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