This post is purely for my entertainment … perhaps yours, too, I hope.
Since yesterday was Battle of the Atlantic Sunday my mind turned to what might have happened had Germany had been led by an even a half decent strategist …
Alternative history, notions about what might have happened are popular, especially in film and fiction, but some real historians speculate, too in order to try to examine how certain decisions were taken.
My contention is that Adolph Hitler was, as Vladimir Putin is, an opportunist adventurer or an adventurous opportunist, take your pick, who bluffed his way to European domination. He was, I believe, a weak strategist, and calling him weak is being generous. But there were some seasoned strategic thinkers in Germany: consider, just for example, Ludwig Beck, Karl Dönitz, Erich von Manstein, Erich Raeder and Gerd von Rundstedt. I believe that Germany’s early successes in 1938-40 were much more good luck and poor to abysmal strategic vision in London, Moscow, Paris and Tokyo, respectively. I believe the invasion of Russia could have succeeded in the hands of a better German leader who would have, at all costs, avoided bringing America into the war and who would, preferably, made peace in the West in order to focus on the East.
Now, imagine, please that it is the late summer of 1941 … Hitler dies; perhaps of illness because he was, it was reported, taking many dozens of prescription pills a day for various ailments which plagued him despite being, generally, abstemious and health-conscious; perhaps, like Patton in 1945, as a result of a freak accident; or perhaps he is assassinated. For the purposes of this discussion, all that matters is that Hitler is dead. There is an immediate scramble for the top job and, in fairly short order all of Bormann, Göring, Heydrich and Himmler have killed each other off, and Hess is in prison in Britain, and, by mid-Autumn, someone like Grand Admiral Raeder or Field Marshal von Rundstedt is in power in Berlin.
The new Führer convenes a new war cabinet and asks one simple question: “What is our AIM?” The answers are nearly unanimous: Germany needs both peace and Lebensraum, the latter being Hitler’s update of the old idea of a German-dominated Mitteleuropa. That requires the defeat of Russia. His generals remind him that a two-front war is contrary to all German military thinking.
By August 1941 the situation in the East is this:
The German war cabinet agrees that the strategic objective is about this:
It is doable, the generals suggest IF they can withdraw substantial troops and aircraft from the West and IF they interdict any supplies America and Britain might want to send to the USSR by sea.
Then they debate the Japanese situation. Relations between the Western powers and Japan have soured, dramatically, since 1937. It is known that some Japanese generals and admirals feel that only an attack on the Dutch oilfields in Indonesia and the French oilfields in Indo-China and, perhaps the British oilfields in Malaya will solve Japan’s geostrategic problems … of these, the Indonesian fields are the most important.
The German general staff reports that the German and Italian Afrika Korps is stalemated in the Western Desert, outside of Tobruk. Several German divisions are doing garrison/internal security duty in France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway and Eastern Europe.
The German naval staff reports that the Battle of the Atlantic is also stalemated. The U-boats are doing a bang-up job but the German surface navy has, in effect, ben swept from the seas: Bismarck and Graf Spee have been sunk, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Tirpitz are all in Northern waters, but the real problem is that the British and Canadians and, starting in 1940, the Americans are producing cheap cargo ships and the resources to fill them faster than the U-boats can sink them. Britain can be starved, but not starved into surrender.
The Battle of Britain was lost and the invasion of Britain cannot happen. because the British, by mid-Autumn 1941, have air superiority over the British Isles and, at least, air parity over Europe to the West and North of Germany. British and Canadian factories are producing more aircraft than Germany.
The new Führer draws the obvious conclusions but doesn’t act until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour. The Germans understood that a war with America could not be won and they knew that America would join the war against Germany unless they, the Germans, could make peace in the West.
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the Führer sends URGENT telegrams to German embassies, especially those in Washington, Stockholm, Tokyo and Zürich. The message is clear:
- Germany is NOT interested in a wider war; it regrets the Japanese attack on America but it cannot influence Japan in this matter because America has made it impossible for Japan to do anything but attack. Germany has only one vital strategic aim: to defeat the communist regime in the USSR, which is a threat to all of the Christian West, and, thereby, to stabilize Eastern Europe. To this end it proposes:
- An immediate armistice with the British Empire and Commonwealth … Britain and the Dominions will retain all the territories they control (with a couple of very minor exceptions) including Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt, including the Suez Canal, and everything to the South and East,
- No hostilities between America and the German Reich,
- Germany will use its good offices and will make a maximum diplomatic effort to persuade the Japanese to NOT attack British and Commonwealth territories in Asia, but Japan cannot be dissuaded from invading American, Chinese, Dutch and French possessions in East Asia,
- A return of most of France, including Paris, to the Vichy regime, IF and when the so-called Free-French or Fighting-French forces in Africa will lay down their arms, and
- An independent and neutral Norway, but
- Germany proposes to realign the Franco-German border to Germany’s advantage, as was done in 1870,
- Germany will incorporate Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands as semi-autonomous ‘dominions‘ within the Greater German Reich, and
- Germany will also incorporate several Eastern European countries into the Reich, albeit with far less autonomy than will be accorded to the North West European dominions;
- Germany seeks:
- The French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon near Newfoundland;
- The Dutch and French islands of Aruba and Martinique in the Caribbean;
- The Dutch and French territories of Guyana in South America; and
- The British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic ~ all to become German colonies; and
- Germany and the United Kingdom will, jointly, patrol the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea to ensure freedom of navigation for all.
I, of course, have no idea how Churchill and Roosevelt would have reacted. My guess is that both might have agreed in order to preserve what the British had defended in 1940 and ’41 and to allow the Americans to focus, entirely, on defeating Japan. Churchill wasn’t confident about winning the Battle of the Atlantic ~ it wasn’t a reasonably ‘sure thing’ until mid-1943, and that had little to do with the US Navy, it was US shipbuilding, especially the wonderful ‘Liberty ships‘ that mattered ~ he knew that if that battle was lost then so was Britain. Many Americans did not want to go to war against Germany, even after Pearl Harbour. It wasn’t that many Americans were pro-German, although some were, and it wasn’t though many Americans were anti-British, although some were, it was, mainly, that America had been attacked by Japan and many Americans wanted to deal with that problem to the exclusion of all others. The notion of restoring (most of) France would have appealed to Americans, Britons and Canadians. Churchill hated Hitler but he might have seen Germany differently if Hilter was gone. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were staunch anti-communists … the demise of Stalin’s USSR would not have bothered either. Roosevelt did not like the British Empire and he wanted it gone, but not until after he had defeated Japan.
On balance I think that a German leader with a few ounces of strategic sense would have arrived, in the second half of 1941, at the conclusion that peace in the West was essential to Germany’s overarching strategic objective which lay in the East. I suspect that Churchill and Roosevelt, urged on by Mackenzie King and Curtin in Australia, might have thought that an armistice was the best choice in December of 1941.
It’s more difficult to say how the Pacific War would have played out … America’s industrial might would have prevailed, that’s for sure, but Admiral Nimitz’ island hopping strategy would have needed to have been somewhat more indirect without bases in Australia and New Zealand, but, in my estimation, it would still have succeeded, probably by 1945, possibly. given America’s power, earlier, maybe even in1944.
The post-war world would have had two superpowers, America and Germany, both, along with Britain, likely nuclear-armed, and there would, very, likely, have been a long Cold War, too. Japan, China and India would have developed fairly much as they have. There would never have been a formal European Union but continental Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, would, for all intents and purposes, have been Germany’s empire.
Hope you enjoyed this bit of speculation …