

Many Britons are curiously comforted by the ‘bunch of Germans’ story

Ancestry is frequently an exercise in confirmation bias. It reinforces cultural and social divides and shapes the way we think about ourselves rather than celebrating our interconnected family trees.

The aristocrat who comforts themselves that they are descended from William the Conqueror is likely descended from whoever scrubbed his undergarments as well. But who likes to boast about that?

Unpicking fake history is fascinating. I’m a journalist by trade and captivated by what is going on beneath the spin of what we are told. Inevitably, this sometimes means you run the risk of being branded a ‘woke warrior’ who is spoiling everything for everyone else. Depressingly, for many people, ‘history’ has become a sort of religion, and to challenge any of our much-beloved ‘beliefs’ is to invoke considerable ire. ‘Good stories’ are fun, of course – but personally, I’d prefer to understand what really happened instead.

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Otto English is the author of Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How they Changed the World (Wellbeck)