Welcome to another edition of Historical Misquotes, where we take a look at some of the most famous utterances in culture and history to determine if they were actually said, and if so, in those exact words. Last time we examined quotes from famous military leaders and dictators, and since it’s such a rich vein of material and misunderstanding, we’ll stay there for this volume.
“Et tu, Brute” – Julius Caesar
Verdict: Unknown, and probably not in those words.
Julius Caesar’s supposed last words, spoken in disbelief as his friend Marcus Brutus drove the last of 23 stabbings into him, became one of the most famous three-word sentences in English thanks to its use in Shakespeare’s play. But the sources of the time differ greatly on what, if anything, he said during his murder. The great Roman chronicler Plutarch goes into minute detail about Caesar’s assassination, but never ascribes any last words to him. The first reference to the dispatched dictator saying something along the lines of “you too, Brutus?” came from hearsay reported by the Roman historian Suetonius – who claimed that others said that at the moment of his murder, Caesar asked “you too, my child?” in Greek, not Latin. This would have been a reference to the rumor that Brutus was actually the illegitimate son of Caesar, which is highly unlikely.
Other scholars of various times have Caesar muttering a variation on “to hell with you” or “you’re next,” possibly in Latin or Greek. But nobody really knows, and we likely never will. Shakespeare himself probably got the line not from a Roman history, but from a contemporary play, as it was a popular phrase at the time. If Caesar meant his last words as a proclamation that Brutus would be the next to die, he happened to be right, as Brutus would commit suicide two years after Caesar’s murder as the Roman Republic convulsed in Civil War.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” – King Henry V
In one of the most rousing speeches in fiction, Shakespeare’s Henry V exhorts his men into combat before the Battle of Agincourt, declaring that those who fight alongside him will be covered in glory and remembered by history forever. And while Henry did lead England into a decisive and crucial victory over a vastly superior French force, what he said to his men on the eve of battle, or if he said anything at all, is lost to history. The speech is simply one of Shakespeare’s countless linguistic innovations.
“Give them a whiff of grapeshot!” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon might have been a small man, but he was a big thinker. So as a younger general in October, 1795, when tasked with dispersing a Royalist mob that was marching on Paris’ National Assembly, he used cannons capable of firing bags full of horrific metal slugs, called grapeshot, for maximum killing power. With one insouciant order, his guns fired into the massed ranks of the Royalists, killing as many as 600. Napoleon’s brutal dispatching of the mob gained him a reputation as a national hero, a quick ascent up the French chain of command and most importantly, a quote for the ages. Except that he never said it. The phrase came, instead, from Scottish author Thomas Carlyle, writing 40 years later about the French Revolution and Napoleon’s role in it. Carlyle doesn’t even have the quote coming as an order from Napoleon, but as an observation about the nature of the battle itself.
A much more detailed and researched history of the quote, as well as an examination of Carlyle’s motive in writing it, can be found on the website of author Jonathan Gifford.
“What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” – Major General John Sedgwick
Military history is replete with quotes of men displaying incredible hubris under fire. We remember them because, usually, they were on the right side of the spear in an attack. But in the case of General Sedgwick, his words were not only completely wrong, they were his last.
Sedgwick was leading Union troops in a probing of Confederate lines at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864, when Rebel snipers began firing on his men. While his staff and the artillerymen he was directing dove for cover, Sedgwick stayed out in the open, arrogantly declaring that they were too far from the sharpshooters to be in any danger. Seconds later, Sedgwick was hit under the eye by a sniper and fell dead. He was the highest ranking Union officer to be killed in action during the Civil War.
“Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” – Admiral David Beatty.
Commanding a squadron of British battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland in World War I, Admiral Beatty, when confronted with the destruction of several of his vessels, responded with the quintessential stiff upper lip. It was early in the climactic naval battle, and already, accurate and powerful fire from German warships had annihilated two of Beatty’s battlecruisers, Indefatigable and Queen Mary. A few minutes after Queen Mary exploded, a signalman on Beatty’s flagship, Lion, declared that another ship, Princess Royal, had been blown up by German shell fire. Beatty then turned to the captain of Lion, Admiral of the Fleet Ernle Chatfield, and briskly delivered the above quip. As it turned out, Princess Royal was only moderately damaged, and survived both the battle and the war.
Another part of the legend of Beatty’s quote is that after declaring that something was wrong with his ships, he immediately ordered them to move in closer to the German battle line, but there’s no record of this actually happening.
“This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!” – Adolf Hitler
This quote by Hitler, supposedly from a 1935 speech, is often used as a pivotal part of the argument about what happens when a tyrannical government overreaches in the area of gun control. However, there’s no evidence Hitler said any such thing in public or private. The speech it supposedly came from never existed, it’s backed by a bogus citation, and doesn’t reflect either Hitler or the Nazi Party’s views on guns. To quote from an excellent analysis of Nazi gun laws by University of Chicago law professor Bernard E. Harcourt:
It turns out, for instance, that Hitler’s infamous statement […] is probably a fraud and was likely never made. The citation reference is a jumbled and incomprehensible mess that has never been properly identified or authenticated, and no one has been able to produce a document corresponding to the quote.
In fact, the law so often used an example of Nazi gun confiscation, the 1938 German Weapons Act, greatly expanded gun ownership rights in the Third Reich for virtually everyone by the Jews, who were barred from owning weapons. This had much less to do with gun control, and much more with the pervasive racism that was already part and parcel of the Nazi regime.
“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin
Perhaps the most famous and callous quote from a man known for both his lengthy speeches and voluminous inhumanity, Stalin’s rumination on the value of life has become an accepted part of his lexicon. But whether or not he said it at all, to whom he said it, when he said it and the number of people whose death constitutes a “statistic” are all widely debated.
The most common attribution is that Stalin said it to Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943 (where the number was actually “thousands”), but other research has Stalin saying it to President Truman at the Potsdam Conference, two years later, or to US Ambassador Averrell Harriman at an unknown date. Citations for the quote go back to 1932, where in various instances it’s spoken by Stalin to George Bernard Shaw, various Russian commissars or by the man in private conversation. Some sources don’t even originate it with Stalin at all, ascribing it to a German play or “a Frenchman,” which Joseph Stalin most certainly was not.
Whether or not Stalin said any such thing, he clearly believed at least the latter part of it. He had no scruples whatsoever about either killing his own people for personal gain or throwing them to the wolves to fight his enemies. That’s the true tragedy of the quote, and whether or not he said it is basically irrelevant.
“When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver!” – Herman Goring
Verdict: Real, but misattributed.
We close on a quote most often attributed to one of history’s great buffoons, Hitler’s chosen successor and Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goring. While Goring might have used the line in conversation, he most certainly didn’t write it. It came, instead, from Schlageter, a 1933 play by fervently pro-Nazi German writer Hanns Jhost, where someone says to the lead character, while declaring that fighting is better than studying: “When I hear the word culture …, I release the safety on my Browning!” Goring probably saw the play (it was performed as a “present” for Hitler’s birthday) and might have pilfered the line for his own use, leading to him being credited for its creation.
Lest anyone think Goring simply went around shooting people for discussing culture, it should be noted that he was a lover of art, or at least an enthusiastic plunderer of it, with numerous stolen paintings hanging in his extravagant hunting lodge.