Imagine there’s no Hitler

Britons have a hard time telling historical fact from Hollywood fiction, says a survey of “average adults.” From the Independent:

The Battle of Hastings never took place and Adolf Hitler is a fictional character. Robin Hood really existed, Harold Wilson saved Britain during the Second World War and Conan the Barbarian is a bona fide figure from early Nordic history.

. . . Researchers, who conducted face-to-face interviews with more than 2,000 people, found that almost a third of the population thinks the Cold War was not real and 6 per cent believe The War of the Worlds, H G Wells’s fictional account of a Martian invasion, did happen.

. . . The study raised new questions about the teaching of history after it found that 11 per cent of the British population believed Hitler did not exist and 9 per cent said Winston Churchill was fictional. A further 33 per cent believed Mussolini was not a real historical figure.

While 57 per cent believe in King Arthur and 5 percent in Conan the Barbarian, 42 percent don’t realize that William Wallace, the 13th century Scottish hero of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, really did exist. And 38 percent doubt the existence of Genghis Khan.

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Comments

  1. Doubt the existence of Ghengis Khan? I’m shocked. Everyone knows he was played by John Wayne in “The Conquerer”

  2. Mike Roemer says:

    Before we get too uppiddy here, it’s important to remember that a quarter of a MILLION voters voted for 1.a pornographer 2. a stripper 3. unemployed midget in the last California election. Of course, they then ELECTED Conan. It’s too bad literacy tests got such a bad rap. It’s also not new. In past elections Mr. Ed, Mickey Mouse, Wonder Woman, Mr. Bill and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent got significant nods from the voters. In addition, I believe that a surprising percentage of Englander’s identify themselves as JEDI !!
    Ahhhh–it’s a wonderful world.

  3. The article gives attention to the theory that it’s Hollywood’s fault, but they don’t have convincing examples. The best example they used (Enigma) didn’t support the theory that people are misled by Hollywood; it was a case where people caught Hollywood’s changes.
    And mentioning that Robin Hood has been featured in films by Mel Brooks is not proof of anything.

    Personally, I think the reason is simple: a large segment of the population is stupid. And I don’t see that as a new development.

  4. theAmericanist says:

    Has anybody ever seen a decent attempt to debunk stories like this? I’m always skeptical, cuz they just SOUND so bogus — and credulous, all at once.

    It’s like the surveys that regularly come out in the spring, ‘proving’ that high school seniors think Elvis Presley was President and Pearl Harbor was a movie star: I can’t help but think that at least a few respondents weren’t exactly cooperative.

    And speaking as somebody who has read damn near everything he wrote from the Life of Marlborough to the History of the English Speakng Peoples, as well as more famous works (excepting The World Crisis which is hard to find) Winston Church WAS a cartoon character, ya know.

  5. theAmericanist says:

    ChurchILL.

  6. “Personally, I think the reason is simple: a large segment of the population is stupid. And I don’t see that as a new development.”

    Yup.

    “Has anybody ever seen a decent attempt to debunk stories like this? I’m always skeptical, cuz they just SOUND so bogus — and credulous, all at once.”

    Don’t believe everything you read or are told.

    Hmmmmmm. Nevermind

  7. Shawn Lee says:

    I’m with the Americanist on this one. It sounds too good to be true. Of course, if it isn’t true, it gives me hope for our future. Not that it makes us Americans any better, but that we’ll be competing internationally against less competent folk from other countries.

  8. K. Bowman says:

    I realize that there may be some disagreement as to the historical existence of King Arthur, but lots of intelligent people (including historians) believe that he did exist, and have good reason to do so. I am one. I also believe in King David and the City of Troy, which some may doubt. It’s a shame that an article condemning historical ignorance should proclaim the existence of King Arthur “mythical,” exhibiting ignorance of a legitimate historical controversy.

  9. Mike Roemer says:

    Yes, and so did “Santa Claus”, but not in the way the most people think of him. The “Arthur” of history would not be recognizable to any fan of “Camalot”. It’s this kind of “hair-splitting” that gives rise to the nonsense of the article.

  10. Walter Wallis says:

    William Wallis is real, they just spell his name wrong in the movie.

    I neither know nor care who or what the “Final Four” are/is, but I could find out if it was worth my while. JJ likely could not calculate the ampere design of a panelboard, but could be coached if she needed to know. People tend to retain close to the surface what they need in everyday life. People generally are better than they seem to be.

  11. Walter Wallis says:

    …except for Democrats, of course.

  12. I’ve never taken a survey such as this, but I think the urge to take the questions a bit less than seriously would make my answers suspect.

    Plus, too much thinking can make these survey results meaningless. For instance: do you believe in UFOs? I do. In fact I insist that there are things flying around that aren’t identified. I don’t think that they are of extraterrestrial origin, but that’s not going to come out in a yes or no question. As for Troy, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and many other myths, there are likely to be real stories behind all myths. Biblical floods? Of course: we still have flooding today. Conan the Barbarian? Conan was a common Celtic name: surely they weren’t all well-behaved.

    And I never got astromony and astrology confused until I read about professors who were shocked that people made that mistake. Now I have to think about it, while before I never made a connection.

  13. Bill Leonard says:

    I am inclined to believe this. I suspect it speaks to what passes for the educational system in the UK.

    About once a year I seem to see a new survey that indicates a significant number of college freshmen in this country — US born and raised, not immigrants or foreign students — who caqnnot identify the century in which the US Civil War was fought. I believe that, too.

    Why? Because I’ve met any number of recent college grads who may know a great deal about the content in their individual majors — music, art history, computer sciences, whatever — but who seem to have absorbed virtually nothing else in college or high school. And that’s sad.

  14. Like Jon, I suspect that prank answers and ambiguous questions account for a lot of the weirdness.

    Also, remember that both types of error are not equal: Thinking the Battle of the Bulge is fictional does show an ignorance of history, but the same cannot be said of believers in the Battle of Helms Deep. History is too vast to rule out people or events simply because you haven’t heard of them. In order to rule out the reality of the Battle of Helms Deep, you have to know Tolkien, not history. If you don’t know it’s from Rings, you just have to guess.

    As for those who really are ignorant of history, I wouldn’t be so quick to call them stupid. Oh, they might be, but they might also just have other stuff to do. After all, (and I hate to say this in an education blog) why does history matter? More precisely, why should it matter so much that adults with many demands on their time should take the time to find out if Genghis Khan really existed? For a lot of people ignorance is not the result of stupidity, but of time management.

    Sorry for the rant. These kinds of “lets ask people questions about stuff they don’t care about so we can bemoan their ignorance” studies are a pet peeve. (When was the last time you really had to identify a state or country on an unlabeled map?)

  15. PJ/Maryland says:

    My primary exposure to US history was from the Iroquois and New Amsterdam up thru the Gilded Age in 7th grade (in 8th we started over again and made it to WWI). I went on and took some AP courses in high school, and majored in History in college, but that’s not true of most people.

    In Britain, they probably have to start in 1066, if not with the Roman conquest. It’s no surprise they don’t know what Winston Churchill did, or what the Cold War was. (But I bet they’ve all heard of Vietnam! You know, when the evil Americans invaded the peace-loving country of Vietnam and held the southern half hostage for a decade or so…)

    Which is one answer to Mark’s question about why history matters. If people let erroneous history (or nonexistent history) inform their political views, elections wouldn’t serve much purpose.

  16. Richard Brandshaft says:

    I was well into adulthood before I found out Set wasn’t a Robert E. Howard character.

  17. Richard Cook says:

    Hastings? Wasen’t that the guy that hung out with Hecule Poirot?

  18. theAmericanist says:

    I agree with PJ that history matters. Look at all the knuckleheads (like the Secretary of the Interior) who think “we gave away too much” to win the Civil War.

  19. Nina D. says:

    The article doesn’t say who these “researchers” or are where these results are going to be published (only that they will be published next week). Very frustrating.

    I find it hard to believe most adults think a battle in the Lord of the Rings actually took place (unless they’re interpretting Tolkien’s work at a level i don’t think most adults do).

  20. speedwell says:

    Nona, when I was in high school, my two friends and I, rabid Tolkien fans, actually convinced our ninth-grade English teacher that hobbits really existed as aborigines in English forests in much the same way Stone Age tribes exist in the Amazon jungles.

    No kidding. Of course, the multiple acid hits the woman took when she was a bona-fide hippie didn’t have a thing to do with it, I betcha.

  21. speedwell says:

    uh, that’s “Nina.” Sorry.

  22. Doug Sundseth says:

    Before we get too excited about this, let us remember that it consists of the purported opinions of people who had so little constructive to do that they were willing to take a “survey”.

    For reference, let me say that if I were called and asked to participate in such a survey, I’d hang up. If I were approached in the street or in the mall, I’d not deign to acknowledge the existence of the survey taker.

    I don’t think I’m alone.

  23. Carreinated Curmudgeon says:

    Mark Draughn wrote: “Also, remember that both types of error are not equal: Thinking the Battle of the Bulge is fictional does show an ignorance of history, but the same cannot be said of believers in the Battle of Helms Deep. History is too vast to rule out people or events simply because you haven’t heard of them.”

    Exactly! How many would believe, for example, that the Spanish coast guard’s allegedly hacking off the ear of an English smuggler in 1731 would lead to declaration of war with Spain in 1739, and ultimately to the war of the Austrian Succession?

  24. I believe it was Harlan Ellison who said – “The two most abundant things in the universe are Hydrogen and stupidity.”

    My high school chemistry teacher’s favorite saying was – “What’s the point in being ignorant if you’re not going to share it with others.”

    I suspect that both he and Harlan had the folks taking these surveys in mind.

  25. “If people let erroneous history (or nonexistent history) inform
    their political views, elections wouldn’t serve much purpose.”

    That explains a *lot* of weirdness!

  26. Joanne writes of “42 percent don’t realize that William Wallace, the 13th century Scottish hero of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, really did exist.”

    No. He didn’t exist.

    A 13th-century Scottish patriot named William Wallace did exist, yes. But the one in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is completely fictional. So is everyone else (including King Edward) in that exciting, but completely bogus, film.