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.
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.
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.
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.
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