In 1999, distinguished military historian Holger H. Herwig was asked to con- tribute to a book titled Unmaking the West: “What-If?” Scenarios That Rewrite World History. The invitation came as a surprise; Herwig had never written a “what if ” article in his life. But its source was a well-respected team of scholars intent on exploring the utility of counterfactual thought experiments, and Herwig was intrigued. The concept for the book, which was published in 2006, was intriguing as well: the team asked an array of historians to write pieces that would assess the contingency or inevitability of the West’s rise to global dominance over a wide span of time. What would have happened if the Persians had defeated the Greeks at Salamis in 480 BC? Would Western civilization have been strangled in its cradle? What if Jesus of Nazareth had escaped crucifixion? Would Christianity still have arisen, and if not, what effect would its absence have had on the values that defined the West? What if China, not Europe, had first harnessed steam power? And, finally, what if Germany had won the Second World War?
The reader may be surprised to find Germany implicitly excised from the ranks of Western civilization. But Herwig, though a native German himself, was not: “Nazi victory would have constituted a triumph over all that we associate with the term Western civilization.” If the Nazis represented Western civilization at all, Herwig recognized, they represented its darker side: “hatred, racism, expansionism, and state-inspired mass murder.”
Herwig agreed to explore a German victory in World War II in accordance with the rules of rigorous counterfactual thought experiments supplied by the scholars who commissioned him. His first task was to find a “minimum rewrite” of history. What was the smallest departure from actual events that would plausibly have resulted in a Nazi victory? Herwig decided to remove Stalin from the scene at the height of the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
That was not difficult. In October 1941 Stalin had briefly insisted on leaving Moscow to stay at his dacha in Kuntsevo. His chief of security, L. P. Beria, managed the rare feat of talking the iron-willed Stalin out of a course of action, explaining that explosives had been placed in the dacha should circumstances require its destruction, and so a visit there was too dangerous. In Herwig’s minimal rewrite, Stalin demands to be taken to Kuntsevo anyway, and Beria’s fears are realized. The dacha blows up, killing the Soviet dictator.
Herwig then imagined that “a weak and quarreling Politburo” cuts a deal with Germany, yielding all of European Russia in exchange for the survival of their Communist regime, much as the Bolsheviks had done to end the war with Imperial Germany in 1918. In fact, Hitler had told Josef Goebbels in August 1941 that he would accept such an arrangement if offered, and that any survival of Bolshevism in the remaining “Asiatic Russia” would be a matter of only “marginal interest.” Victory over the Soviet Union then enables Hitler to defeat Great Britain by early 1943 and unleash in full the Nazis’ terrifying plans for the future. The Nazis enslave the 150 million inhabitants of European Russia, annihilate the 11 million European Jews, and ruthlessly pursue a eugenics program of selective breeding of “Nordic stock” and the mass sterilization of “inferiors.”
Germany’s only remaining adversary is the United States. In Herwig’s scenario, Germany—as in reality—declares war on the United States in December 1941, shortly after the historical Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and conducts a protracted U-boat offensive against the United States in the Atlantic. In Herwig’s Germany, factories also construct a fleet of long-range bombers capable of reaching America, and rocket scientists develop the A9/A10 two stage intercontinental ballistic missile— projects that actually existed in the blueprint stages. German shipyards begin building advanced Type XXI U-boats with a range of 15,500 miles and a submerged speed of 17 knots—fast enough to outrun most convoys. (The first Type XXI boat, U-2511, actually put to sea in April 1945 and performed at exactly that level.) The Germans also launch the first in a vast fleet of warships whose completion is slated for 1948, as envisioned in the Kriegsmarine’s historical Z-Plan.
Two key events occur in the late summer of 1945 in Herwig’s scenario. One is historical: because his Pacific war unfolds as it did in reality, it ends with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender. The other is a minimal rewrite of history in which Hitler dies of natural causes, brought on by two well documented realities: his deteriorating health, and the effects of 74 “medications” ordered by his personal physician, a quack whose prescriptions included a cocktail of strychnine and atropine, both now known to be poisonous.
Also as in reality, Hitler’s political last will and testament names Adm. Karl Dönitz as his successor. But Dönitz’s tenure lasts only a few months—and here is where Herwig’s thought experiment takes a significant turn, for in late 1945, he has American B-29s based in Iceland drop six atomic bombs, one after another over a period of weeks, on cities in western Germany, at the extreme limit of the B-29’s range. Unable to counter this rain of nuclear destruction, the Nazi regime sues for peace in early 1946.
In essence, Herwig’s pursuit of a logical sequel to a 1941 German victory over the Soviet Union ultimately led him to a scenario not far removed from reality. In his estimation, the success of the Manhattan Project made it impossible for Germany to win World War II, no matter how quick or sweeping its success in the field. True, in Herwig’s scenario, the United States emerges as the world’s only superpower— but he simply accelerates a development that did in fact occur by 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Placed within the 2,500-year sweep of Western civilization, a change of 46 years is effectively almost no change at all.
The team of scholars that commissioned Herwig’s essay asked each contributor to answer certain questions about the implications of their counterfactual thought experiments. What did their work suggest about the legitimacy of various objections to counterfactual history? Was it merely an intellectual parlor game? Or was it a useful exercise that deepened the understanding of history? If the latter, what insights did their thought experiments suggest about the durability of Western civilization? And finally, what, if anything, about their counterfactual explorations surprised them as historians and gave them an appreciation of an event or dynamic they had previously not seen or had underrated?
Although Herwig had been a bit of a skeptic at the outset of the project, he came down on the side of the utility of counterfactual thought experiments— though he also agreed with those who believe that these experiments should be conservative, scrupulously observing the minimal rewrite principle, grounding the experiment in the established historical record, and curtailing the experiment at a relatively early stage.
As for its implications for Western civilization, Herwig’s thought experiment pointed to a resilience that could ride out short-term fragility, something untrue of Western civilization in its earliest phases. In other words, although it proved surprisingly easy for Germany to prevail from 1941 to 1943 and “triumph over all that we associate with the term Western civilization,” ultimately “Nazi Germany was defeated—both in reality and in this thought experiment— by the Western values of science and tolerance. Nazi notions of ‘Aryan’ versus ‘Jewish’ science blinded the Third Reich’s leadership to the potential military use of atomic weaponry.”
As for what surprised him about his own thought experiment, Herwig had two responses. First, he found he had an increased appreciation for the plethora of strategic options available to Hitler after his victory over France in 1940—options that disappeared once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, but would have expanded had the invasion yielded an early success. The second was his chilling realization that the logical target for the first atomic bomb to be dropped on Germany would have been the port city of Hamburg—the same city in which Herwig, then an infant, was living in September 1945. His counter factual thought experiment thus required him to imagine his own immolation at the dawn of the nuclear age.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.