What if Germany had won the First World War in autumn 1914?

I pointed out in an earlier post that a German victory in 1918 would have always been marginal because by then all combatants had been run down by the strains of war. Revolution simmered in Germany and the chances of Ludendorff’s military junta continuing to rule without compromise or change afterwards seem slim.

Graves of New Zealand Division soldiers at Tyne Cot - a photo I took in 2004.
Graves of New Zealand Division soldiers at Tyne Cot – a photo I took in 2004.

What of a German victory in late 1914? History is always about trend, rather than point-events; and the wider reality is that the forces which brought down the ‘old order’ across Europe in 1918 were accelerated by the war, but not created by it. Russia was already shaky; the Austro-Hungarian Empire senescent and crumbling. Germany was different: swift victory in late 1914 would, almost certainly, have reinforced the power of the Kaiser and his government. Would the Russian revolution have happened anyway? They were already on their way to that revolution in 1914.

Much would have pivoted on how Germany treated Russia as a defeated power. If Germany imposed policies that addressed the political disaffections, possibly a revolution would have been avoided. But that seems unlikely. In 1941, for instance, the Germans found welcome as they invaded the Ukraine – they were widely viewed as liberators. But that swiftly faded on the back of Nazi atrocities, and – as Max Hastings and other historians have shown – that the Kaiser’s Germany was in theme much the same as Hitler’s. It was merely a matter of degree. The underlying issue was Bismarckian ‘Reich’ thinking.

So the spectre emerges of a strong and victorious Germany in 1915, able to impose the Kaiser’s intended central European economic zone across France and likely other European nations – not by war, but by coercive power. However, they would almost certainly have had to deal before long with more Balkan trouble, and very likely with a Russian uprising and revolution; and the question then follows as to how long they might have kept France and Belgium as compliant puppet states.

Meanwhile the British – though defeated on land – would have retained full command of the sea. And the economic oppositions that had been driving rivalry with Germany would have been intensified, not reduced, by the German one-power hegemony on the Continent – a scenario that British foreign policy had been directed against (irrespective of the European power) for centuries.

The end scenario is one that isn’t too different from the way events panned out anyway; the likelihood that by the 1920s Europe would have been in trouble again, one way or another. Revolutionary uprisings and brush-fire wars would have been coupled with increased tensions with Britain. How would the Kaiser’s Germany have responded? The way this administration lurched towards dictatorship during the First World War seems to tell us.

And so we have the prospect of a militarist dictatorship in Germany struggling to keep itself intact as the old European order crumbled around it, still at economic and political odds with Britain.

As for Britain? The First World War effectively bankrupted the Empire. Without it, they would have likely had a far richer 1920s – probably still troubled, but more prosperous than in the real world.

All sorts of prospects follow, and it’s risky to put dates or events on the back of themes – but I’m inclined to think that further European war, pivoting between the western democracies and the rising totalitarian states, would probably have followed. Maybe earlier than it did in the real world.

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

 


2 thoughts on “What if Germany had won the First World War in autumn 1914?

  1. How would a German victory affect a young Adolf Hitler? My understanding is that he used the humiliation of defeat and a collapsed economy to stir up the hatred that the Nazis then exploited to achieve power. Do you think there would have been the same sympathy for national socialism following a German victory in 1914?

    1. Interesting question. You’re quite right – Hitler, whose own character was in part formed by his experiences on the Western Front, exploited the general sense of injustice felt by Germany to peddle his particular brand of madness. My take is that if we accept Hastings’ argument – that the Nazis were merely an accentuated form of the Kaiser’s Germany, thanks to the underlying Reich thinking – then all this was latent in any event. Germany may not have had Hitler’s specific type of national socialism, but by this argument totalitarianism was likely in one form or another. That interpretation seems reasonable, to me, when we consider that the whole of the west was leaning towards regimentation and conformity, an outcome of the social militarism of the previous generation. My take on the First World War is that it didn’t create any trends – it accelerated them and added social damage. Without that social damage, those trends would have likely occurred anyway over the longer term. We’re moving into even further speculation to suggest that perhaps the economic bubble of the second industrial revolution would have likely burst, sooner or later, just as it actually did in 1929-31. All of this, of course, can be endlessly debated – and is endlessly interesting, because it runs to the heart of what constitutes not only the human condition, but also the condition of how societies behave. To me, the fact of discussing it (and keeping on exploring the ideas, which are endless) also teaches us useful stuff about ourselves as a species and as a society.

Comments are closed.