22 Myths About World War II That Just Aren't True

A conflict as wide-ranging and destructive as WWII naturally gives birth to a number of urban legends and myths that become "common knowledge" - despite not actually being true. Many have been refuted numerous times, and some exist only as rumors or fringe conspiracies held to by a few outsider scholars. WWII was a complex global struggle, that took the lives of many, and it can be hard to know what legends about this conflict and this period of history are actually true, and which are completely false.

These myths and urban legends about WWII range from Hitler's jubilant jig to the conspiracy theories that say FDR knew Pearl Harbor was about to be targeted. First we look at what the WW2 myth is, then at the reality - which sometimes is stranger than the myth itself

Need more information? Check out the conflict's pivotal battles, most influential people, and the many films telling the stories of WWII.

  • France Surrendered Without A Fight

    France Surrendered Without A Fight
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    THE MYTH: 

    France rolled over to Germany in 1940 without resisting because the French are cowards.


    The fact that Germany did in six weeks during WWII what they couldn't do in four years in WWI is grossly oversimplified. While it's true that France surrendered quickly to Germany, French soldiers fought hard in the Battle of France, taking down over 150,000 people and destroying over German 800 tanks. The French army was let down by indecisive leadership, poor tactics, bad logistics, and commanders trying to fight a defensive conflict and avoid the high casualties of WWI.

  • Hitler Let The British Escape At Dunkirk

    Hitler Let The British Escape At Dunkirk
    Photo: War Office official photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    THE MYTH: 

    Adolf Hitler allowed 330,000 British soldiers to escape destruction on the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940 as a sporting gesture, or because they were fellow white people.


    The Dunkirk "halt order" would prove to be one of the most controversial military decisions of the conflict. German tanks were ordered to halt and regroup for two days at the exact same time as British soldiers were being evacuated from France. Some have alleged Hitler did this on purpose, and the dictator himself, late in his life, said it was a "sporting gesture" to Churchill.

    But the historical record doesn't bear this out. There's no military reason Germany's dictator would have wanted Britain's army to escape intact, and German armored units did need a break to rest and rearm. Such a break was actually requested by the German panzer commander in France - an order rubber stamped by Hitler. He was also convinced that his air force could destroy the British soldiers on the beaches. He was wrong, and those men would later return to France to liberate it.

  • Returning GIs Abandoned Thousands Of Cars In Belgium

    Returning GIs Abandoned Thousands Of Cars In Belgium
    Photo: cszar / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0


    Unable to bring them home, US soldiers abandoned thousands of vintage cars that had been plundered from Occupied Germany, leaving them to rot in a Belgian forest.


    The pictures of this Belgian car graveyard, abandoned for 70 years, are indeed haunting. But as to who left the cars there and why - that's a mystery. Urban legend says the cars were dumped there by US GIs, but locals say it's just a car boneyard, no different from any dumping ground anywhere else.

    It's obvious from looking at the pictures you'll find online that the urban legend isn't true. Most of these cars are clearly from after the conflict, with some from the '60s and '70s. In any case, the car graveyard was a source of stolen spare parts for decades, until being permanently cleared in 2010.

  • The Death Match

    The Death Match
    Photo: Photographer of IOC / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


    A soccer team made up of Ukrainian players was wiped out after beating a Nazi team.


    The so-called "death match" between the ad-hoc Ukrainian team Start FC and German occupier team Flakelf did take place. But the players weren't executed en masse afterwards, and no research has found proof that any German official told the Ukrainians to lose or die, as many historical accounts of the time claim.

    What's probable is that several of the players, all of whom were on a work detail, were shot as a reprisal for a resistance act. Those players are immortalized in a statue outside the stadium of Dynamo Kyiv, the most popular soccer team in Ukraine.

  • Germany Invaded The Soviet Union Preemptively

    Germany Invaded The Soviet Union Preemptively
    Photo: Alpert/Макс Альперт / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0


    Germany only invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, because the Soviets were about to invade Germany.

    THE FACT: 

    This is more of a conspiracy theory than a myth, held by a few fringe scholars of the conflict on the Eastern Front. It originates with a Soviet intelligence officer, Viktor Suvarov, who defected to the UK in the late '80s. His thesis was that Joseph Stalin had introduced conscription and lowered the minimum age of the Red Army to gain manpower, while ordering maps of Germany issued to soldiers in the field.

    Most historians dismiss Suvarov's theories, though they agree that Stalin would have eventually ordered an invasion of Germany - but not for several years, as the Red Army was modernizing and reorganizing. The myth has also been jumped on by white supremacists as a sign that Hitler only targeted Russia to protect his country from Communist aggression. This theory is not supported by historical evidence.

  • Hitler Won The Leadership Of The Party By One Vote

    Hitler Won The Leadership Of The Party By One Vote
    Photo: Georg Pahl / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE


    Adolf Hitler was elected leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party by a margin of only one vote, showing the importance of every single vote.


    This oft-repeated urban legend isn't even close to true. He actually won the leadership of the party by a huge margin (553-1) when elected in 1923. It is true that the National Socialist German Workers' Party didn't win a majority of seats in the 1933 German election, the last one held before Germany became a one-party state - but this had no real impact on the scope of Nazi power.