Wolfenstein: The New Order artwork

How to Change World War II

Alternate World War II histories typically either kill Hitler, to end the war quickly or avoid it altogether, or correct one of his many strategic mistakes (invade Russia in winter, needlessly declare war on the United States), to enable an Axis victory.

There were many more inflection points, however, any one of which could have steered history in another direction. If you want to change World War II, here are 22 ways to do it.

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Barcelona Plaça de Catalunya design

Unbuilt Barcelona

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Barcelona was bursting at the seams. The city hadn’t expanded beyond its medieval walls, but its population had grown almost 50 percent between 1800 and 1850. The congestion was contributing to outbreaks of disease. There was clearly a need for expansion, but it wasn’t until 1853 that the central government in Madrid allowed Barcelona to tear down its walls.

Two expansion plans were introduced, one by Antoni Rovira i Trias, which was favored by the Barcelona city council, and another by Ildefonso Cerdá, which was favored by Madrid. Neither was implemented in full, but Cerdá’s, with its distinctive hexagonal blocks, proved by far the most influential.

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Republic of Pontus map

Countries That Almost Existed

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand proposed dividing up Belgium between France, Germany and the Netherlands. Heinrich Himmler fantasized about crowning himself regent of an independent Burgundy. The Allies in World War II had multiple plans for Balkan federation. Iraq and Libya both pushed plans for Arab unification.

The only things these schemes have in common is that nothing came of them. Belgium still exists. Burgundy doesn’t. The Balkans and the Arab world are even more divided.

What if history had taken a different turn? Here is a look at the countries that almost existed.

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1955 nuclear weapons test

World War III Without Missiles

Most World War III scenarios start with a Soviet first strike, but it were the Western Allies who first planned to use nuclear weapons in Europe to offset the Red Army’s numerical superiority.

From Britain’s Operation Unthinkable to America’s Operation Dropshot, these war planes help us imagine a land war in Europe fought only partially with atomic weapons.

When technology progressed in the 1960s — more and bigger atomic bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles — NATO moved away from integrating nuclear weapons in its war planes. It envisaged either a conventional land war or mutually assured destruction with nothing in between.

The Soviets moved in the opposite direction. Joseph Stalin saw little use for nuclear weapons, but the West’s technological edge compelled his successors to integrate them more seriously in their offensive plans. It wasn’t until the 1980s that both sides abandoned the tactical use of nuclear weapons.

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North America map

Hemisphere Defense or Sea Command: America’s Choice in 1940

On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, George Fielding Eliot reported for Life magazine that the country essentially had three ways to defend itself against an Axis invasion.

He rejected the first option, a purely defensive strategy, out of hand. Protecting just the United States, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and Samoa, but not Canada, Greenland, Newfoundland and South America, would allow Germany and Japan to gain footholds in the Americas.

The whole of military history rises up to warn us that this is the inevitable prelude to defeat.

The choice, he argued, was between hemisphere defense and sea command.

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Japanese Empire map

The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Empire in Maps

It is debatable when the history of the Japanese Empire began. One can go back to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, but wasn’t the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, fought over influence in Korea, really the starting point of Japanese imperialism?

Or the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War? Fought for influence in Korea as well as Manchuria.

Or 1910, when Japan annexed Korea?

A watershed moment came in 1931, when Japan occupied Manchuria. There was no doubt at that point the island nation had become a colonial and an expansionist power.

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1944 Germany map

How Germany Was Divided: A History of Partition Plans

The way Germany was divided into Western- and Soviet-aligned republics after the Second World War was hardly a straightforward process. The Allies started thinking about whether and how to dismember Germany in the middle of the war and considered several options.

Some, like the Dutch request for territorial compensation, were ignored. Others, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s suggestion of a north-south split, would morph into the east-west divide of the Cold War.

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Paul von Hindenburg Oskar of Prussia

What If Germany Had Won the First World War?

Many a what-if has been written about a German victory in World War II. Alternate histories of a German victory in World War I are less popular, but they exist. Indeed, people started thinking about the consequences of a German victory during the war itself and feared it might give way to a German empire spanning nearly the whole of Europe.

Here is a look at some of the maps that were produced to show a German victory in what was at the time called simply “the Great War”.

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