New research has uncovered “striking differences” in how people from 11 different countries remember World War II. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people tend to ascribe an inflated weight to their country’s contribution to the war effort.
“Years ago, my colleague Jim Wertsch (who has spent quite a bit of time in Russia) told me that Russians had a completely different narrative about World War II than the one I grew up with,” said lead author Henry Roediger, a professor in the psychological and brain sciences department at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I knew the ‘we won World War II’ saga that my father, my history books, American movies and novels, told me about. Then I started reading up on Russia (or the Soviet Union) and how they see the war.”
“It’s a quite different perspective and quite defensible! Of course, the war was won by all the allies, in combination, and it is hard to separate out exactly who should be credited with the victory (or we should just say the major allies should be credited with the victory),” Roediger explained.
“That was the genesis of our cross-national study, although it took years to pull it off.”
The researchers surveyed 1,338 adults from eight of the former Allied powers — Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Russia (as a proxy for the former Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, and the United States — and from three former Axis powers — Germany, Italy, and Japan.
They asked participants from the Allied countries, “In terms of percentage, what do you think was [your country’s] contribution to the victory in World War II?”
On the other hand, they asked participants from the Axis countries, “Germany, Italy, and Japan fought on the same side for 6 years during World War 2. What percentage of the war effort was provided by [your country]?”
Participants from three Allied countries — Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — assigned more than 50% of the victory to their own country’s efforts. Russians claimed 75%, the U.K. respondents claimed 51%, and those from the U.S. claimed 54%. Across all eight Allied countries, the total effort added up to more than 300%.
Despite their defeat, participants from the Axis countries showed a similar pattern. Germans claimed 64% of the war effort, Japanese assigned themselves 47% of the effort, and Italians said they were responsible for 29% — a total of 140%.
“The United States has a particular viewpoint on all international events, although we do not think of it as our viewpoint; we think of it as ‘the truth,'” Roediger told PsyPost.
“However, people of other nations can have strongly diverging viewpoints — and can defend them well. We need to understand how other nations view the world, too, rather than simply assuming that our view of events represents the truth and anyone who does not believe our narrative is simply misguided.”
The participants were also asked to rank how much each country contributed to the Allied victory of World War 2. When the question was reframed in this way, most participants did rate their country’s contribution lower than in the first question.
U.S. participants dropped their estimate from 54% to 37%, but Russian participants lowered their estimates by just 11%.
The Soviet Union suffered an estimated 9,750,000 military deaths in World War II, compared to 416,800 U.S. military deaths. But participants outside of Russia tended to minimize Soviet contributions relative to American contributions.
“We found, as Wertsch had predicted, that Russians and Americans had profoundly different views about the major events of the war and about ‘who won the war.’ A surprise was that all 9 other countries we surveyed generally shared the American view of the war,” Roediger said.
“Why should the Chinese, Russia’s ally for many years after the war, subscribe to the American narrative rather than the Russian/Soviet narrative? Another question for future research.”
It’s also not the first time researchers have observed an unrealistic belief in the greatness of one’s country. A previous study of 6,185 students from 35 countries found that people tended to overestimate their country’s contribution to world history.
The study, “Competing national memories of World War II“, was authored by Henry L. Roediger III, Magdalena Abel, Sharda Umanath, Ruth A. Shaffer, Beth Fairfield, Masanobu Takahashi, and James V. Wertsch.