This black-and-white photograph is being shared on social media with captions that all more or less tell the same story: that the people pictured are supposedly Jewish children who were adopted by Nazis and used in experiments, and that this inspired the Minions cartoon characters in the popular Despicable Me and Minions movies. This is completely false, and yet this hoax continues to spread.
This story has been circulating online since 2015, and it has frequently resurfaced thanks to translations into different languages, including English, Spanish and French.
Despite the existence of a number of articles debunking this far-fetched story, a recent Facebook post in French was shared more than 650 times. (This figure is just for a single, public post; it is impossible to know how many times the hoax has been relayed in posts that are shared only with users' friends, not set to “public”).
The text accompanying the photo reads: “Did you know that “Minions” (from the German “minion”, which means henchman) was the name given to Jewish children who were adopted by Nazi scientists to use in experiments. They spent a large part of the lives suffering, and since they didn’t speak German, their words were sounds that made the Germans laugh a lot. It’s really nuts to see that Pixar used them as inspiration for their characters, with Gru – who is an American with a German accent – using the “Minions” to accomplish his Machiavellian plans.”
This is false on multiple levels.
First of all, “minion” is not a German word. (In case you were wondering, “minion” – in its original meaning, describing someone who is a subordinate – translates to “Untergebener” in German).
Secondly, this photo has nothing to do with Jewish children or Nazis. What it actually shows is adult British soldiers wearing a Hall-Rees escape apparatus, a suit which was designed to escape from submarines. Invented in the early 1900s, the Hall-Rees suit was bulky, unpopular and soon discarded, according to historians. It was replaced with new and improved suits.
Photo courtesy of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
The photo belongs to the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy Submarine Museum. The museum believes the photograph was taken in 1908.
“The museum team confirm that these images misused in this story are part of our extensive submarine archive and show the crew of the First World War-era submarine C7 wearing Hall-Rees escape apparatus,” Matthew Sheldon, the director of heritage at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (which runs the submarine museum), told the France 24 Observers. “This equipment was in fact an early attempt to save life – it will be good to definitively debunk any link to Nazis or to Minions.”
Another photo showing the Hall-Rees suit, courtesy of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
According to an article in Spanish daily El Pais, one of first viral Facebook posts containing this hoax was written by a Chilean man, Luciano Gonzàlez, whose 2015 post was shared more than 35,000 times. He subsequently wrote that he was aware that the story was fake but that he had decided to share it as a “social experiment”. (It is frequent for people who share false information online to counter criticism by invoking social experiments; some people run entire false news sites based on this premise).
Gonzàlez’s explanation, however, was shared much less than his first post containing the hoax – which is typically the case for posts or articles that debunk viral hoaxes. As a study published in Science recently concluded, false news spreads faster than the truth.