Alternate Second World Wars–Introduction

10 Feb

Comments and thoughts would be very welcome.

Introduction

If you develop any interest in history at all, you will probably start to wonder what might have happened if something had been different. History is full of turning points where a single change might have produced a very different world. What would have happened to the British Empire, for example, if the British had won the Battle of Saratoga and gone on to bring the Thirteen Colonies back into the Empire? Or what would have happened if Napoleon had managed to hold Egypt and carve out a French Empire in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire? Study of such counterfactual histories can lead to a greater understanding of history.

The Second World War was an event that reshaped the entire world. By the time the dust settled, Germany’s dreams of world domination were lost forever, Imperial Japan had been crushed, Eastern Europe had been brought under Communist (effectively Russian) rule, the British and French Empires were coming apart and America had finally realised its potential and become a superpower. The entire world was affected by the war. Even the countries that managed to remain neutral – a difficult task when neutrality provided no protection from Hitler or Stalin – were left transformed by the conflict. The only event that might have had a greater effect on the world would have been a Third World War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, a war that might have seen the entire northern hemisphere left in radioactive ruins.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Second World War has become a favourite time for alternate history. The conflict often seemed to hinge upon tiny points that changed the course of the entire conflict. If Hitler hadn’t issued his ‘halt’ order to the advancing Panzers and captured or destroyed the BEF, would Britain have been able to fight on after 1940? If the Japanese had destroyed the American aircraft carriers and fuel supplies at Pearl Harbour, would the Japanese have been able to create an impregnable empire in the Far East? Sometimes the absence of a conflict can be just as decisive. What if the Finns had surrendered to the Russian demands in 1939? Without the Winter War, would the USSR have realised just how poorly prepared they were for war? If they hadn’t had that wake-up call, it is quite easy to imagine Hitler’s forces tearing their way through the poorly-prepared Russians and taking Moscow before Stalin could evacuate the city. And would Hitler have been so contemptuous of the Russians if they hadn’t performed so poorly in 1939?

Some historians have argued that history is shaped by Great Men who, at the right moment, make the decision that changes the course of history. Thomas Carlyle devised the theory in the 1840s, long before Adolf Hitler arose from the ashes of the First World War to throw the world into the flames of a second conflict, but there is no doubt that Hitler would qualify as a Great Man. So too would Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek and Yamamoto – the Second World War may have been the last time that Great Men walked on Earth[1]. Very few modern-day politicians and despots have anything like their statue.

In such a context, it is tempting to ask what might have been different if those Great Men had made different choices. Hitler started the war; he wanted it, worked towards it, and pushed the German military into operations that many senior Generals regarded as dangerously insane. And yet he was often right. Hitler’s belief that the West would allow him to remilitarise the Rhineland in 1936 was proven by events. He was wrong to assume that the West would go to war over Czechoslovakia in 1938 or that Britain and France would guarantee Poland, but he was correct to believe that the West would do nothing effective to stop him, that a daring invasion of Norway would succeed and that a revolutionary military plan to invade France would work perfectly. Hitler was, in many ways, a lucky gambler rather than the military genius he believed himself to be. Instead of keeping his winnings, he chose to invade Russia in 1941, declare war on America later the same year, and insist on overruling his Generals during the later years of the war. Perhaps we should be grateful. A world where Hitler chose to end the war in 1940, or decided not to declare war on America, would almost certainly be worse than our own.

Hitler’s choices were far from the only ones that mattered in the war. Churchill’s decision to keep fighting in 1940 ensured that Hitler would never have a quiet western front. Stalin’s decision to ignore the signs that Hitler was preparing to invade Russia played a large role in how the Russians found themselves caught by surprise when the Germans lunged over the border. Chiang Kai-shek’s decision to keep fighting in China ensured that the Japanese were dragged onwards into a quagmire that brutally sapped their strength. And Yamamoto’s planned strike on Pearl Harbour made the war merciless. Would America have carried on the fight to ultimate victory if the Japanese hadn’t struck at Pearl Harbour?

Hindsight, however, makes it harder for us to place ourselves in the shoes of the men on the spot. We know that the decision to allow Hitler to reoccupy the Rhineland or absorb Czechoslovakia was disastrous – and that Hitler’s vaunted army could not have prevented the French from throwing them back out of the Rhineland, something that would certainly have destroyed Hitler’s government. But the Europeans of that time were traumatised by the First World War and hypnotised by Hitler’s claims of a far larger military force at their disposal. If Hitler had been a honourable man, it was quite possible that they could have reached an agreement that would have salved the worst of Germany’s humiliations from the Versailles Treaty and preserved peace. But Hitler was not a honourable man and he was bent on war. We can rhetorically prove that the West should have known the truth, but we have to accept that they didn’t. And, as recent events nearer to our own time suggest, individuals within a government may know something, yet the government as a whole may not know that it knows.

However, there is a second theory of history. Herbert Spencer responded to the Great Man theory by observing that ‘great men’ were shaped by their times, that they only became great because of the workings of history before them. Napoleon would not have become Emperor of the French if the French Revolution had been aborted at birth – it was the Revolution that gave him the chance to shine. Hitler’s rise to power would not have taken place in a Germany that had avoided or won the First World War. Indeed, we can amuse ourselves with thoughts of Hitler, still serving as a Corporal, in a Germany that won the war. He would have been a sad lonely man, dreaming of a greatness that would never be his – and almost unnoticed by history. But would that have been a better world?

Factors like economics played a major role in the Second World War. Germany’s war machine was fuelled by plunder from its conquests; Italy’s ability to use its navy was hampered by a shortage of oil. The British were actually out-producing the Germans in fighter planes, a fact that the Germans were dangerously slow to understand, which was a major factor in the British victory in the Battle of Britain. And the Japanese were so outmatched when they faced America that it is hard to see any realistic way the Japanese could have won. Midway has often been branded ‘the battle that doomed Japan,’ but in truth Japan was doomed by the decision to go to war.

Geography also played a major role in the outcome. Germany could and did defeat France on land, but it could never jump across the English Channel and invade Britain. There is little doubt that Hitler’s panzers would have brushed aside the pitiful defences in Britain during the dangerous months of 1940, yet the Germans lacked the air and naval power to ship their forces to the British mainland. Geography protected Britain, just as it protected the Russian factory complexes in the Urals and the mighty American industrial base, the arsenal of democracy. The Germans, having chosen to declare war on the USA, could not hope to destroy their opponent’s means of making war. America was simply out of reach.

And ideology contributed to the defeat of both Germany and Japan. The Germans could have surged into Russia as liberators, freeing the Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Russians from Communist rule. Instead, Hitler’s insane racial theories destroyed any hope of drawing on the manpower of Russia and committing millions to a brutal partisan war against Germany. Stalin might have been bad, but Hitler was Satan incarnate. The Japanese managed the astonishing feat of being even more brutal than the Nazis – their contempt for East Asian allies ensured that those allies were reluctant to dare everything for Japan. And even putting morality aside, the amount of resources wasted on the mass extermination of Jews certainly sapped the strength of Nazi Germany. How much more dangerous would Germany have been if Hitler had decided to put the task of exterminating the Jews back until the war was won?

I believe that history is determined by both individual humans and vast impersonal factors. The limits of geography determined the limits of Hitler’s power, but Hitler’s choices reshaped the course of the war.

This book is intended to look at the course of the war – from its early genesis in the aftermath of the First World War to the final defeat of Imperial Japan – and consider where history might have taken a different path. Some of the turning points I will illustrate are popular ones among alternate history writers, others are more subtle, but perhaps with more importance than one might expect. I will attempt to speculate on where history might have gone, yet no one can truly say for sure what would have happened if

I will also consider the longer-term implications of many of the more significant changes in history. What would have happened if Nazi Germany had won the war? What would have happened if D-Day had failed? What would have happened if Britain had left the war in 1940? Or if the French had decided to fight on after the Battle of France?

One of the perils of writing alternate history novels is that your readers will object to certain decisions you make, claiming that it wouldn’t have happened that way. All I can say in response is that there is no way to know for sure – and all reasonable opinions are equally valid. There are quite a number of alternate history forums on the internet and all are welcome.


[1] This is not to imply that later political and military leaders were not ‘great,’ but we rarely see our leaders without their feet of clay, something that was lacking in the 1940s. Roosevelt’s affair with

Lucy Mercer was not common knowledge until the 1960s.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Alternate Second World Wars–Introduction”

  1. The Deposed King February 20, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    I’m just not your targeted audience on this one. Alternate histories just don’t do it for me. I’ve tried a few and they can be fun if well written. Just like a western can be fun if well written but the writing has to carry me.

    Alternate history science fiction crossovers can be fun. Like with the Iron Grey Seas thats soon to come out. But its not strictly alternate.

    I hope you enjoy it though. That’s the important part.

    The Deposed King

  2. chrishanger February 20, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    It’s more of a history text than anything else, although I will need to do a hell of a lot more research. Maybe something as a long-term project rather than anything else.

    Chris

    • James Young August 18, 2016 at 6:47 pm #

      Which let’s be honest–“long term” for you is “next week” if you put your mind to it.

  3. The Deposed King February 22, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    If it tickles the pickles and keeps you motivated I say go for it.

    i just can’t help you out too much.

    WWII and the Roman Period are my biggest historical knowledge spots.

    A little china romance period, a little prehistory migration, a touch more than a little britan and egyptian, but that all ties back into my roman stuff. I’ve got some spartan and greek info. But as for WWI and pre-stuff. Not so much,

    The Deposed King

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: