When the World Held its Breath: Altona

On June 14, 1941, German commanders amassing their forces on the Soviet border received the message “Dortmund”. The name of the city on the River Ruhr was the prearranged codeword that the final preparations for Operation Barbarossa were to begin as a prelude to the commencement of the invasion of the Soviet Union. From this moment on, there could be no turning back. This was the culmination of months of German planning and preparation, and more than a decade of ideological conditioning on behalf of the Nazi regime. It was to be the crucial step in the Nazi plans for European, and eventually global, dominance, yet in retrospect many have argued that it was Hitler’s greatest folly.

In this series, I’ve contemplated how changes in German and Soviet strategy could have altered history and the fortunes of each side, but now that we’re at its end I’d like to finally consider what might have happened if instead of the “Dortmund” message the German commanders at the front had instead been sent the codeword “Altona”, the signal indicating that Barbarossa had been canceled, or at least postponed.

It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario. Hitler had talked of invading the Soviet Union as early as 1922 and had been discussing it as a military reality since the summer of 1940. However, the actual planning for Barbarossa only began in December 1940 and prior to that it might have just been possible that Hitler could have been persuaded to pursue different goals, at least as a prelude to his eventual ambition.

To find out why this might have happened, we need to go back to a train journey undertaken in the autumn of the previous year, one that would shape the course of European history.

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When the World Held Its Breath: First Lightning

For Germans awaking on the Sunday morning of June 22, 1941, the news that their country was at war with the Soviet Union was delivered to them with the usual bombast and lies of Nazi propaganda. They were told that this new war was not an invasion but a preemptive strike, one necessary to deal with the “Soviet Russian-Anglo-Saxon plot” to destroy Germany that was nearing completion. In his statement that morning, Adolf Hitler spoke with great indignation at fictional border violations by Soviet aircraft and scuffles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht prompted by Soviet aggression and how, as he always claimed, he had done everything to try to preserve peace.

The German people were used to rolling their eyes at this sort of fabrication and, although it has unfortunately endured in some corners of conspiracy theory and the far right, the “Soviet offensive plans controversy” has been universally dismissed by all credible historians. Germany had been actively preparing to invade the Soviet Union since December 1940, it had been a dream of Hitler’s for decades. The notion of the German attack being a preemptive strike is rather easily debunked.

Likewise, there’s no real evidence that the Soviet Union was preparing to attack Germany in the late June of 1941. Indeed, their preparations for a defensive war were being hobbled by a leadership that was desperate to try and avoid any military build-up that could be construed as a “provocation”.

But it’s hard not to wonder whether or not they should have.

If the Soviets had struck before the Germans were ready to launch their own invasion, might they have managed to destroy the German threat and end the Second World War before it had reached its crescendo?

The Red Army’s most famous general seemed to think so.

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When the World Held Its Breath: Fixed Bayonets

As Barbarossa began, Soviet troops at the front were often asleep.

When the Germans struck, their stocks of ammunition and fuel were low without any preparation for a fight and the stockpiles available were often either destroyed or captured within the first days of the conflict. The Red Air Force planes were arranged in neat rows for the Luftwaffe to destroy, leading to over a thousand planes lost on the ground. For the first week of the war, the Soviets lacked any form of centralized high command; a situation further exacerbated by lines of communication having been disrupted by the invasion and often non-existent with a lack of access to adequate codes meaning that the railway telephone was often the only link between the troops on the ground and the leaders of the Soviet state.

It was in this environment that desperate counterattacks were ordered up and down the front, all of which inevitably failed. Soviet formations instructed to attack were often unable to discern which direction they were supposed to be attacking toward, or, in the words Red Army Captain Anotoli Kruzhin,

Not [able] to find where the enemy was positioned, but Soviet units, — their own army!

The Red Army was like a blindfolded boxer with one arm tied his back, flailing around and desperately throwing punches at an experienced opponent, unable to land a significant blow or even to see where he should be aiming.

These failures made a catastrophe in the first weeks of the German-Soviet war an inevitability for the Red Army, but to what extent could their performance have been improved had they been allowed to prepare?

The answer, ironically, lies in the reason for their lack of preparedness.

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When the World Held Its Breath: Divide and Conquer

“We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crumbling down” was Adolf Hitler’s reassurance to his followers as he chose to embark on the invasion of the Soviet Union. The German dictator was confident that his mortal enemy was as weak as it was degenerate, the pseudoscience of Nazi ideology and racial theory providing the justifications for their leader’s optimism rather than any basis in reality.

Hitler’s optimism has since become one of the most famous examples of hubris in history with his deluded boast coming back to haunt him four years later as his regime fell apart in the face of the Red Army moving ever closer to Berlin.

But did the Germans miss a chance to destroy the Soviet Union from within? In the early days of Operation Barbarossa the Germans were often welcomed as liberators by local populations in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. The Baltic states had only recently been annexed into the Soviet Union, against the will of the majority of their populations. In Belarus, the totalitarian nature of Stalinism had been particularly hard felt. Nationalist and religious sympathies were heavily repressed. Ukraine had suffered one of the worst famines in their history in the 30s. Many blamed the Soviet system for the Holodomor, directly or indirectly. How could the Germans be worse?

The brutality and scale of the German crimes within the occupied territories were worse than anything in human history. Tens of thousands of villages and entire cities were burned to the ground, often with few of the local population escaping alive. Millions were rendered homeless. Food from the occupied territories was siphoned off deliberately to engineer a famine, the so-called Hunger Plan that would aid the planned genocide of the Slavic peoples in order for them to make way for German colonists. Within a short period of time, the traditional offerings of bread and salt many German soldiers had received from Soviet peasants had morphed into partisan insurgency of unrivaled fury that would play a major part in the Red Army’s ability to eventually throw the Germans back.

If the Germans had embraced the anticipations of many within the occupied Soviet Union that the Wehrmacht had arrived to restore independence to their nations and revive Christianity, or at least held off on their genocidal occupations until their final victory, might they have been able to succeed in disuniting and ultimately unraveling the Soviet war effort?

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When The World Held Its Breath: Japan Strikes North

What if Japan had joined Barbarossa in the summer of 1941?

It’s a question that’s interested many and even puzzled a few ever since before the end of the Second World War.

“It should be clearly made known to Russia that she owes her victory over Germany to Japan, since we remained neutral,” were the words of Kantarō Suzuki, the Japanese prime minister, on May 14, 1945.

This was a belief that arguably stemmed from desperation on the part of the Japanese. It was expressed following the capitulation of what was left of the Third Reich the previous week, where Japanese hopes now lay in the Soviet Union’s willingness to mediate a peace between Japan and her numerous enemies. In the end these attempts came to nothing and as the Soviets joined the war against Japan in August, perhaps some within the Japanese leadership wondered if they’d made the right choice to spare the Soviets in the summer of 1941…

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When the World Held Its Breath: The “What Ifs” of Operation Barbarossa

“The world will hold its breath!” is the reaction Adolf Hitler promised when planning the most ambitious conquest of the war he had inflicted upon the world: Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. When it came to pass, the German dictator had been largely justified in making his claim. Barbarossa was the largest invasion of all time and would lead to an existential struggle that, even in the context of the global conflict surrounding it, was incomparably brutal. The fact that the Eastern Front of the Second World War would have been the world’s deadliest conflict on its own is a testament to this fact, and ultimately it would prove to be Hitler’s undoing.

Barbarossa’s aims, strategic, racial, ideological, were designed to be the final culmination of Hitler’s plans for a vast Nazi empire in which there would be ample living space for an expanded German population and sufficient resources to fuel a superpower that would be able to conquer the United Kingdom and eventually go toe-to-toe with the United States. The peoples of the Soviet Union, decreed to be subhuman by Nazi propaganda, were to be deported, enslaved and exterminated to make way for the new master race, with their innate racial inferiority making their lands forfeit to their new Aryan colonists.

The failure of Barbarossa spelled the end of these plans, and made a mockery of the absurdity of Nazi racial doctrine, but also more importantly the supposed invincibility of the German Wehrmacht. The Soviet Red Army was badly mauled but it survived, and from Moscow to Stalingrad to Kursk grew stronger and more resilient until they outmatched their German foe and began to march west in the face of increasingly desperate German resistance, until the red flag was raised above Berlin.

Given the importance of the outcome of Operation Barbarossa in ensuring the demise of the Third Reich, it is only natural that it has been the subject of a great deal of speculation both in questions posed by historical works but also those of alternate history. Given that those of us involved with Sea Lion Press are lovers of both, I thought I would cover five of the most popular “what ifs” that are often discussed about Barbarossa to see whether or not we can draw some conclusions. Or at least generate more discussion about a part of the Second World War that is still poorly represented in popular retellings of the conflict.

So without further ado, let’s jump into the thick of the German invasion and consider a scenario that haunted many in the German High Command as the Red Army was bearing down on Berlin: What if the Germans had pushed onto to Moscow in the summer of 1941?

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