Ask any of the few remaining Second World War veterans what they did during the war and you’re likely to get a humble answer. But ask the person on the street how important their country’s contribution to the war effort was and you’ll probably hear something far less modest.
A new study suggests people from Germany, Russia, the UK and the US on average all think their own country shouldered more than half the burden of fighting the Second World War.
Our national collective memories seem to be deceiving us, and this is part of a far more general pattern. Aside from those veterans who have no desire to revel in the horrors of war, we may have a general psychological tendency to believe our contributions are more significant than they really are.
You can see this in even the most mundane of tasks. Unloading the dishwasher can be a perennial source of family irritation. I suspect that I’m doing more than my fair share. The trouble is that so does everybody else. Each of us can think: “The sheer injustice! I’m overworked and under-appreciated.”
But we can’t all be right. This strange magnification of our own efforts seems to be ubiquitous. In business, sport or entertainment, it’s all too easy for each participant to think that their own special stardust is the real reason their company, team or show was a hit.
It works for nations, too. A study last year, led by US memory researcher Henry Roediger III, asked people from 35 countries for the percentage contribution their own nation has made to world history. A dispassionate judge would, of course, assign percentages that add up to no more than 100 per cent (and, indeed, considerably less, given the 160 or so countries left out).
In fact, the self-rating percentages added up to more than 1,000 per cent, with citizens of India, Russia and the UK each suspecting on average that their own nations had more than half the responsibility for world progress.
A sceptic might note that “contributing to world history” is a rather nebulous idea, which each nation can interpret to its advantage. (The Italians, at 40 per cent, might focus on the Romans and the Renaissance, for example.) But what about our responsibility for specific world events? The latest study from Roediger’s lab addresses the question of national contributions to the Second World War.
The researchers surveyed people from eight former Allied countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, New Zealand, Russia/USSR, the UK and the US) and three former Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). As might be expected, people from the winning Allied side ranked their own countries highly, and the average percentage responses added up to 309 per cent. Citizens of the UK, US and Russia all believed their countries had contributed more than 50 per cent of the war effort and were more than 50 per cent responsible for victory.
You might suspect that the losing Axis powers, whose historical record is inextricably tied to the immeasurable human suffering of the war, might not be so proud.
As former US president John F Kennedy said (echoing the Roman historian Tacitus): “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”
Perhaps the results for the Allied countries just reflect a general human tendency to claim credit for positive achievements. Yet citizens of the three Axis powers also over-claim shares of the war effort (totalling 140 per cent). Rather than minimising their own contribution, even defeated nations seem to overstate their role.