The seizure of the Soviet capital might have prevented the attack on Pearl Harbour and sealed the fate of Western Europe
If the Nazis had captured Moscow, Europe would have fallen – but Pearl Harbor might have been saved
What if Hitler had taken Moscow as part of Operation Barbarossa?
Hitler, of course, had hoped to knock out the whole of the USSR in a campaign of six to ten weeks. Now, in retrospect, that was ridiculously overambitious.
The intelligence was wrong about the number of Soviet reserves and so on. However, if by some miracle they had been able to knock out the USSR, then you’re left in a situation very similar to that which occurred in 1917-18 in World War I, where Germany managed to win on the Eastern Front.
The Bolshevik Revolution started, the Bolsheviks made peace with Imperial Germany and the Germans were able to concentrate on the Western Front. So you have that sort of situation and it really throws the future course of the war into doubt.
So what would Germany have needed to do in order to successfully invade the Soviet Union at the time?
There’s a big debate about whether a victory was ever actually within Hitler’s grasp. The debate is centred around the role of Moscow. There are those such as RHS Stolfi who have said that Operation Barbarossa was the turning point of the war, and that Germany would have been able to destroy the Soviet Union had they gone straight for Moscow in August 1941 (rather than diverting and focusing on
taking the Ukraine and besieging Leningrad, and only later going against Moscow – by which point the weather was turning against them). Effectively, the question becomes ‘What is enough to make the Soviet regime fall apart?’
That was what Germany achieved in 1917-18 – there were successive changes of regime, and the Bolsheviks were willing to make peace. However, what we know of the resilience of the Soviet regime in 1941-42 suggests that even the fall of Moscow might not have been enough for that to occur. In 1917 the Germans had not even come close to Moscow, they had only taken Kiev and Riga – and that alone was enough to knock out Tsarist Russia. The later Soviet regime seemed a lot more ruthless and inspired a lot more devotion among the population. And, of course, German atrocities had been such that even those who might have welcomed a change of overlord realised the Nazis were even worse than Stalin had been.
My own perspective is that I don’t think
Germany could easily have taken Moscow at any time in 1941. Had they taken it, they might have lost it immediately during a Soviet winter counteroffensive, in very much the same way they lost Stalingrad in 1942-43. And, just as happened to Napoleon, just taking Moscow doesn’t necessarily bring Russia to collapse. That was Napoleon’s nemesis. So, frankly, I find it very difficult to envisage how the Soviet regime could have been beaten in 1941. Conceivably, there was a possibility of an attritional defeat of the USSR in 1942, but the tide of resources was turning against Germany then. So I find it difficult to see how Germany would have been able practically to achieve this knockout victory, given Soviet reserves, given Soviet commitment and given the size of the country.
How would the Allies have reacted if Russia had fallen to the Axis?
A lot depends on at what stage this occurred and what else was happening around the world. Remember, what happened simultaneously with the decisive battle for Moscow was that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and the Americans were brought fully into the war.
They had been helping the British significantly, but they weren’t fully in the war until this surprise attack. And then Germany, of course, declared war on the United States. Had that happened, even if
“In 1917 the Germans had not even come close to Moscow”
the Soviet Union had fallen at the same time, then you would have this ongoing war with Britain and America.
Imagine a nightmare scenario where war did not start between Germany and the United States after all. One way to avoid that would be for Japan not to attack Pearl Harbor, but instead to attack Siberia and gang up on the Soviet Union while it was on the ropes. And that might have helped with the collapse of the Soviet Union, because it was forces released from Siberia (when the Soviets realised Japan was not going to attack the USSR) that helped support the defence of Moscow. For the British, all hope of victory would have effectively been lost, because the Americans would not be in the war at all.
Therefore, Germany could have perhaps presented Britain with a fait accompli, where its greatest continental ally had been defeated. Remember that was one reason why Napoleon attacked Russia, to remove Britain’s last ally so the British had no further option to continue the war. And then you might have got some sort of stalemate situation.
So you can see a scenario where Hitler dominated the continent, but still would have had a considerable challenge in defeating Britain. However, with such German dominance of the continent, the war would have probably ground to a halt in effect. Britain would certainly have suffered great continuing losses, just as it did in reality with the loss of Tobruk in 1942, the U-boat war, the Luftwaffe bombings, and so on. So in that scenario you can see Britain being cowed into some sort of bitter, albeit perhaps temporary, peace.
Would the success of Operation Barbarossa have lasted with the United States fully committed to the war?
Let’s say the Soviet Union collapsed after Pearl Harbour, despite the Japanese having turned against America and brought the United States fully into the war. That’s much more akin to the situation in 1918 where the Germans won the war in the East, and brought forces back to the West to hold and possibly win. They failed in 1918 as US reinforcements poured in, but what might have happened in 1942-43 is a very interesting question, militarily. Assuming you don’t get the compromise peace, would the Allies be able to win regardless?
There’s a big debate in the literature about this. There are those such as Norman Davies – perhaps the chief exponent of this view – who say the whole war was dominated by the war in the East, that the war on the Western Front was a sideshow compared to its enormous scale and by implication the Soviets won the war rather than the Allies.
At the opposite extreme there’s Phillips O’brien, who says that the West could have defeated the Nazi war machine even if the Soviet Union had collapsed. So there’s a significant scholarly debate on this. My own opinion falls somewhere in the middle. The release of a proportion of those forces on the Eastern Front would have allowed Germany to garrison continental Europe so heavily as to make it very difficult for the Allies to launch successful amphibious invasions.
The fact that there was no continuing land front as in
France in 1918 would have been a big obstacle for the Allies. So I think one could perhaps have reached a stalemate in land terms, with the combatants divided by the Channel and the Mediterranean. What wouldn’t have been a stalemate would have been the air war. The main plank to Phillips O’brien’s argument is that WWII was primarily an air war, and by 194243 the Allies were starting to gain air superiority over the Axis and bomb Germany.
So what you’ve got is a nightmarish situation for all concerned, where it would have taken years and years for the Allies to eventually wage a ground war against Nazi Germany, but they would have continued to fight the air war; so you would have German cities being incinerated despite the fact that, in theory, the Nazis controlled the continent. And, as we know, in 1945 the US got the atomic bomb.
So you could argue that, in 1945, the Germans would lose anyway because they would get the same treatment the Japanese received at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And given that Germany would have been in a far better territorial and resource position than Japan, it would have taken a significantly larger number of bombs to defeat Hitler’s regime.
Hitler’s troops marched for weeks, covering a huge distance and ultimately stretching supply lines too thinly
The Soviets were producing tanks on par with the Germans, but that production was partially halted for months as factories were packed up and moved away from German hands
Hitler was determined to use his tactics of shock and awe on the Soviets, and such a course of action worked for the first few weeks