What if Germany won the First World War? Would we have avoided Hitler?

I posted the other day about the way Germany nearly won the First World War in spring 1918.

German map of part of the 1918 Spring Offensive, the 'Kaiserschlacht'. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
German map of part of the 1918 Spring Offensive, the ‘Kaiserschlacht’. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

If Erich von Ludendorff’s gigantic offensive of March-June 1918 had succeeded, Germany would have dominated Europe on land – and with all combatants exhausted by years of fighting, it’s highly likely the Allies would have sought terms.

What then?

There’ve been ‘alternative histories’ in which Germany won the First World War – including a wonderfully bizarre couple of novels by Richard Lupoff, Circumpolar and Countersolar, set on a coin-shaped Earth with 1920s aviation dominated by the evil Richtofen brothers, Lothar and Manfred (technically, the 1914-18 war never happened in this universe). The movie Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow was set in a diesel-punk alternate past where Germany had never been defeated in 1918. There’s also Ian McLeod’s The Summer Isles, which I haven’t read but which is apparently set in a 1940 Britain that’s become fascist after a German WWI victory.

Would the disasters of the 1930s and the Second World War have been avoided if Germany had won in 1918 and not been humiliated?

It seems to me that even had Germany won in 1918, evil would have followed. Here’s why:

  1. German victory on land in Europe in 1918 would have forced the Allies to terms, but Germany still couldn’t challenge the Royal Navy at sea. The scenario emerges of a world filled with recent enemies, uneasily at peace, where Germany dominates the continent and the Japanese, British and Americans dominate the seas via their sea power (merchant marine) and sea force (navies).
  2. Germany had been run down by years of blockade and the strains of war. The government nearly fell over in the bitter winter of 1917-18, and communist revolution simmered. Ludendorff knew this: his spring offensive was a last gamble – it was even called the Kaiserschlacht (‘Kaiser’s Battle’) by way of whipping up enthusiasm. It failed, and Germany fell over as the next winter hit, even though they had won the war in the east and their army in the west was retreating but not beaten. The armistice of November 1918 happened because the German government fell over. For a lot of Germans – especially the soldiers – there was a sense of having been cheated.

If Ludendorff’s offensive had ended the war, his government wouldn’t have fallen – but they wouldn’t have been popular. Many of the factors that fuelled the rise of the Nazis were as much legacy of the wartime run-down as of Versailles and reparations regime. And a victorious Germany wouldn’t have averted the fall of the old order in Eastern Europe and Austria-Hungary, which was one of the arbiters of change.

Even if Germany had been victorious on the Continent in 1918 – forcing peace terms – there would have been post-war disaffection and, likely, the rise of fringe parties, just as in the real world. The detail would have been different, but I suspect the outcome would have been similar. Either they’d have gained power and pursued their ideas, or they’d have forced Ludendorff’s ruling military junta to become more totalitarian than it already was – with much the same result.

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...
Evil robo-Hitler. Screen shot from Id’s classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey…

The fact that the Nazis were merely a specific expression of long-standing German themes was well known in the west. The problem was what Robert Vansittart called their ‘Reich’ mentality, which was focused as a national ideology by Otto von Bismarck in the 1870s. This sense of manifest destiny and self-exceptionalism coloured both the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s Germany. It was further fuelled by the rise of totalitarianism, which pre-dated Hitler, and it’s one of the reasons why historians, today, argue that the First and Second World Wars were two acts in the same conflict.

To put that into world context, even had Germany come to victorious terms with the Allies in 1918, the Russian Civil War was already under way. That ended with Soviet victory despite Allied intervention in 1919-21, setting the stage for a tri-partite 1920s and 1930s divided between the democracies (in terms of industrialised power, primarily Britain and its Empire, France, and the US), the totalitarian ‘new order’ (primarily Germany and Italy, with Japan an outlier in Asia) and totalitarian communism (Soviet Union). Had Germany won the First World War, that three-way split wouldn’t have changed much. It’s hard to see Germany supporting the White Russians and reinstating the regime they had recently been fighting. And so the scenario emerges of a world without Hitler where the ‘old order’ had largely fallen, and which still had the problem of a militarist police-state Germany.

Would a world without Hitler have averted the Holocaust? Possibly. But – again – that didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Hitler exploited existing issues as a device for getting into power. He orchestrated hate, shaped it, and attracted followers who prosletysed evil like his own – but he invented little. Even Hitler’s specific racial ideas weren’t original to him – he appears to have lifted them wholesale from the identical rantings of his fellow countryman, the pseudo-religious cult leader Rudolf Steiner.

Would another militaristic junta governing 1930s Germany have done anything differently? Or been less monstrous? Perhaps. But don’t forget that, across the border, Stalin was engaging in similarly disgraceful crimes against humanity, on similar scale. It was the way totalitarian states worked at the time.

I also expect there would have been renewed warfare, sooner or later – not least because the economic rivalries between the powers wouldn’t have been cured. Call me a cynic, but human nature doesn’t change. So while the narrative of the twentieth century would be different, I suspect the trend would have been similar.

How do you figure the world might have panned out had Kaiser Bill won in 1918? Thoughts?

Meanwhile, if you like the idea of alternate history and are interested in a satirical take on the South Pacific – including the way Japan might have invaded New Zealand ‘through the back passage’, check out my book Fantastic Pasts. On Amazon. Now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


18 thoughts on “What if Germany won the First World War? Would we have avoided Hitler?

  1. At the end of the Great War, all countries became more conservative and authoritarian, not just Germany. In Britain and France, for example, laws were passed that took rights away from women and things like getting the vote were delayed. People in Germany were subsisting on an average of 600 calories a day so while they believed the propaganda that they were winning, the government, as you say, wasn’t very popular. Which parties were dominating the government changed markedly just before the war too, and continued to change. Things like eugenics were already a strong part of German society and the Jews were added into the mix. It’s not as if there was no anti-Semitism before Hitler came along. The Kaiser was never popular and was pretty screwy at the best of times, so him staying in power wouldn’t have stopped anything. That’s all a bit muddled, but what I’m saying is that I agree with your evaluation.

    1. Thanks! Yes, the general ‘lurch’ to authoritarianism was shared across the industrialised world. It happened here too, not least via the way the primary school system was reformed by Beebe in the 1930s – in general our inter-war attitudinal change has been called a ‘tightening’ of society. Part of it, I suspect, was the way the social militarism of the late nineteenth century had been entrenched by the First World War experience. Paradoxically, I suspect part of it was a reaction to that very event: at a time when the world seemed to have fallen apart and when every family suddenly was beset with tragedy and loss, conservative social certainties and uniformity became a comfort.

    2. All of that is completely true, but if we expand out our scope a bit, what we can also see is that there was something really global going on, and I don’t know that a lot of it was every well defined or explained. It clearly related to the global impact of industrialization, however.

      If we look at it that way, what we see is that swings towards authoritarianism vary in countries in extent, and in cause. The spread of democracy was much less well established in 1918, for one thing, and that had a big impact on what occurred.

      I think we have to go back, basically, at least to 1900 or so. If we do that, we can see that socialism was on the rise in a lot of countries all over the globe. Anarchy, interesting, was also enjoying a moment in the sun. So we had some really radical (keeping in mind that the socialist of this time frame are really different from the post 1918 variety) movements on the rise. In 1905 we see an attempt at rebellion in Imperial Russia. In 1911 we see the Chinese imperial regime fall to a democratic-nationalist-semi socialist movement. In 1912 we see a four way American Presidential race featuring one conservative, two progressives, and one socialist. In 1910 we see a revolution in Mexico break out that fails to a military coup and then revives in the form of varying socialist, left wing, and agrarian forces contesting for power well into the 1920s.

      A common feature of all of this is that the more authoritarian a regime already was, the more radical were its opponents. Imperial Russia, which was basically the personal possession of the Czar, was therefore a pressure cooker of radicalism. In democratic nations these same forces existed, but democracy operated to let the steam off and avoid an explosion.

      Enter into that scenario World War One, which killed off for good all the remaining tottering truly Imperial monarchies. People will say “well what about the UK”, but the UK was a parliamentary democracy at home so it never radicalized. And as a parliamentary democracy, where it really ran into trouble, as with Ireland, it adapted to avoid a disaster.

      Looked at that way, we have to ponder the nature of authoritarianism where it arose. In some places, as in Italy, it came up as an alternative to radical socialism in parties partially founded by socialist (the Italian Fascist, the NASDP, and the Kuomintang all had some radical socialist early on, and the Kuomintang was even part of the Comintern for awhile). So these forces had their own, often nationalist, agendas, but no sympathy for democracy as a rule. In other places, often in the recently created states coming out of imperial regimes, various authoritarian forces of the right and the left rose up as the countries and their politicians had no experience with democracy and didn’t trust it. Witness here, for example, the coup by Pilsudski in Poland which overthrew a democratically elected regime. In more democratic governments things went through a rocky period but democracy generally emerged back out the other side, so we don’t see France become fascist, for example.

      Overall, it was a terrible time.

  2. This is a difficult question, isn’t it? In part it’s difficult as it raises the disturbing question of “would the world have been better off if Germany had won the Great War?

    Well, here’s my musing on it, fwiw.

    When World War One broke out the “old order” imperial regimes were tottering and decaying everywhere. Indeed, they really all died during the war. No traditional imperial regime survived it, whether they were Allied or Central Power nations. We must keep this in mind.

    We must also keep in mind that radical socialism was on the rise prior to the war. Indeed, conventional socialist parties, like the SDP, became conventional after it, and partially in reaction to what occurred in Russia, where the Social Democrats had split into two parties with the Bolsheviks emerging as a scary example and socialist parties fracturing thereafter. So that’s what did happen. On to what might have happened.

    Had Germany won the war the SDP would not have found itself forming a government in 1918 upon the abdication of the Kaiser and the Kaiser and the monarchical conservative government would have continued on into victor that year and at least some time beyond. The French republic would have almost certainly have fallen and the government that would have replaced it would have been one that Germany found palatable, so it would have been a highly conservative, not terribly democratic government.

    In the East Germany’s late war machinations would have come out successful. It’s popular to think of the collapse of Imperial Russia resulting in an immediate cessation of German activity in the East, but that’s completely false. Germany continued to expand as long as it could, to its own detriment as it turned out, as it ended up occupying too much of what had been Imperial Russia in 1918. If France had been defeated, however, that would have gone the other way, and we’d have seen a very truncated Russia (not yet the USSR), an independent Ukraine with German backing, and a continuation of a German backed satellite state in Poland. It’s also commonly forgotten that a “restored” Poland was first created by Germany in World War One, not by the Allies, and not due to the fall, at first, of Imperial Russia. Poland was in a state of struggle following the fall of Imperial Russia as pro German and anti German Poles viewed each other nervously, but that would have resolved itself in favor of the Germans. Here too its easy to forget that Germany was active militarily in Poland even after the Armistice in 1918.

    That sort of activity, moreover, would have extended to the Baltic states and up into Finland, where Germany had already been active.

    So, in the 1918 to 1920 time frame we would almost have certainly have seen a highly conservative Imperial Germany surrounding itself with satellite and like minded states. I don’t think we can doubt that.

    But what would that have meant into the 1920s? That’s hard to say.

    We would have ended up with a Soviet Russia anyway. And it seems very likely that we would have seen the radicalization of the German, and probably French, working class in the 1920s, many of whom already had socialist leanings. Given the existence of Soviet Russia, we would have seen the KDP form as a serious German political party to contest for voters with the SDP. Given the Imperial victory and government, the Center parties like the CDP would have had a hard time getting traction, just as they ultimately did. Hard right wing parties, of which the NASDP was not the only one, would have existed, but would the NASDP? I doubt it, as so much of its ideology was based upon blaming others, particularly the Jews, for the German loss in World War One. That doesn’t mean the other hard right wing German parties would have been nice on matters like race, they wouldn’t have been, but they wouldn’t have been the NASDP.

    I suspect that the Great Depression would have come irrespective of a different conclusion to the war and no reparations being necessary and it would have been just as bad, and maybe worse, than it actually was in Europe. Could the Imperial regimes (Germany and Austria) have survived? I doubt it. But in their fall, would we have seen the KDP, the SDP, or a hard right party come out on top? In other words, would Germany, and France (and the Autro Hungarian Empire) have become Communists, Socialist, or Fascist, states? That’s hard to say. Or would Germany have become a military dictatorship? I think any one of those outcomes can be reasonably speculated upon, with massively different outcomes from there. A Communist Germany would have meant a much different post 1932 history, to say the least, than the one we have. A Fascist or Military Dictatorship Germany probably still gives us a war with the USSR, but probably not with France in this scenario, as I think France’s path would have followed Germany’s.

    Anyway you look at it, there was no way that the old order Imperial regimes were going to make it past the 1930s. But the trip from there had a lot of potential roads.

  3. As an aside, I loved the version of Wolfenstein that came with PCs way back in the early 1990s. I don’t know if they came automatically equipped with it, but mine had it a couple of times.

    That and minesweeper.

    And electronic solitaire.

    1. It was made by Id software. I think there was a shareware version that was pretty much ubiquitous (I may be conflating that with its successor, Doom, but I remember playing both and being wowed by it at the time.)

  4. I think it interesting that we’re collectively spending time asking ‘what if’ questions. It suggests, perhaps, that we’ve reached a point of change in our current society, but aren’t sure what needs to come next?

    1. In part I think it’s because after a century has passed, we can really look at the Great War objectively almost for the first time.

      I think it always takes about 50 years before the history of an event can be objectively told Otherwise we’re too close to it. World War One may be a bit unique in that it was so close to World War Two that the story of the second war impacts the first one, which made it difficult to tell.

      Now, that’s less the case and we can take a less impassioned look at it.

      1. Yes, it’s at least two generations, I think, to get a reasonable distance. In many ways you need to be even further away for wider historical trends – if we believe Eric Hobsbawm, the one the First World War began did not end until 1992 and it is only now that we are getting a perspective on the cycle.

        1. I don’t agree with Hobsbawm on that (1992), and I think a person can become too bogged down in the big picture, but I agree with you on the two generations.

          Indeed an added aspect of this is that histories that are shortly after event actually take a lot of conditions for granted, as well as being fused with views of the time and the cause of the protagonists. A good example of this can be found in the histories of World War Two which frequently omit the old and emphasize the new, as the writers were acclimated to the old as routine. So, for example, if we read histories of Operation Torch written soon after the war or even up into the 1960s, we’ll get lots of accounts of armored combat, but probably no mention at all of French horse drawn columns. The same is true of Germans nearly everywhere during World War Two, who were more horse dependent in that war than they were in World War One and who were the least mechanized army in the European war by 1945. But writers were so fascinated by the newness of armored warfare in the 1939-1945 time frame that their writings tend to omit or overemphasis that, while discussing heavily armor. That impacts our view of the war today.

          1. My take is that without the big picture it is too easy to get bogged down with the close-focus perspective of the moment when events occurred. Hence the tenor of the immediate post-war military accounts among other things.

            1. I’d forgotten that I’d made this my “Seventh Law of History” when I blogged on this topic some time back: http://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2012/12/holschers-laws-of-history.html

              At that time, I put a 60 year time frame on the time needed to pass before accurate histories. I my have run a little long on that, but maybe not. Time clearly needs to pass, and, contrary to what some sometimes assert, old events need to be brought to new audiences which have new experiences and don’t have the old ones, so that they can understand them.

    2. You’re right. I’d actually go further. I suspect there is always a sense of facing change; and as we do, the past informs us. The sport of speculating on ‘what if’ is not unique to our time – not by a long way. And if done right it can indeed be a useful tool for insight.

      1. Yes–recently I’ve been looking at Markov Chains, which come up in different areas of mathematics, and which are basically used to model future outcomes based on past patterns and current states. They aren’t overly complicated if the system is closed, but they seem to become a little bit crazy with more parameters. (I have to say, I enjoy these types of inquiries in which ever field they land, and it always amazes me that people have worked out ways to apply numbers and measures to predictions.)

  5. It seems to me that periods of insecurity, like war but also major economic problems (of which the probably inevitable Great Depression is obviously one) always leads to greater authoritarianism, whether on the left or right, or via the extreme nationalism route. Such extremism though always leads eventually to some form of ciunter-revolution. In the 60s the conservatism that followed WWII gave us the flower power generation. It’s how big the swings of power are and how governments handle them that seems to make the difference to how well a country and its people come out of it. I believe we’re looking at another potential tipping point in the US at the moment. If, for example, the GFC leads to that country voting for one of the authoritarian candidates for president, it could lead to damage for a generation because of things like the presidential right to appoint SCOTUS justices and the partisan way they do it.

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