Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Decisions of World War II
edited by Peter G. Tsouras, Greenhill Books, London, 2006, $29.95
Let’s get the prejudices out of the way early: Hitler Triumphant is a work of fiction rather than a history of the greatest of wars. It contains 11 unrelated chapters, each of which presents a series of hypothetical events, some quite fanciful, that result in Adolf Hitler’s Germany winning World War II. The authors have even gone to the trouble to invent footnotes as a means of increasing the verisimilitude of these fantasy scenarios (e.g., “The six [Goebbels] children have had a varied career following the unfortunate death of their father hunting with the Führer. Probably the most famous… became ambassador to the United States and married Richard M. Nixon, future president of the United States”) as well as referencing books that have never been— and will never be—written, such as Colonel David Glasshouse’s Fallschirmjäger Over Moscow: The Daring German Airborne Assault That Captured Moscow and Heinz Guderian’s Panzers to the Pacific: The March Across Asia.
The most serious problem is that the authors of these alternate history scenarios are not particularly skilled at writing fiction. Some of the writing, especially the invented conversations, is simply cringeworthy. In the introduction, editor Peter G. Tsouras refers to The Man in the High Castle, a 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick set in a variant future in which the Axis had won the war (largely because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early death). Dick was a brilliant if quirky writer, and evoking his memory is unfortunate because it emphasizes the lower literary quality of so much of the writing in Hitler Triumphant.
That said, there is still a great deal to recommend here. First of all, Tsouras has assembled an A-Team of well-known historians and military analysts who have given a great deal of thought to the various turning points in World War II. An essay by John Prados (Presidents’ Secret Wars; Valley of Decision) has Hitler opt for an assault on Gibraltar in February 1941. The troops—air, land and sea—operate more or less within their historical capabilities, and the action is described in extremely close operational detail. A reader will learn a lot about the defenses of Gibraltar, the strength of the garrison and the most likely avenues of an Axis attack. Prados refrains from detailed speculation on the ramifications, disposing of the impact in a paragraph that notes the fall of the Churchill government as a result. Precisely because of its cautious embrace of alternate history, Prados’ essay is the highlight of the book.
Equally good is an essay by John Burtt on what might have happened had Malta surrendered to the Axis. Burtt’s approach is counterintuitive, to be sure: The fall of the island does not provide the logistical panacea for Erwin Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika that generations of historians seem to have taken for granted. While secure supply lines across the Mediterranean would certainly have made it easier to build up supplies in Tripoli, Burtt points out that it would still not have had a material effect on the fighting at El Alamein, 1,500 miles to the east. Axis forces in North Africa lacked the motor transport to get enough supplies forward no matter how much might have been available in Africa.
David C. Isby conjures a very different kind of Fascist Italy that remains neutral in the war, is allied to the United States and becomes a key player in the U.S.- dominated postwar world. Mussolini was unlikely to have followed any of these wise policies, of course, but Isby kills him off in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1939 to be succeeded as duce by his less ideological and more pragmatic son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano. Isby’s analysis is valuable not for the scenario it paints so much as for allowing the reader to contemplate the real importance of Mussolini’s personality to Italy’s wartime policy. If ever there was an individual solely responsible for embroiling his nation in WWII, Mussolini fills the bill.
Taken together, the essays by Prados, Burtt and Isby also manage to present a fairly consistent argument, a rare thing in a collection of disparate works. All suggest one way or another that Hitler should have paid more attention to the Mediterranean. The Wehrmacht bled itself to death fighting a manpower- and materiel-intensive war in the Soviet Union, they argue, when it might have won a decisive victory over Great Britain by smashing its empire in North Africa and the Near East. Indeed, one or two more panzer divisions in North Africa might well have been decisive. All these are debatable points, certainly, but they cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Other Hitler Triumphant writers concentrate on the war in the East, and the results are quite mixed. Kim H. Campbell has Hitler eschewing the Kiev diversion in 1941 in favor of a rapid thrust toward Moscow, which has more or less become the textbook solution to the campaign in the years since 1941. In his own contribution to the collection, Tsouras focuses on the attempted German relief of Stalingrad, Operation Winterstorm. Here, the actual thrust from outside the Stalingrad pocket by General Erhard Raus’ 6th Panzer Division finds its counterpart in a breakout attempt from inside the pocket. Tsouras has the historical commander of the encircled Sixth Army, General Friedrich Paulus, suffer a breakdown, and replaces him with his most aggressive corps commander, General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach, one of the officers who historically argued on behalf of a breakout. Again, arguing that the Sixth Army should have broken out of Stalingrad has been the historical consensus since 1942.
The pieces by Campbell and Tsouras are well-done, although each grounds itself firmly in the war’s now-discredited literature that blames every bad decision made between 1939 and 1945 on Hitler and completely exonerates the staff and commanders under him. In reality, Hitler wasn’t the only responsible voice supporting the thrust to Kiev in 1941, and the maneuver did result in an operational victory the likes of which the world will probably never see again. Some 700,000 Soviet prisoners fell into German hands, a true battle of annihilation. Likewise, Tsouras’ view of Raus’ brilliance as a divisional commander is based largely on Raus’ own memoirs, and the essay ignores the difficulties Sixth Army would have had in launching a breakout attempt. Its strategic mobility was zero, with its horse-drawn transport gone and its motorized columns almost completely immobilized for lack of fuel. Seydlitz, in fact, did order a miniature “pull back” in one of his LI Corps’ defensive sectors in preparation for a breakout very soon after Sixth Army was encircled. The Soviets spotted the maneuver, attacked and annihilated the better part of the German 94th Infantry Division. The role played by the commander of Army Group Don, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, is also far more problematic than one would think from reading this essay.
More interesting, if only because it steps out of the ordinary, is a scenario from Paddy Griffith (Forward Into Battle; Battle Tactics of the Western Front) that at first glance seems far-fetched, even ridiculous: a vast German paradrop onto the Caucasian oil fields in the fall of 1941. The Germans, let it be recalled, finished the historical campaigning season that year tossed out of Rostov and in retreat all along the southern front. Their repulse here even predated the disaster in front of Moscow. The old saw about airborne forces needing to be relieved by regular forces within 48 hours comes to mind; German forces would have been months away from Grozny at the time. What saves this chapter, to my mind, is the thoughtful backdrop. Griffith makes the tiniest of changes in the timeline: The German paradrop onto Crete takes place a few days earlier than it did historically, May 16 instead of May 21. As a result, Commonwealth defenders are nowhere near the state of readiness they possessed during the actual event and the Germans are able to seize Crete with minimal losses. Rather than becoming disillusioned with airborne tactics, therefore, Hitler becomes their greatest enthusiast and builds an entire airborne army (the mythical “VII Luftflotte”) in the summer and early fall of 1941. Successful airborne assaults on the oil-producing cities of Maikop and Grozny soon follow, along with an even deeper drop onto Baku.
Hitler Triumphant is a thoughtful, well-edited and very well-chosen selection of essays. But every time I pick up a speculative volume about World War II, even one as successful as this, I have the same reaction: Why not just have Hitler run over by a bus in 1905 and call off the whole war?
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.