Why we’re so lucky that we won the Second World War

This week marks the 73rd anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. To me the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945 was one of the pivotal points in what Eric Hobsbawm has called the ‘short’ twentieth century – the era from 1914 to 1992 that began with the First World War and the collapse of the old European order, and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery decorating Soviet Generals, Berlin, 12 July 1945. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The notion of framing centuries around broader social developments rather than calendar dates is appealing because it underscores the human meanings. Hobsbawm saw the century as a three-part transformation in which capitalism, fascism and communism played out their oppositions over the 80-odd years between 1914 and 1992.

However, to me, if we’re to adopt Hobsbawm’s socio-political definition of the century, then I’d rather define it  as a two-way struggle between democracy and the forces of totalitarianism, the latter a two-headed beast whose incarnations were framed by political extremes: fascism and communism. The difference is subtle, but it seems to me that there is more to human behaviour than just the left-right political spectrum, and the Nazis and Soviets had a lot in common when it came to exploring evil. The net outcome was that until the Second World War, democracy seemed on the back foot. The fact that the two main totalitarian powers – Germany and the Soviet Union – ended up fighting each other was a factor in the ability of democracy to prevail. So too was the US emergence from isolationism, and British determination not to buckle.

The alliance with the Soviets was expedient. The western powers understood that Stalin’s Soviet Union, with its secret police, its gulags and mass persecutions, was just as bad as Hitler’s Germany. That said, the Nazis were arguably worse because, in many respects, the Soviets were carrying on as their predecessors had; Russia had gone from a Tsarist dictatorship to a Communist one. The scale of it grew and was industrialised by technology, but the behaviour wasn’t new to them.

The Germans, on the other hand, were on a darker path, one that – as Lord Robert Vansittart pointed out in the early 1940s – had begun not with Hitler, but with the sense of manifest destiny and empire – ‘Reich’ – instilled in the 1870s by Otto von Bismarck. The Nazis then industrialised the mind-set, intensified it, filled their regime and people with institutionalised hate, and wrapped it up in a sense of virtuous rationalism. It was this coldly logical approach – in which only their purpose was mad – that rendered Nazi Germany, under Adolf Hitler and his bully-boy cronies, the deepest evil the world has ever seen. The Nazi darkness was coldly, carefully calculated and then pursued with deliberate and conscious intent. There can be no greater evil than this.

Heinkel He-177 four-engined bomber in Denmark, 1944. Public domain.

What’s more, they nearly got away with it. British historian Richard Overy has argued that the Second World War was near-run up until mid-1943. The pivot was the German defeat at Kursk on the Eastern Front, which broke the German army. Until then odds were on that the Soviets could have sought terms: even in early 1943, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, was in talks with his German counterpart, Ribbentrop, over an armistice. One of the factors behind the German defeat around Kursk,  Overy argues, was the fact that they lost air superiority over the Eastern Front. This was due to the British and US bombing campaign over Germany, which forced the Luftwaffe to pull fighter units back to protect their homeland. So for all the controversy with which Sir Arthur Harris’s bombing policy was received, it did prove pivotal – although not in the way Harris envisaged.

Overy’s hypothesis is interesting. And the Nazi defeat wasn’t easy or – for some time – certain. Historians and novelists have made play of the point; the likely counter-scenario revolves around the fact that, after the fall of France in May 1940, only Britain and her Empire were at war with Germany. If Britain had sought terms, it was over. They nearly did as France looked like falling – the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, wanted a truce. It was only a last-minute shift, buoyed in part by Churchill lobbying his Outer Cabinet on 28 May, that led to Britain fighting on.

Sir Winston Churchill in 1942 – quite possibly the greatest Englishman that ever lived. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C

The counter-question is how peace in mid-1940 – when Germany occupied the key states of Europe and was allied with Mussolini’s Italy – might have played out. The Nazis and the Soviets would likely have fought anyway; the two flavours of totalitarianism – fascist and communist – hated each other, and Hitler’s plans involved destroying the Soviets. In real history, the fact that the Germans had to run a side-campaign through the Balkans, in part because Britain was still in the war, delayed Hitler’s attack on the Soviets. As a result, Heinz Guderian’s panzers were caught by winter when trying to take Moscow. Had the 1941 campaign been started six weeks earlier the Soviet capital would likely have fallen.

Would that have provoked Stalin’s surrender? Perhaps not; but in the real 1942, Germany was able to launch a second immense campaign into the Soviet Union, this time towards Stalingrad; and in our imaginary alternate world, a Germany confronted by no other power would likely have done so with greater effect.  Furthermore, in the real world the longer-term ability of the Red Army to defeat Germany on the ground relied on US logistic support on an enormous scale, delivered via the Arctic convoys. Without American help, the Soviets would likely not have been able to defeat Germany’s forces in 1943-45.

So let’s suppose Britain sought terms in 1940 and the Soviets were defeated in 1942. What then? The world of the mid-1940s would have been a different place, with Europe dominated by darkness of a scale and depth that the world had never seen before. Certainly the US would not have stood by; in the real world, the fall of France in 1940 allowed President Roosevelt to lobby for legislation that set a massive re-armament programme going. Had the Nazis won in Europe this would have been likely expanded. But whether that might have turned into a ‘hot war’ is another matter; a ‘cold war’ scenario is as likely.

Clement Attlee, Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin at Potsdam, July 1945.

The plight of the people of Europe was bad enough in reality. To imagine it after a total Nazi victory beggars the imagination. Furthermore, German economic power on a world scale would have been significant. The Cold War in the real world was a battle of economic systems – communist (which didn’t particularly work) versus capitalism (which usually worked well). Ultimately, the communist system cracked, bringing the Cold War to an end in the early 1990s.

But Nazi Germany was all about capitalism, further fuelled by exploiting the countries they conquered. And that creates a scenario of political rather than economic collapse, likely pivoting around the demise of the original leaders and in-fighting as a new generation emerged. How long that might have taken in our speculative Nazi Europe is another matter. The top Nazis floated on cocaine and methamphetamines; by 1945 Hitler was prematurely aged, trembling and infirm. Even in peacetime, how long would have lived? Possibly into the 1950s? Any subsequent regime might have, perhaps, lasted half a generation, maybe. It’s hard to say – it’s all speculative and there are many credible scenarios. How it might have collapsed is another matter – the likelihood is messily, particularly given that a victorious Nazi Germany in 1940 would then have had the resources and time to develop nuclear weapons.

Either way, we have to consider how fortunate the world was that the Allies won when they did, nearly three quarters of a century ago.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


8 thoughts on “Why we’re so lucky that we won the Second World War

  1. Ah, counterfactuals. Always good for a discussion.

    President Roosevelt knew he had a country that, prior to December 7, 1941, had no urge whatsoever to join in the fun over in Europe. It’s worth recalling that legislation to enable a peacetime draft was passed in 1940 by margins as slender as a single vote, and if memory serves the term of service was only one year.

    It seems highly likely that Hitler didn’t want the US in the war. The US Navy was in effect at war with the Kriegsmarine in 1941. Again, it isn’t my area of history in particular, but I seem to recall there was a line of longitude in the North Atlantic where the US Navy was allowed to attack “unidentified submarines” and took over convoy duties from the Royal Navy. The USS Reuben James was sunk by a U-boat during this time. There were acts of war enough on both sides to constitute casus belli, but in the event, Roosevelt didn’t ask for Congress to declare war on Germany in his speech on December 8, 1941. Hitler declared war on the US on — December 11? Don’t recall off the top of my head, but it was a few days later.

    I hadn’t known before of armistice discussions between Ribbentrop and Molotov in 1943, and that’s interesting. I wonder how serious those discussions really were. One suspects both sides were playing for time to reequip and rearm, rather than any actual peace. Ideologically the Nazis were totally committed to exterminating Jews, Communists, and Slavs, groups they tended to lump together in any case, so for the Nazis any armistice would probably have been temporary, and, doubtless, Stalin would have felt the same way, especially since in 1943 the Wehrmacht was still deep in Soviet territory.

    I think the best shot for a real change in events was in May of 1940. If Churchill and his allies were unsuccessful at keeping Britain from seeking terms with Hitler, then Hitler would have been free to concentrate on Russia, as you rightly point out, much earlier in the year and without having to worry about Britain on his west flank.

    Could Nazi Germany have created a viable atomic weapon? I read somewhere that there were several atomic bomb programs in Germany during the war; one of them was even run by the Postal Service, for reasons probably lost in the fog of Nazi bureaucracy. I suspect that, logistically and economically, while the US had the wherewithal to create two complementary “super-weapons” — i.e., the Manhattan Project and the B-29 Superfortress — plus everything else (think of the flotillas of landing craft on the Normandy invasion beaches, for one), Nazi Germany could only afford the one “super-weapon,” the V-2. OK, maybe we could argue that the Me-262 jet fighter was also a “super-weapon,” but not in the same class logistically and economically, or even from an engineering/scientific perspective. Aside from any of those questions, look at the array of scientific talent it required to build the bomb here in the States. The Germans had Heisenberg and a few others. Brilliant men, even geniuses, but most of the talent had fled Germany (or Italy) before the war began, out of an abhorrence for the Nazis.

    If Germany had built the bomb, how would they deliver it? We had the B-29, but the Nazis never showed any particular interest in developing an effective heavy bomber, although there were designs and prototypes. The V-2 didn’t have the lift capability, and imagine putting an atomic weapon on, say, a scaled-up V-2, if you could even scale it up to be able to carry that sort of payload. You could put it in a submarine and sail it into the port of New York, maybe.

    Whew. I’m not even going to get into the very interesting notion of the succession problem in the Third Reich. You could easily be right in saying the whole thing could collapse into faction fighting, unless maybe the Wehrmacht worked out a deal with the Waffen SS to “restore order” and a military dictator popped out of the resulting mess.

    Here are some other counterfactuals to consider:

    What if Gen. Walther Wever, who was the boss behind development of heavy bombers for the Luftwaffe, hadn’t died in a plane crash? (Don’t remember the year, mid-1930s sometime.) As a result, what if the Luftwaffe had a viable four-engined bomber more or less the equivalent of the American B-17 or B-24? (Look up “Urals bomber.”)

    What if Hitler had delayed the start of the war until he had at least 100 operational U-boats?

    Or, in a more mundane question, what if Hitler had allowed his panzers to attack the surviving BEF soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk, rather than letting Goering handle it?

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    1. It’s a lot of fun to explore these counterfactuals! And, indeed, for all the hype around Nazi ‘secret-weapons’, the fact remains that the Allied ‘secret weapons’ were considerably superior – standouts for me are the A-bomb and the proximity AA fuse (thermionic valve circuitry blown out of a gun – woah!), not to mention the Allied jet fighters – the Gloster Meteor was in service pretty much at the same time as the Me-262, but never built in number (the photo I used as the promo image on this post was taken in 1943). I believe Hitler never intended to have a major war before 1944, by which time he’d have had his naval Z-plan largely complete, more U-boats, and a bigger Luftwaffe. It’s possible they might well have had a viable 4-engined bomber by then.

      One intriguing ‘what if’ for me remains the ‘Amerika Bomber’ – particularly the Horten brothers’ proposal for a flying wing, mostly made of wood. I saw a fascinating documentary a few months back on the Ho-229 twin jet flying wing fighter. Northrop-Grumman apparently built a replica in 2008 and tested it on their radar test rig – turns out that, largely by accident, the Ho-229 had about 80 percent the cross-section of an Me-109 against the radar frequencies of the day. Right at the end of the war the Horten brothers approached Goering with a proposal for a six-engined jet flying wing bomber to hit New York. The scenario emerges of such an aircraft being paired with a Nazi A-bomb in the ‘Nazi cold war’ scenario I postulated in the post, or perhaps the same thing being developed in an alternate history where war didn’t break out in 1939.

      The other idea was Sanger’s ‘Silver Bird’ sub-orbital spaceplane, which I suppose the Germans might have built by the late 1940s if funds and uninterrupted time was available. Again – able to drop an A-bomb on the US (or anywhere else on the planet) and then skip-glide back to landing somewhere in Nazi-occupied territory. And sufficiently fast and high that nothing could tackle it – oh, except Chuck Yeager in a gun-armed X-1… (you can see where this story is heading… :-))

      There is SO much scope in all of this for some fun with history!

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  2. Interesting post as always! What if the Germans had won the First World War? Would that have been more palatable for Europe than the Allies winning the First World War but then losing the second?

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    1. Good point. I speculated on the mechanisms of a WW1 German victory a couple of years ago – https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/what-if-germany-had-won-the-first-world-war-in-autumn-1914/ and https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/how-germany-nearly-won-the-first-world-war/

      What I didn’t look into was what might particularly follow. I figured it might lead to another European war sooner or later but left the speculation there. Would a Kaiser-dominated Europe have been more palatable than a Hitler-dominated one? I’m not sure. Possibly, although in some ways I suspect a First World War German victory would have been received with the same horror as the prospect of a Nazi-dominated Europe – what Hitler offered was basically a re-run the Kaiser’s Bismarck-infused ‘Reich’ thinking, literally pepped up on methamphetamines.

      One issue that deserves speculation is whether a First World War German victory might have staved off the collapse of the old European order. It was already swaying before social and economic pressures before 1914 – the First World War served to intensify the issues and accelerate the pace. Could a Kaiser-dominated European economic union have made a difference? And would that have lasted – given the way the world was repelled by their proto-totalitarianism? I don’t know – but it’s good to speculate about.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, it’s good the Allies did. And it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I really think that we have to thank Churchill for a lot of it at the moment of crisis – what an amazing man in the moment. I have to add that I’ve always been hugely impressed with his writing – he had such a way with style. (And I believe that when he ‘wrote’ his Second World War memoir, his support-team of writers competed to emulate that style, so that the great man wouldn’t edit too many of their words…)


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