Hitler’s Peace

Hitler's Peace

Good alternate history sticks close to real history. Philip Kerr forgot that cardinal rule in Hitler’s Peace.

The novel starts off promising enough. Kerr references real-world events, including Heinrich Himmler’s peace overtures to the Western Allies and the German plot to kill Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Teheran Conference in 1943.

But he tries to do too much by featuring not one but two plots against the Big Three and throwing in too many historical characters, including the widowed wife of German security chief Reinhard Heydrich and British intelligence agent Kim Philby, who spied for the Russians, for seemingly no other reason than to mention their names.

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Overlord

Overlord

When I first learned of Overlord, I thought that it sounded like something out of the Alien Space Bats subforum of alternatehistory.com. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen threads with the exact premise of this movie: zombies in World War II. What studio executive green-lit this?

Pay close attention to the film, though, and you will see it has antecedents. It has a whiff of Inglorious Basterds and the zany historical carnage of a Wolfenstein game. If you’ve seen many World War II movies, you will notice something very clever: that this is not a zombie movie in Occupied France, but an old-fashioned World War II movie with zombies. The characters match the archetypes of midcentury war epics: gallant American servicemen, resourceful French resistance fighters, sadistic SS officers. This is a decision that makes the whole enterprise more original than it otherwise would be.

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What If Turkey Had Entered World War II?

If you look at a map of Europe and the Middle East, you’ll probably notice that two countries could have given Hitler access to North Africa and the Middle East without too much of a water jaunt. At the west end of the Mediterranean, Spain could have given him access to Morocco and then to the rest of North Africa. On the east end, Turkey could have given him easy access to the Middle East, then on to North Africa. German troops in Turkey could have pushed into Iraq, where Iraqi nationalists revolted against the British in 1941, then Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. They could have also pushed north from Turkey into the Soviet Caucasus region, going after Soviet oil that way rather than through the route which led to Stalingrad.

Both Spain and Turkey stayed neutral through most of World War II. I’ve seen several discussions of what might have happened if Spain had come in on the Axis side. I haven’t seen much on the potential roles of Turkey.

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Five Came Back

Five Came Back

Never Was readers may be familiar with Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. I’ve used animations from the seven films, which were produced for the War Department between 1942 and 1945, in several stories, including “How the Nazis Planned to Invade Great Britain” and “The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Empire in Maps“.

But did you know the animations were from Disney? That Capra used Axis propaganda footage in his films? And that there were four more Hollywood directors who made movies for the war effort?

I didn’t. In Five Came Back, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Guillermo del Toro tell the story of how five directors invented the war documentary.

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What If France Had Started World War II?

It is hard to imagine France starting World War II. Its entire military strategy, including the construction of the formidable Maginot Line, was premised on fighting a defensive war. The only people who ever envisaged 1930s France as the aggressor were Nazi propagandists, and I doubt even they believed what they wrote.

To make the scenario remotely plausible, we probably need to start by changing the outcome of World War I. A more lenient peace that would have allowed Germany to keep its gains in the west, including Alsace-Lorraine and maybe Belgium, could have given the world a revanchist France in the 1920s, which in turn could have given way to a Weimar-like France in the 1930s with the far left and far right vying for power. Either could be motivated to start a war.

But such a France would not be allied to Britain, and such a war would not involve the United States. The outcome would almost certainly be French defeat.

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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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Red Tails

Red Tails

Old war movies are frequently smeared as jingoistic and morally simplistic. There is also the reckoning with François Truffaut, who argued no movie can ever truly be antiwar.

But the history enthusiast in me always finds something to enjoy in these movies, where heroic Americans, Britons and Allies (almost always from the Anglosphere) in awe-inspiring tanks and sleek propeller planes fight the good fight against cruel Nazis and Imperial Japanese.

Nor are these films as uncritical as they are sometimes made out to be. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Bridge at Remagen (1969) and even bits of The Guns of Navarone (1961) show the sheer cruel madness of war.

It is in this context that we must consider Red Tails, the 2012 movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American fighter pilots who battled both American racism and German military might in Italy.

It does much the same things as The Great Escape (1963) or The Guns of Navarone, where Americans are heroes and Germans are villains, with the twist of race relations woven into the plot as any movie about the Tuskegee Airmen must. In this, it is far more nuanced morality-wise than the stereotypical old war movie, moving it more into the territory of The Bridge of Remagen and showing that American racism deeply affected the war effort, both in Europe and at home.

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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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