What if

The seizure of the Soviet cap­i­tal might have pre­vented the at­tack on Pearl Har­bour and sealed the fate of Western Europe

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Dom Re­seigh-lin­coln

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

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