By George DvorskyDecisions during wartime are monumental things. Each move and countermove has the potential to change the course of history. Here are ten shocking ways the Second World War could have unfolded differently than it did.
1. Germany Invades Britain Instead of the Soviet Union
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 proved to be his undoing, but it didn’t have to play out the way it did. After the fall of France a year earlier, the Fuhrer had his military chiefs come up with a plan for an assault on the United Kingdom, an operation dubbed Sea Lion. Preparations began in earnest in the summer of 1940; by the autumn, the British were convinced that an invasion was imminent. What’s more, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact securely in place (a treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the U.S.S.R.), Hitler didn’t have to worry about a war with the Soviets; Stalin was content with his share of Poland, and had his sights set on Finland.
But Hitler soon nixed the plans to conquer England. For starters, it became painfully obvious that more time and preparations were needed. The Fuhrer also knew that an invasion in 1940 would be risky. Britain’s navy controlled the Channel, and as the Battle of Britain revealed, the Luftwaffe didn’t own the skies. What’s more, Hitler wanted to attack Russia sooner rather than later.
But what if the Nazi dictator delayed his conquest of Russia until 1942 or 1943? Germany might have continued its air assault on Britain while sustaining its naval blockade around the Isles. Then, after an appropriate period of preparation, an amphibious landing could have hit England’s shores in 1941 or even 1942. With Britain knocked out of the war, Germany could have finally headed east into the Soviet Union unencumbered.
Had Sea Lion succeeded, a likely scenario would have seen the British government and monarchy flee to Canada. From there, working with the Americans, the Allies could have planned for an invasion of Africa, which in turn might have led to incursions in Italy and the Balkans. What’s certain, however, is that it wouldn’t have been easy — especially if Germany’s subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union had gone Hitler’s way.
2. Japan Reconsiders Attacking Pearl Harbor
The isolationist movement in the United States was alive and well in 1941. Certainly American voters were divided on war. But with Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was free to initiate hostilities against the Axis.
Japan’s fateful decision to confront the United States stemmed from its need to secure oil and rubber reserves from the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia. Had the empire not attacked Hawaii, Tokyo’s expansionist policies would have likely crossed United States eventually, say, after an invasion of the Phillipines. Japan needed to hobble the mighty American Pacific fleet before it could snatch up territory.
But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that Japan didn’t bomb Hawaii and the U.S. were never given a reason to declare war. In such a scenario, Britain and her colonial allies would have been isolated. America’s support for both the U.K. and the U.S.S.R. would have been limited. The Churchill would have struggled in Africa, likely never gaining the opportunity to invade Sicily or Italy. No Western Front would have emerged. The Soviet Union would have probably still defeated Germany, but it would have taken considerably longer. And under those conditions, Stalin just might have claimed all of Europe for himself after crushing the Nazis.
3. The Germans Take Moscow in 1941
A longstanding debate among historians is whether or not Operation Barbarossa could have actually succeeded. The Nazis certainly committed a number of fatal mistakes during the invasion, including a 38-day delay in starting the attack — time that would have certainly come in handy at the onset of winter. And then there was Hitler’s catastrophic decision to divert the main thrust away from Moscow southwards to help Army Group South capture Ukraine. By the time Army Group Centre reached the outskirts of the Soviet capital in early December 1941 — a teasingly close distance of 15 miles (German soldiers could actually see the spires of the Kremlin) — winter had arrived with a vengeance, literally freezing Hitler’s plans to take the Russian nerve centre.
This was perhaps the deciding moment of the Second World War. The struggle certainly would have turned out quite differently had the Soviet Union fallen. First, it would have knocked a significant military power out of the fight. And once armed with Russia’s vast resources (including the oil regions to the south and the breadbasket regions of Ukraine), the Third Reich would have converted into the autarchy of Hitler’s fantasies. Nazi Germany would have become the global superpower, eventually defeating Britain, claiming all of the Middle East and quite possibly even linking up with Japanese forces in Asia. Berlin would have certainly developed nuclear capabilities, perhaps kindling a Cold War with the United States.
Frighteningly, the Nazis would have succeeding in murdering all the Jews and Romani of Europe. And through the diabolical Hunger Plan, they would have also starved tens of millions of Slavs to death, “cleansing” the occupied territories of its inhabitants. It would have been a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order, possibility setting the stage for a totalitarian dark age.
4. Russia and Germany Make a Separate Peace
Imagine a scenario in which both Hitler and Stalin came to a mutual agreement to cease hostilities on the Eastern Front. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact restored, Germany could focus all its efforts on defeating Britain. This one’s a bit of a stretch for at least two reasons. First, Germany desperately needed Russia’s oil reserves to continue its war effort. Second, Stalin would have been hesitant to allow Germany to continue running roughshod around Europe; the Third Reich would continue to pose a serious existential threat to the U.S.S.R. Still, the possibility that this could’ve happened is quite frightening.
5. The Nazis Develop the Bomb Before the Allies
Given Hitler’s penchant for so-called “wonder weapons,” there’s little doubt he would have used the atomic bomb if he had it. This is the same regime, after all, that developed a precursor to the intercontinental ballistic missile. The Nazis even used mosquitoes as biological weapons.
It very well might have been lights-out for the Allies had Germany come up with the nuclear weapons first. It could have resulted in victory for Germany on all fronts. Mercifully, the Nazis never appreciated the potential for a weapon that was so closely associated with “Jewish science.”
6. No Western Front
Had it been up to Winston Churchill, there would have been no Western Front opened. With memories of the bloodbath in Flanders still haunting him, the British prime minister was resistant to launch an amphibious attack on France, preferring instead his “soft underbelly” strategy of attacking Axis powers through Italy and the Balkans. But with the United States asserting itself, Churchill and the British military had to take a back seat to American planners. Hence the attack on Normandy in June 1944.
Of course, Stalin also demanded a Western Front — not only to offset the terrible losses being incurred by the Red Army (Stalin would later say, “You paid with your steel, we paid with our blood”), but to also prevent rival Allied forces from establishing a foothold in Eastern and Central Europe. He was already looking ahead to the post-war world and the creation of a communist bloc.
But had Churchill gotten his way, it’s likely that an exceptionally strong Allied invasion of both Italy and the Balkans would have occurred. Alternately (or in supplemental fashion), an invasion force could have come through Norway, which is why Hitler insisted on stationing over 400,000 troops there over the course of the entire war (even as Berlin burned). The complexion of the war would have been vastly different, with the bulk of anti-Axis forces coming from the east and south. It’s difficult to predict what might have happened next, but a German defeat could have still been likely. Though it’s interesting to think about France’s fate given such a scenario.
7. The July 1944 Plot to Assassinate Hitler Succeeds
The 20 July, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler resulted in tragedy on multiple levels. Not only did it fail in its primary objective, but it led to the capture of 7,000 people, of which 4,980 were executed. Worse, it retrenched and further radicalized Nazi party. Called Operation Valkyrie, the conspiracy was organized by Wehrmacht officers who wanted Hitler out of the picture so Germany could negotiate a separate peace with the western Allies and continue the war against the U.S.S.R. It’s highly unlikely, however, that Washington and London would have gone for it (recalling Roosevelt’s infamous “unconditional surrender” speech — and the fact that the Big Three already had an agreement ruling out a separate peace under any circumstances).
There’s been much debate over what might have happened had Hitler been killed in the war’s final year. It’s unlikely that his death would have resulted in the collapse of the Nazi party or the Axis war effort. Even Claus von Stauffenberg, a leading member of the Valkyrie plot, accepted that he would “go down in German history as a traitor.” Indeed, despite the sorry state of the war, the cult of personality surrounding the Fuhrer was surprisingly resilient.
Had the plot been successful, however, a likely scenario would have seen either Hermann Göring or the fanatical Heinrich Himmler ascend to the lead Germany. Both would have had the plotters captured and executed and the Nazis would have probably continued the war. A Third Reich under new management might have surrendered earlier, sparing Germany the cataclysm that was to befall it in 1945.
Another possible scenario is that the death of Hitler could have kick-started a more vociferous internal resistance movement — one that might have led to civil war. But owing to widespread German patriotism, this scenario is quite improbable.
8. Stalin’s Red Army Continues West After Taking Berlin
By the time the Battle of Stalingrad had ended in 1943, the eventual outcome of the war was no longer in doubt: Germany was finished. Stalin’s Red Army persistently pushed the Wehrmacht back towards Germany, gobbling up territories that would later form the Iron Curtain. But as historian Anthony Beevor noted, Stalin —for a brief time — seriously considered taking all of Europe for himself. And he might have been able to do it, despite the fact that Russia was importing copious amounts of material and equipment from the U.S. (Russian soldiers were eating American canned food and driving in Jeeps and Studebaker trucks). After the fall of Berlin, the Red Army consisted of 12 million men spread across an astounding 300 divisions. Meanwhile, the western Allies had barely 4 million men making up only 85 divisions. By V-E Day, the Americans were still several months away from developing the bomb — enough time for the Soviets to push the Allies back to the English Channel. What would have happened after that, with the advent of the bomb, is anyone’s guess.
9. Churchill Immediately Starts World War III
On the flip side of this alt-history coin, we also seriously need to consider Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable — the plan for the start of a new war against the Soviet Union after the fall of Nazi Germany. Like Stalin, Churchill had anticipated hostilities after a European victory and wondered if there was no better time to wage World War III than the present. But cooler heads prevailed. The Red Army stopped at Berlin and Eisenhower never considered taking on the Reds (unlike his compatriate, George Patton).
10. The Allies Invade Japan Instead of Dropping the Bomb
The bombs were dropped on Japan because military experts presented President Truman with projections showing millions of U.S. casualties by the time Tokyo surrendered (the figures were based on casualties incurred during the fight for Okinawa). Had Truman refused to drop the bomb, Operation Downfall would have been put into effect — the largest amphibious campaign in human history.
The two-part invasion was set to commence in October of 1945. Operation Olympic would have seen the capture of the lower third of the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyushu. Then, in spring 1946, Operation Coronet would hit the Kanto Plain, near Tokyo. Airbases on Kyushu captured in Operation Olympic would have allowed land-based air support for this second phase of the attack. In total, 30 divisions would have been required. In response, the Japanese were preparing for an all-out defense of Kyushu. Had it gone down, it would have been a bloody mess.
George Dvorsky is a Canadian based bioethicist and the producer of the podcast Sentient Developments. He penned this piece for the futurist daily news site i09. MilitaryHistoryNow.com would like to thank Mr. Dvorsky for granting us permission to reprint it. Follow him on twitter @dvorsky.