We are currently in the midst of the centennial of the First World War, a historical event of truly stupendous importance. The war marks a sharp dividing line between what came before it and what came after it and we are still living with its consequences today. It is right and proper that we should be reflecting on its meaning one hundred years after it took place.
The general outline of the war is easy for any person who paid attention in history class to reconstruct in their mind. Through a stupid mishmash of political miscalculations in the summer of 1914, tied together by a sinister system of interlocking alliances, Europe was plunged into a nightmarish war thanks to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Britain, France, and Russia, along with several smaller nations. were pitted against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.
The fiercest fighting of the war took place on the Western Front in France and Belgium and the Eastern Front in Russia, where armies numbering in the millions slugged it out over four years. Fighting also flared in the Alps between Italy and Austria-Hungary, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in the colonies scattered across the globe. It was warfare on an industrial scale, unlike anything history had seen up to that point. Technology was bent towards the purposes of slaughtering as many human beings as possible, with such innovations as tanks, submarines, poison gas, aircraft, and the mass use of machine guns extending man's ability to kill his fellow man by leaps and bounds.
In the end, of course, Germany went down to defeat. Its disastrous decision to implement a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 brought the United States into the war on the Allied side. Even though Russia had collapsed into the chaos of revolution, Germany was running out of time, its war economy slowly being strangled by an impenetrable British naval blockade. A last gasp offensive in the spring of 1918 brought initial success and at times came close to rupturing the Allied lines. The Allied armies surged forward in the summer, overwhelming the German army and leading to the armistice of November 11, 1918.
The war was won, but the Allies lost the peace. The Treaty of Versallies imposed terms on the Germans that were too weak to permanently cripple it, but harsh enough to instill a ferocious desire for revenge. Combined with the Great Depression, it led directly to the rise of Nazism in Germany and plunged the world into another, more terrible world war just two decades after the first one had been concluded.
All of this begs the question: what if Germany had won the First World War?
There are any number of different scenarios that could have allowed Germany and her allies in the Central Powers to achieve victory over the Allies. Indeed, Germany had a much better chance of winning the First World War than it did the Second World War. Let me briefly sketch one general scenario and then flesh out what the ramifications of it might have been.
During 1916, the war seemed balanced on a knife's edge. Two battles on the Western Front, Verdun and the Somme, dominated the headlines of that terrible year. In the first, the Germans launched a massive offensive against the ancient French fortress city, not so much to capture it as to bleed the French army white in its efforts to protect it. In the second, the British hurled their army, the flower of their youth, against the Germans lines in what turned out to be a futile effort to break through them. Hundreds of thousands of French, British, and German soldiers died in these battles and the front lines did not move more than a few miles in either direction.
At Verdun, the Germans made the critical mistake of deviating from their original plan, which was merely to present a serious enough threat to the city so as to compel the French to commit the bulk of their army to defend it, thus luring it into a space where it could be devastated by superior German firepower. In the early stages of the battle, things seemed to be going according to the German plan. But, as happens all too often in war, the Germans lost sight of their true objective and lost their sense of perspective. The operation became an all-out effort to capture Verdun after all. The back-and-forth fighting that raged over the next few months therefore became just as costly to the Germans as it was to the French. Although the French suffered unspeakably heavy casualties, the Germans had also succeeded in bleeding themselves white.
On the Somme, the casualties of the British attackers were truly horrific. But the Germans, determined not to cede even an inch of ground, suffered almost as many casualties as the Allies in their ferocious counter attacks. In the end, although the Germans prevented the British from breaking through their lines, the battle can fairly be described as a stalemate rather than a German victory. Each side had basically torn the other to pieces and the fighting come to an end through mutual exhaustion.
Let us imagine that the Germans do better at both Verdun and the Somme than they did historically, which might easily have been the case. If they had never attempted a full-scale effort to capture Verdun and had they been more willing to cede useless kilometers of land along the Somme (territory they were to evacuate in 1917, anyway), they could have inflicted heavier losses on the Allies and sustained fewer losses themselves than they did historically. The front lines on the Western Front would have ended more or less in the same place when 1916 came to an end, but there would be a lot more dead French and British soldiers, and many fewer dead Germans. The offensive power of the Allies armies would have badly damaged.
Elsewhere on the fighting fronts, 1916 had gone rather well for the Central Powers. On the Eastern Front, they had turned back the Brusilov Offensive, albeit at heavy cost. The lines had held on the Italian Front and in the Balkans. The Turks had held their own against the British fairly well, though less so against the Russians on the Caucasus Front. In East Africa, German forces under the intrepid Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck continued their dogged resistance to the British. If the Germans had done better at Verdun and on the Somme, few intelligent observers would have denied that the Central Powers were winning the war at the end of 1916.
Historically, in early 1917, the Germans made the disastrous decision to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain. They that this would probably bring the United States into the war against them, but assumed that knocking the British out of the war would be worth the risk. In the end, the United States did declare war on Germany and Britain stubbornly refused to be knocked out of the war, dealing a double blow to the Central Powers and possibly ensuring their eventual defeat. In our alternate scenario, however, the Germans might not have felt the need to play the unrestricted submarine warfare card, as they would have felt they were on their way to winning the war anyway.
If the Germans never resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States would never have entered the war. This not only would have denied the vast manpower of America, but would have denied the British and French the financial credit that came from American loans. By 1917, the Allied nations were on the verge of bankruptcy and it was only American credit that saved them. Indeed, it can be fairly argued that the most important contribution the United States made to Allied victory was in the form of money rather than men. If the United States had not entered the war, the Allies would rapidly be running low on both.
Germany was not in any better shape in terms of manpower and money than the Allies were. But in 1917, three things happened that gave Germany a chance to win the war. First, in February of 1917, Russia collapsed into revolution and chaos. Although it would not officially withdraw from the war until the Bolshevik government signed the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the following year, Russia's capacity to continue the war was clearly at an end. Second, after yet another failed offensive, the French Army was rocked by a series of mutinies in the spring, with entire divisions refusing to follow orders. Third, the German Army perfected the "Hutier tactics" of infiltration and rapid advance, which allowed them to inflict sharp defeats on the Italians and Russians over the course of the year.
In our alternate timeline, then, 1918 would dawn with the United States not in the war as a belligerent, Russia having collapsed, the French army even more weakened than it was historically, and with Germany ready to use its new tactics in a great offensive on the Western Front. We can imagine, then, that a decisive offensive in the spring of 1918 would have broken the British and French armies, led to the fall of Paris, and forced the French government to surrender. If the French throw in the towel, the British would probably seek a peace agreement as well, although from a much better than their allies.
What would a peace agreement under these circumstances look like?
Judging by the terms the Germans suggested when they sent a peace feeler out in early 1916, we have every reason to believe that Germany would have been as harsh with the French as the Allies were to the Germans in actual history. Tiny Luxembourg and Belgium would have been reduced to the status of a German protectorates, if not annexed altogether. Chunks of northeastern France, particularly the Longwy and Briey regions, with their rich deposits of iron ore. In expanding their own base of industrial resources, their goal would be to cripple the French as much as strength themselves. The Germans might have demanded control over some of the Channel ports, to present a greater threat to England.
In Eastern Europe, German expansionist dreams would be realized on an even wider scale. We now from the historical record that the Germans intended to annex the Baltic regions of Russia directly into Germany. They might have been content to resurrect a German-dominated Polish state as a buffer between them and the Russians, or they might have simply annexed the Polish regions of the Russian Empire outright. Russia, with whatever unstable government succeeded the fallen Romanovs, would have been in no position to bargain for better terms. Ukraine would have been set up as a German-dominated puppet. In the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks would have made gains at Russian expense as well, with the poor Armenians likely the ones to pay the heaviest price.
In the Balkans, the Bulgarians could be expected to gain the Macedonian territories from Greece, which the Germans had promised them as a carrot for entering the war in the first place. They might have also gotten bits of Serbia and Romania as dessert. Nothing fundamental would have changed in the Balkans, despite the thousands of lost lives. The ancient hatreds would fester on, ready to explode again some ways down the road. Sadly, it's hard to imagine any realistic alternate history scenario in which the Balkans are not a powder keg ready to explode.
Which brings us to Austria-Hungary, which had done more to cause the war than any other nation. It had imagined the whole thing as a short, preventative war to puts the Serbs in their place. Instead, it had rapidly gotten out of control and consumed the entire world. Unfortunately, even after losing hundreds of thousands of men, the polyglot empire of the Hapsburgs would not find its problems solved. Indeed, it might have found them made worse. If the powers-that-be in Vienna insisted on incorporating territory from Serbia, or Russia, or Italy into its realm, than the ethnic tensions that had already been pulling the empire apart before 1914 would only be strengthened.
The Germans learned during the war that having Austria-Hungary as an ally was more a liability than anything else. It would not be surprising if, after the war, it nudged the Habsburg realm toward a more federated structure, perhaps even pushing for it to be dissolved altogether. The Austrian portions, being ethnically German, might succumb to the German Empire, while the Kingdom of Hungary might be set up as a satellite state and the other, smaller entities that made up the empire before 1914 could be set up on their own. None of them, needless to say, would wield enough power to threaten overall German mastery of Central and Eastern Europe. With Russia reduced to irrelevance, Germany would be the only big kid left on the block.
What of the colonies? Because Britain remained unconquered and, thanks to the Royal Navy, unconquerable, we can expect that no British colonies to be turned over to the Germans. At best, the Germans might get the colonies taken by the British during the war returned to them. The fact that Lettow-Vorbeck was still in the field fighting against the British in East Africa would lend additional credit to the German negotiating position. The South Africans would surely balk at giving German Southwest Africa (today's Namibia), so perhaps the Germans would be willing to let it go in exchange for leeway on other colonial matters.
The French and Belgians, unlike the British, would have been in no position to bargain, being entirely at Germany's mercy. Belgian Congo would surely have been annexed in its entirety by Germany, raising the disturbing question of whether the Germans might have been an even harsher ruler of that unhappy country than the Belgians had been (read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild for the grisly details of Belgian colonial rule). North Africa was outside the German sphere of interest and was too closely intertwined with France itself to be considered as a colonial reward. Still, combined with the cession of French Cameroon and French Equatorial Africa, an enormous German colonial empire would have been created across the central portion of Africa. Germany might have even made a play for Portuguese territory, if that nation had been foolish enough to enter the war on the Allied side.
And the Pacific? German New Guinea and many scattered German islands had been captured by the Australians and New Zealanders. Would the Germans demand their Pacific Islands back? Would they accept the loss of them in exchange for peace. One can imagine a back-and-forth exchange. Perhaps Germany would demand of the French the installation of German garrisons in the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais, presenting an implicit invasion threat to Britain, and give them up only in exchange for the return of its Pacific colonies. (This might also apply to some African territory, come to think of it).
The German colony of Tsingtao on the Chinese coast and the islands north of the Equator would present a more interesting problem, They had been conquered by the Japanese, who had not been defeated by the Germans and against whom the Germans had few options when it came to power projection. The Japanese would not be inclined to return their conquests just because the British and French had been defeated on the European Continent. What could the Germans have done about it? Perhaps they would see it as a better option to cut their losses in that part of the world in exchange for friendly relations with Japan. Or perhaps the issue would fester and set the stage for a future conflict between the two nations.
Britain, defeated but unconquered, would have stood warily across the English Channel, watching as Germany expanded its empire in Africa and its credibility with the "White Dominions" and its subjects in its colonies greatly shaken. Historically, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand began to drift from their allegiance from the mother country, having seen tens of thousands of their young men slaughtered to little gain thanks to British incompetence at places like Gallipoli and the Somme. In this alternate timeline, that incompetence would have been manifested more strongly, since they would have actually lost the war. What applied to the Dominions would also have applied to Ireland, where prewar political strife would also have to be added to the mix. Would the political glue that held the British Empire together dissolve more quickly?
Perhaps, but there's another consideration. Germany, triumphant on the European Continent, would remain a terrifying danger. Germany and Britain had engaged in a naval arms race before the war (indeed, it was a major factor in raising tensions between the two nations). With victory in war having validated its quest to become a superpower, Germany would surely have wanted to build up its naval power even more. This would pose a mortal threat to Britain, especially if Germany gained control any of the Channel ports in its peace agreement with France. The British would need their empire to stand by it in face of the German threat. Whether they would do so is an open question.
And France? In this alternate scenario, France would find itself in the same situation in which Germany found itself historically. It would be under the domination of another nation, much of its territory stripped away, its pride and national confidence deeply wounded. It would seethe with fury towards its own ruling class and burn with a desire for vengeance. The Third Republic would not last long, but what would take its place? It's not inconceivable that we might see a form of extreme nationalism similar to fascism take root in France in response to its defeat.
Russia would likely not be any happier in this timeline than it was in actual history (which is saying something). By the end of 1916, it was pretty clear that Russia was about to self-cannibalize itself in bloody revolution. But would it have followed the same path that it did historically, with the Bolsheviks being the last men standing and the nightmare of the Soviet Union forming out of the wreckage? Perhaps not. After all, it was the Germans who released Vladimir Lenin into Russia in 1917. Had they been on the verge of victory, they might have felt little need to do so. It might end with a military strongman winning a multi-sided civil war. Indeed, such a person might have declared himself the new Czar, but it seems extremely unlikely to me that the Romanov dynasty would have survived.
The Ottoman Empire would survive, though prewar problems of corruption and inefficiency in its administration would continue to be a problem. Enver Pasha and his cohorts in the Committee of Union and Progress would be the winners, rather than the losers, and would likely remain in control of the government. Would they efforts to craft a viable nation-state have been successful in this alternate scenario? It's difficult to say, since the leaders of the CUP seemed more interested in their own glorification than anything else. Whether the Turks would remain in control of the Arab territories is an open question, made more important by the rapidly increasing importance of oil to the global economy.
This, then, would have been the world in 1919. Germany dominant on the European continent, its borders greatly expanded and many less powerful nations reduced to satellite states. France, defeated but likely burning with a desire for revenge. Russia in chaos. A wary and disillusioned Britain perched warily on the edge of Europe, worried about an eventual German invasion, wondering as to the commitment of its imperial subjects. Japan expanding its power in the Pacific and no doubt casting greedy eyes towards China. As with the actual First World War, this counterfactual war ending with a German victory would likely set the stage for another, perhaps even more horrific, war in the not-too-distant future.
The United States would remain strong and free on its side of the Atlantic, reminding the victorious Germans of the Monroe Doctrine and warning them away from any imperial adventures in Latin America. Might it be willing to enter into an alliance with Britain and its Dominions as a check on further German expansion? How might it have responded to Japanese aggression in the Pacific in this scenario? Would the lack of American participation in the war have had any sharp effect on American culture, besides the obvious fact that Ernest Hemingway's best works would remain unwritten?
Interesting questions. And, as with all cases of alternate history, it is both fun and frustrating that they can never be answered.