The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, April 05, 2004

Adolf Hitler: Man or Myth?

Every so often, a survey is released showing that some startling proportion of US citizens believe that aliens have landed on Earth, that men never landed on the Moon, that Saddam attacked New York, that the Copernican conception of the Solar system is 'just a theory' pushed by secular humanists and evil government scientists. US educators grind their teeth; educated Europeans snigger.

It's time for Brits to blush too:
A survey of the historical knowledge of the average adult, to be published this week, has uncovered "absurd and depressing" areas of ignorance about past events, and confusion between characters from films and historical figures.

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.

Some 57 per cent think King Arthur existed and 5 per cent accept that Conan the Barbarian, the warrior played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 1982 film, used to stalk the planet for real. Almost one in two believe William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish resistance leader played by Mel Gibson in his film Braveheart, was invented for the silver screen.

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.


A further 53 per cent think the military leader who lead British troops at Waterloo was Lord Nelson whereas a quarter think the admiral's fatal triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar did not take place. Nearly one in five believe Harold Wilson, not Winston Churchill, was Prime Minister during the Second World War.


Real people that some believe never existed

Ethelred the Unready King of England 978 to 1016 - 63 per cent
William Wallace 13th-century Scottish hero - 42 per cent
Benjamin Disraeli Prime minister and founder of the modern Tory party - 40 per cent
Genghis Khan, Mongol conqueror - 38 per cent
Benito Mussolini, Fascist dictator, 33 per cent
Adolf Hitler - 11 per cent
Winston Churchill - 9 per cent

Real events some people believe never took place

Battle of the Bulge 52 per cent
Battle of Little Big Horn Scene of Custer's last stand - 48 per cent
Hundred Years' War 44 per cent
Cold War - 32 per cent
Battle of Hastings, 15 per cent

Fictional characters who we believe were real

King Arthur , mythical monarch of the Round Table - 57 per cent
Robin Hood - 27 per cent
Conan the Barbarian - 5 per cent
Richard Sharpe , fictional cad and warrior - 3 per cent
Edmund Blackadder - 1 per cent
Xena Warrior Princess - 1 per cent

Fictional events that we believe did take place

War of the Worlds , Martian invasion - 6 per cent
Battle of Helms Deep , Rings Trilogy - The Two Towers - 3 per cent
Battle of Endor , The Return of the Jedi - 2 per cent
Planet of the Apes , the apes rule Earth - 1 per cent
Battlestar Galactica , the defeat of humanity by cyborgs - 1 per cent
Blame is being divided between the Left in the education system (downgrading 'kings and battles' history for social history) and Hollywood (making shit up). This seems fair and balanced.

P.S. To be fair, I can think of ways in which the method of the survey could bias the results. If, for instance, people were presented with a list of names of battles, and asked to indicate which were real and which were not, wouldn't Endor and Helm's Deep sound more historical than the Little Big Horn and the Bulge? Still, I like the idea that some of my compatriots believe Harold Wilson flanked by Xena and Conan led an army of cyborgs to victory over the apes in the Battle of Woking during the Martian invasion ...


It's a complicated question (as much an issue in philosophy of language as in history) what exactly counts as King Arthur existing. But I'd be willing to defend the conditional claim that IF the King Arthur legend ultimately traces back causally to a single individual who was not too inappropriate an origin (a Celtic chieftain or warrior of the right time period -- not, e.g., Julius Caesar or the Sun), THEN that historical individual was King Arthur (even if he wasn't a king and wasn't named Arthur). The question then is whether the antecedent if the conditional is fulfilled -- something historians still argue about, but it doesn't seem crazy to think it is.

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