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March 15, 2008

If Germany Had Won the Great War

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"Alternative History" was a popular sport a few years ago for history buffs. It probably always will be around if for no other reason than politicians and pundits love to criticize and second-guess actions of other politicians.

For example, "If only Clinton had resigned when the Monica thing went public, then Al Gore would have been President and would have won the 2000 election. Bin-Laden never would have attacked the U.S., the Palestinians and Israelis would have made peace, we would now have Global Cooling and Earth would be paradise." Or something like that.

Fun stuff. And it's generally harmless because it's pure speculation -- certainly after about the second major pivot point is reached. For example, it seems that records show that the German army would have pulled back from the 1936 re-occupation of the Rhineland had the French army moved east to counter it. It's possible that this could have led to a chain of events that would lead to Hitler's toppling and no World War 2. But it's also possible that World War 2 would have happened anyway, at a different time, under different circumstances and possibly with a different outcome.

I'm not sure Alternative History would have pleased Leo Tolstoy, who thought Napoleon was rendered a sock-puppet by historical forces. I happen to think that men and randomness shape history -- of the political and military kind, at least -- as much as such "forces" do.

What brings this up is that I just read a fairly recently reissued 1935 book about the opening weeks of the Great War by Sewell Tyng. Plus, I have read and re-read Edward Spears' 1930 account of the same period, but from a liaison officer point of view.

The Great War is known for its bloody trench warfare which indeed took up most of the four years it lasted. But its opening and closing weeks were marked by fluid campaigns, and the opening campaign very nearly resulted in German victory.

Many writers of military history assert that if the Germans had only followed Schlieffen's plan to the letter, their right wing would have swept past Paris and caught the French armies in a huge trap. On the other hand, Martin van Creveld writes
that the Germans didn't have the logistical capacity to maintain such an assault and that Schlieffen himself knew it.

The Schlieffen Plan and the French Plan XVII aside, Tyng mentions a number of occasions where the tide of battle might have changed had some transient condition or another been in place. Certainly the Germans had the upper hand until the first few days of September 1914. But, as both Tyng and Spears indicate, the sometimes derided French commander Joffre was able to throw the Germans back after having his center and left retreat rapidly while moving forces from his right to create a new army based on Paris.

Anyway, just for speculative fun, let's assume that the Germans did decisively defeat the French and British in the west. Then what would have happened?

One possibility would have been a peace treaty (the Russians recognizing that facing the bulk of the German army would not be worth the effort of continuing the war) that would have (1) solidified Austrian claims in the Balkans, and (2) transferred all or parts of some French colonies in Africa to the Germans. The Anglo-German naval race probably would have continued, keeping alive the possibility of renewed war. The French might have created a Fourth Republic 30 years earlier. There then might have been a political movement á la Boulanger from either the left or right that might have proved successful. And no Russian Revolution.

I could come up with other plausible outcomes of a German victory. Instead, I welcome contributions from the history buffs in our readership.



posted by Donald at March 15, 2008


No Russian Revolution is almost a certainty had the Germans won the Great War in a matter of months. It also wouldn't have been called the Great War.

Just as fascinating to theorize about is what if Germany had won WW II. Two likely scenarios: 1) Assuming Germany had won the war rather quickly, before an American entry into the war, Hitler, who was an extreme revolutionary type and could barely stand peace, would find some way to declare war on America, starting the whole thing all over again. 2) The war having been won, a combination of army officers, high ranking nazis and industrial tycoons, would soon force the altogether-unsuitable-for-peace-Hitler from power. Germany would become more moderate.

Posted by: ricpic on March 15, 2008 3:21 PM

I've been a member of the online alternate history community for ten years now. My first foray was writing a (very bad) time line called "Mani Ascendant" which postulated a successful Manicheanism. It might still be floating in the Internet Archive somewhere. It's amazing how large the community is, though. Right now I regularly contribute fictional segments to a friend's TLs. I enjoy the writing part but I don't like all the research that goes beforehand.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 15, 2008 6:12 PM

Niall Ferguson wrote a book about "what if" Britain had not entered WWI (her treaty obligations were moot). His conclusions: German victory leading to an EU type German-donimated Europe, no WWII, no Holocaust, Lenin spending his life in Zurich (Geneva? Basel?) and Hitler dying as a Munich nobody.

Posted by: James Graham on March 15, 2008 7:31 PM

Hmmm, if Germany had won the war quickly in the West, the Kaiser's forces would have made mincemeat out of Russia in the East, so I agree that all of Eastern Europe would have fallen under a German sphere of influence, and likely the Ukraine as well. While that would have eliminated Nazism and Communism and the holocaust as we knew them from the historical record, I suspect Germany would have been unable to let things be (they were never very good at that). One suspects an intense naval buildup to the point where England would have been invaded or kowtowed within a few decades (say mid-1930s to mid-1940s). The rest of Europe would have fallen into line. Presumably the Czar would have been overthrown after the defeat/capitulation to the Germans in 1914, but I suspect the Czarist government would have been replaced by an intensely chauvanistic, nationalistic military dictatorship supported by all right-thinking Russians thirsting for revenge. Possibly this would have led to a renewed conflict something like the Eastern Front part of WWII, if the new Russian government was capable enough or if the Germans wanted Russian oil badly enough.

And the U.S.? We might have avoided the Depression without the weird financial shenanigans that followed the Great War in the 1920s. And without that, the U.S. with its unparalleled industrial might could have decided to back the presumably resurgent Russians in a World War with the Germans, who would probably have been arrogant enough somewhere around the world to provoke a confrontation with American interests. American involvement would not have resulted in an invasion of Western Europe, however, as Germany's presumably powerful navy would have made that out of the question. No, it might have been a sort of mega-Barbarossa, with the U.S. supplying Russia via Siberia.

Alternatively, the fighting might have centered on the Middle East and Iran if the Germans were seriously after oil (and depending on the extent of German influence over the British Empire in India). Maybe the U.S. and Russia would have opposed the Turks and the Germans there.

Alternatively, the U.S. might have just said the heck with it and tolerated a German hegemony in a good deal of the world. We might have focused our attention on Latin America and created a sort of stable, bipolar Old World-New World split.

At least until somebody got the atom bomb, of course...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 16, 2008 3:13 AM

Had Britain not entered WWI it would most probably have retained it's empire and its influence much longer than it did.

Posted by: Tristram Brelstaff on March 16, 2008 6:14 AM

Well, Milwaukee, New Ulm, etc. would not have been culturally cleansed.

An American candidate for President would not have been jailed by his rival and have to wait for a Republican for his freedom.

The centralized National State would have been delayed as the threat of Kaiser Bill would have been absent from Progressive propaganda.

Posted by: Virgil K. Saari on March 16, 2008 11:35 AM

For us Americans, any alternative would have been better than Wilson's mindless intervention.

Posted by: Joseph Moroco on March 16, 2008 11:44 AM

No Dolchstosslegende...hmmm...maybe Professor Einstein's bomb could have devastated those pesky Russians, for which he would have received the Iron Cross? You never know?

Posted by: SFG on March 16, 2008 7:03 PM

No Woodrow Wilson assault on civil liberties, no massive Progressive influence on US politics, no Communist Russia, no Nazi Germany, no Holocaust ... an early German victory is starting to sound pretty good! I'll buy a case of that!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on March 16, 2008 7:31 PM

Agreed, Prof. Hunt! And so, instead of an end to the age of European empires, it'd be the end to the age of all but one or two European empires; almost certainly, no African or Asian or Caribbean colonies would have become independent when they did. It would have been a vastly different world.

Posted by: Will S. on March 17, 2008 12:50 AM

If it's not too late, I'll add my tuppence. I think Ferguson is usually more right than wrong, but on this one he's out to lunch.

Friedrich hit on this earlier, when he mentioned the German inability to let things alone. A Germany that had conquered Europe would IMHO have been a Germany that learned the lesson that aggression pays.

As to all the erasures that others have mentioned--no Red Russia, no Depression, etc etc,
I'm skeptical that history works quite like that.
Unless nationalism and socialism just up and disappear--and I figure that both gain force as a result of increased German cultural prestige--and Europe as a whole actually prospers under the German boot--highly doubtful--we get misery later anyway.

Some nowadays claim that gun-shy Germans are a problem. I am not one of them.


Posted by: Narr on March 17, 2008 11:45 AM

"A Germany that had conquered Europe would IMHO have been a Germany that learned the lesson that aggression pays."

And we didn't?

Anyway, it was the wrong lesson, as we are starting to learn.

Posted by: Joseph Moroco on March 17, 2008 9:20 PM

I too am an AH buff of long standing (Hi, Spike!)

I tend to agree with Narr. Germany in 1914 was infatuated with military power and conquest, and with its own imagined supremacy. Vide Treitschke, Bernhardi, et at. Had Germany triumphed easily, this tendency would have been reinforced.

The rivalry with Britain would be reinforced. The Belgian massacres of 1914 (yes, they were trivial compared to WW II, but they really happened) would be excused and justified. Germany would not be satisfied with its gains. Down the road there would be a Great War.

Also, very probably the German model would be imitated in other countries.

For instance, there were many Americans who admired German discipline and aggressiveness, such as Theodore Roosevelt. It fit in with "Progressive" authoritarianism. I could see the U.S. adopting mass military training and making explicit and permanent the U.S. domination of Latin America.

The Russian Revolution.... Russia was in bad shape, and the fall of the Tsars was imminent. (It has been argued that the patriotic rally of 1914 actually delayed the convulsion until dissipated by military incompetence.) What form the alternate Revolution takes: radical socialism, social democracy, and reactionary dictatorship were all possible.

The Depression? No one knows. The Holocaust? The tendencies were already there. German racialism and anti-semitism and bogus eugenicism were rampant. Hitler didn't have to push hard to get his killing done.

On the other hand: it is possible that victorious Germany could then get bored with playing soldiers, and veer in a (19th-century) liberal path, peacefully discarding the uniforms and battleships. It would not be a totalitarian state, after all. If Communist Russia and China could transform themselves as radically as they have without bloody revolution or conquest, I can't say that Kaiserliche Deutschland couldn't.

Creveld may be right that a "Schlieffen" victory was not really possible. The logistics were on the bleeding edge of possible.

I've seen comments that Schlieffen never drew up an actual Plan. Supposedly it was invented after the War, by German generals who excused their failure by blaming Moltke (now dead) for not following the Great Schlieffen Plan.

On the other hand: if Britain had not intervened... the BEF may have been just enough of a drag on the Germans to prevent them winning - they did come sort of close.

There are of course many other side issues to consider: the rise of Fascism in the wake of the Great War; the effect of the War on European confidence; the weakening of colonialist dominion; the great boost to aviation; and simply the non-death of millions of people, any one of whom could have and some of whom certainly would have been great artists, or technologists, or politicos.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on March 17, 2008 10:10 PM

"And we didn't?"
Erm, the US turned isolationist after WWI.

Posted by: stil on March 18, 2008 8:42 AM

"And we didn't?"

The topic was a German victory in 1914 or thereabouts. You want to have a conversation about America's flaws, go ahead, and I'll comment as and when I think I have something to add.


Posted by: Narr on March 18, 2008 9:05 AM

Hitler might have conquered Europe and Russia, but never America. As some might have noticed, the world's last remaining "Superpower" is having a great deal of trouble conquering Iraq, mainly because it is half way around the world and because its native population would like to kick us out.

Can you imagine the logistics problems Hitler would have had supporting a million or so Nazi soldiers across the Atlantic Ocean?

Consider also that America is a nation of GUN OWNERS who would not have tolerated an army of occupation any more than the Iraqis.

Posted by: oldgeezerpilot on March 21, 2008 9:19 AM

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