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Books, Geekery, History

As longtime readers know, we dabble in alternate history. Well, I do.  Ken's a political science major who thinks history began in 1968. But it's all wanking, as much as the long title of this post.

Still, for those who delight in this sort of wanking as much as I, here's a nifty, if deeply flawed, "counterfactual" of the Second World War with an utterly implausible (yet plausible to Hitler) thesis:

Then, too, what if Poland had agreed in 1939 to join Germany in an invasion of the Soviet Union, as Hitler wanted? If Poland had allied with Germany rather than resisting, Britain and France would not have issued territorial guarantees to Poland, and would not have had their casus belli in September 1939. It is hard to imagine that Britain and France would have declared war on Germany and Poland in order to save the Soviet Union. If Poland’s armies had joined with Germany’s, the starting line for the invasion would have been farther east than it was in June 1941, and Japan might have joined in, which would have forced some of the Red Army divisions that defended Moscow to remain in the Far East. Moscow might have been attained. In this scenario, there is no Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and thus no alienation of Japan from Germany. In that case, no Pearl Harbor, and no American involvement. What World War II becomes is a German-Polish-Japanese victory over the Soviet Union. That, by the way, was precisely the scenario that Stalin feared.

Implausible for three reasons: First, it assumes that the Poles would, or could, have caved in to the Nazis, becoming a giant Finland as Hitler wished.  For those who appreciate such things, here's an old Polish joke that isn't derogatory to the noble people of Poland:

Q: A Polish soldier is confronted by a German soldier approaching from the west, and a Russian soldier approaching from the east. Which does he shoot first?

A: The German. Duty before pleasure.

Second, the larger work, which speaks of ways Hitler could have won the war, is flawed because it ignores its central character: Hitler. Hitler was no more capable of doing the "right" thing in war than he was of doing the "right" thing in politics.  A Hitler who could have sat back and let the Prussian General Staff dictate the course of the war to him would never have propelled the National Socialists to power in the first place, nor held power for six years before war, nor have scared the Russians so badly they'd made a deal to give Hitler a free hand, and cheap oil and minerals, while he dealt with France.

Third, the larger work ignores the singular character of Churchill, in his way as odd a man, and every bit as exceptional, as Hitler:

If we agree with Roberts, as we should, that Churchill personally helped lengthen the war by keeping Britain from seeking peace terms after the fall of France, then we are also implicitly saying that, absent Churchill, peace might have been made. The war-winning alliance of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union was sealed only in December 1941, and could not have been achieved had Britain left the war.

"Absent Churchill" is a tall order, in that the man was on the scene.  Removing Churchill takes us from the realm of alternate history into "what if Stonewall Jackson had survived Chancellorsville?" territory: not alternate history, but The Man In The High Castle, or Doctor Who prevents the creation of the Daleks level science fiction.

Still, for those who care, this is some fantastic semi-science fictional wanking.

Via Angus, who in an alternate reality co-blogs with the Governor of North Carolina.

(Hey, I voted for his co-blogger, even if no one else did.)

Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Ken  •  Jun 21, 2011 @7:24 pm

    Hey! I almost dual-majored in English literature!

  2. ElamBend  •  Jun 21, 2011 @7:46 pm

    The Poles were in a tough position before the war. The didn't like either the Russians or the Germans. Yet, while the Russians were afraid of the Germans, they half-convinced themselves they could deal with the Germans. The Poles knew that the Germans could never be trusted. Indeed, the German plan all along (despite entreaties to the Poles) was the complete destruction of Polish society. Indeed, a large chunk of WWII can be viewed as a war on Poland: Polish Jews [once the center of Jewry], wiped out; Polish high society; murdered by the Germans and Russians; Polish major cities, flattened by the Germans. Indeed, once the Germans were getting ready to pull out and it was clear that the war was going against them; Hitler had Warsaw flattened in a nihilistic rage.

    All of the countries between Germany and the USSR underwent an incredible bloodletting over the course of two wars last century including mass (intentional) starvation, systematic killing and rape. Anyone from that area of the world today is the descendent of the lucky and the survivors. It's no surprise that neuroticism, paranoia, and cynicism is rife in those from there.

    btw, if you get the chance, read the book "Bloodlands" written by the reviewer Timothy Snyder. It's grim, but important.

  3. marco73  •  Jun 22, 2011 @6:22 am

    The alternate history is fine so far as it goes, but I disagree with the premise the USSR would fall. The Germans came within about 12 miles of actually entering Moscow in 1941, but the Germans would still have to fight every inch to take the city. The USSR wasn't going to surrender, it would have to be defeated. So what if the Germans had taken Moscow. Napolean captured Moscow 150 years earlier; what did that get him?
    The idea that the Japanese could have fought 4000 miles from Vladivostok to meet up with the Germans in Moscow ignores the lack of Japanese manpower when the Japanese were already spread all over the Pacific.
    Oh yeah, and the weather. What genius was going to be able to feed and supply a fighting army, thousands of mile from any sea ports, during a typical Russian winter?

  4. Richard Hershberger  •  Jun 22, 2011 @8:25 am

    I haven't read the book, but I read that review the other day. My response was that, in addition to the numerous problems others have already mentioned, any counter-factual which relies on removing all the mistakes of one side, while keeping in place all the mistakes of the other, is fundamentally uninteresting.

  5. Richard Hershberger  •  Jun 22, 2011 @8:33 am

    I meant to also add that how-the-Germans-could-win-WWII scenarios also have the common flaw that they don't address the reality of the Manhattan Project (which, it should be recalled, originated long before the US was in the war). You have to do some furious hand-waving to avoid a scenario where the the US simply starts systematically nuking German cities until they cry uncle. It can be done, but it pretty much has to be the center of the counter-factual.

  6. John Farrier  •  Jun 22, 2011 @9:18 am

    You have to do some furious hand-waving to avoid a scenario where the the US simply starts systematically nuking German cities until they cry uncle. It can be done, but it pretty much has to be the center of the counter-factual.

    I think that a German conquest of Europe without US nuclear strikes is quite plausible provided that the US never gains air superiority over Germany and occupied Europe. If the US lacks a useful delivery system, then the nuclear threat is small until substantial improvements in rocket technology.

  7. Patrick  •  Jun 22, 2011 @9:58 am

    A good point Marco. The reason Stalin wasn't eliminated in the disastrous first month of Barbarossa is that he'd killed Tukhachevsky and every other Russian capable of a coup. Of course, the replacement of talented generals like Tukhachevsky with mediocrities like Budenny, and the sidelining of capable surviving generals like Zhukov, is part of the reason Barbarossa was such a disaster for the Soviets in the first place.

  8. SPQR  •  Jun 22, 2011 @9:58 am

    A lot of people don't realize that the anti-Fascist coalition saw the USSR as a Fascist ally until June of '41. Britain and France considered intervening in Finland against the Soviet Union, and in fact started operations to invade northern Norway to open a supply route to Finland just as Germany invaded Norway.

  9. John Burgess  •  Jun 22, 2011 @10:17 am

    I'm with ElamBend here. Nazi antipathy toward Slavs in general and Poles in particular would not have been conducive to any sort of pact with Poland. Over 6 million Poles–Jewish Poles included–were killed for simply being Poles and living in an area that both Hitler and Stalin coveted.

    Change that fact as the central counterfactual and perhaps there's a story. I'd certainly be interested in reading what changes to history would have allowed a German-Polish pact as I simply cannot imagine one.

  10. The Californian  •  Jun 22, 2011 @11:58 am

    Marco73, there is ample reason to think the Soviet defense would have fallen apart were Moscow taken by the Nazis. Napoleon's capture of Moscow after the Russians evacuated it and set it on fire does not tell us whether the Soviets could have maintained a war effort if they lost it. First of all, St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia in Napoleon's time. Moscow was the largest city, but not the administrative center. Additionally, although the imperial Russian state was already pretty centralized, there was necessarily much more autonomy for regional leadership than there was in the USSR under Stalin: until sometime after the middle of the 19th century, it took well over a month for an order from St. Petersburg to reach, say, Vladivostok.

  11. SPQR  •  Jun 22, 2011 @3:19 pm

    Californian, not to mention that importance in WWII of Moscow as an industrial and rail hub that was not nearly as relevant as in the pre-railroad Napoleonic warfare era.

  12. Ancel De Lambert  •  Jun 23, 2011 @9:33 pm

    Japan was far too interested in China to bother working towards Moscow or allying with Germany, they would have been too busy eating large chunks of the defenseless country to help Hitler.

  13. ElamBend  •  Jun 23, 2011 @10:03 pm

    Japan got their nose bloodied by Zhukov and hit boys and decided that China made a much easier target.