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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Photos of the Netherlands in World War II

May 4 is Memorial Day in the Netherlands. One of the activities that was run this year to commemorate the Second World War was a photo competition. People from all twelve provinces plus the Netherlands’ (former) overseas territories could nominate and vote for pictures they felt best represented the war.

You can find the 100 winners on the official website. (It’s in Dutch, but easy to navigate.) Here is a selection:

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Mapping the Second World War in Africa

Following the Nazi conquest of Europe, the focus of the Second World War in the West shifted to Africa. Commonwealth forces joined with the Free French under Charles de Gaulle to drive the Italians out of East Africa and Cyrenaica. The war went so poorly for the Italians that Adolf Hitler had to send in Erwin Rommel, who managed to push the British halfway into Egypt before he was stopped.

The front switched back and forth several times, and for a while it seemed that the Axis might reach the Suez Canal, which would have put the British Empire’s supply lines in serious jeopardy. A decisive victory for the British at the Second Battle of El Alamein and American reinforcements in 1942 turned things around. The Axis powers were cornered in Tunisia, which would serve as a springboard for the Allied invasion of Italy.

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Unbuilt Amsterdam

Amsterdam could have had a Parisian-style boulevard.

Around the turn of the last century, the city council accepted proposals for a new commodity exchange. It initially favored a design sponsored by hotelier W.P. Werker, who would have demolished a whole street of buildings between the Dutch capital’s central railway station and the Royal Palace on the Dam Square to create something of a miniature Champs-Élysées.

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The Nazi Conquest of Europe in Maps

World War II started in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war. But the Nazi conquest of Europe started years earlier.

In 1935, the coal-rich Saarland rejoined the Reich. The following year, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Austria and what is now the Czech Republic were annexed in 1938.

At the height of his power, Hitler ruled an empire stretching from the Franco-Spanish border in the southwest to Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the north to the Caucasus in the east. Here is a short history of how it happened — with maps!

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Soviets Considered Creating Artificial Islands for Nuclear Bases

In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was at a disadvantage in the Cold War. Whereas the United States had missiles in Europe and Turkey that could reach Russia within minutes, North America was far away from Soviet bombs.

Moreover, the Soviet Union had only a few dozen long-range missiles against hundreds on the American side. The Soviets felt vulnerable to a first strike.

In May 1959, a group of Soviet military engineers proposed to remedy this imbalance by constructing twenty to 25 artificial islands in waters around the United States for nuclear bases.

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