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…
“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?
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:
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.
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.