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!
In 1942, the War in the Atlantic was not going well for the Allies. German submarines, operating in “wolf packs” just out of aircraft range, wrecked havoc on Allied supply lines. In the first half of the year, the Allies managed to sink just one U-boat for every forty merchant ships lost. At that rate, Britain would soon run out of matériel to sustain the war.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, as chief of Combined Operations, was responsible for coming up with a solution. He encouraged his department to explore every possibility, no matter how outlandish. One of the ideas, which originated with the inventor Geoffrey Pyke, was to built an aircraft carrier out of ice, which would allow the Allies to attack German U-boats no matter how far they sailed from the coast. The reason Pyke settled on ice was that aluminum and steel were in such short supply.
Mountbatten and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were enthusiastic.
Rumors that the Nazis survived the fall of the Third Reich started to circulate almost as soon as the war in Europe ended in May 1945. There were stories that Adolf Hitler had escaped to Spain or South America. Some of his top lieutenants, notably Martin Bormann, were missing.
The speculation had some basis in reality. There really were efforts to smuggle Nazis out of Europe, but not on the scale Allied intelligence feared in the aftermath of the Second World War. Nor did anyone make serious preparations for a Fourth Reich.
Don’t tell diesel- and atomicpunk authors, who tend the exaggerate this history to spin wild tales of Nazi conspiracy.
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.
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.
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.
This next worldbuilding installment is heavily inspired by Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and the Amazon drama series that is based on it (2015-present). Other inspirations are William Overgard’s The Divide (1980), Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003) and Guy Saville’s The Afrika Reich (2011).
One of the earliest descriptions of a dieselpunk world was written by “Piecraft” in 2006. He envisaged an alternate 1950s “where the Great Depression never arrived and World War II is still being fought as a prolonged Cold War.”
Japan continues its progress toward technological modernization, developing the earliest computers and terminals. Nazi scientists continue experimenting by taking the route of biotechnology, sparking off a genetic revolution of bio-mods, clones and organ harvesting, while the Americans and British take both of these technologies to develop mind-control devices, spawning man-machine interfaces and sparking the atomic-powered machine age.
Let’s explore this diesel-fueled world in the first installment of a new series we’ll call worldbuilding.
We’ll draw on Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) and the BBC serialization (2017, our review here), Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and the Amazon drama series (2015-present), Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992), Allen Steele’s V-S Day (2014), the video game Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014), the art of Stefan Prohaczka and Sam van Olffen, and the real-life Nazi Generalplan Ost, among other sources.
As the Allies closed in on Hitler’s Germany in late 1944 and early 1945, a desperate Nazi regime turned to “wonder weapons” in a final effort to turn the tide in the war.
The best-known as the V-1 and V-2 rockets, which rained down on London by the hundreds but failed to demoralize the British. Others, such as the V-3 cannon and Schwerer Gustav railway gun, were barely used. Others yet, like the German atomic bomb and Die Glocke, either barely advanced beyond the drawing board or never existed at all.
In the spring of 1941, Nazi Germany controlled all of Western Europe and the question was where Adolf Hitler would strike next? Would he finally attempt an invasion of Great Britain? Or would he move into the Middle East instead and grab the oilfields? (Few anticipated at the time he would break his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union.)
Life magazine argued that year that an invasion of the Middle East by way of North Africa was most likely. This would allow Hitler to avoid aggravating the United States on the one hand, which might get involved if Germany invaded England, and Turkey on the other, which had resisted German overtures for an alliance.
“The one little hitch is the open space of water between Italy and the African mainland,” the magazine wrote, otherwise known as the Mediterranean Sea.