Common knowledge

Last month I wrote at length about the fact that the Soviet Union and Japan, despite being on opposite sides of the Second World Wars, never went to war with each other during the whole time that Russia was at war with Japan’s ally, Germany, or indeed for some time after.  Indeed, the Soviet Union agreed at the Yalta Conference of 1945 to declare war upon Japan no more than ninety days after the end of the war in Europe; Germany ultimately surrendered on VE Day, 8 May 1945 (9 May in Moscow), and Russia duly declared war on Japan on 9 August.  The Russians immediately launched a massive invasion of Japanese Manchuria, and Japan announced its surrender six days later.

(You and I know Manchuria better from maps, as the big honking chunk of China that separates Beijing from Siberia and Korea.)

Japan, of course, was already doomed to certain defeat by this point, and it was just a matter of how much longer—and how many more Japanese and Allied lives—it was going to take before the admitted that.  But as any Russian on the street can tell you, it was the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria that finally tipped the Japanese leadership over the edge and persuaded them to surrender.  Russians know this, because it’s what their history textbooks and their historical novels and films and documentaries all tell them.

Wait, what?

Yeah, we know different.  Because, of course, 9 August was also the day that the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, having already dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August.  We know that it was the atomic bombings that were the immediate cause of Japanese surrender, and that we can feel smugly superior at the Russians being propagandised into thinking that it was their own contribution that was more important.  We know this, because it’s what our history textbooks and our historical novels and films and documentaries all tell us.

You can see my point here, right?

I’m not saying it was the Soviet declaration of war that really made the Japanese surrender, since I don’t know.  I’ve never gone and researched it, since I’ve always been more interested in the European War than the Pacific (even though one of my grandfathers and at least two of my great-uncles received the Burma Star).  I suspect our version is closer to the truth, because I’m aware of the fact that remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a really big deal in contemporary Japan, whereas I’m unaware of today’s Japanese paying any special commemoration to the invasion of Manchuria.  But I could also be very easily biased because our version is, of course, the version I grew up with, so I’m going to stay carefully neutral.

But mainly, I just want to point this out because it’s the best illustration I’ve so far encountered of how suspicious we should be of things we know for sure because everyone else knows it for sure too.

I

(Another Second World Wars instance of this: the guy on the talk page for Wikipedia’s article on the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre who acidly took issue with The World at War’s description of 10 June as a “summer day”, describing it as a “simple and obvious” error because 10 June is supposedly in the spring. He was, one assumes, entirely unaware that it’s pretty much just in North America where people define the seasons as starting three weeks after the rest of the Northern Hemisphere does.)

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