Wednesday, March 5, 2014

World War I Alternatives Part 1: Pax Germanica

It is my Royal and Imperial command that you exterminate the treacherous English and march over General French’s contemptible little army.’ (Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1914)

With this year being the 100th year anniversary of the start of World War I, I have decided to delve into the counterfactual side of this war. It is a war that is usually ignored by writers and fans due to its better known sequel, but it is nevertheless important to our history. The entire map of the world was changed drastically in just a few short years. Meanwhile, millions of people died, denying us their potential contributions to science and culture. It directly led to the rise of fascism and communism that brought the world into another devastating war, proving once again that humans don't learn from history.

It set the theme for the entire 20th century and its affects are still felt today. There are even some commentators like Nouriel Robini and Margaret MacMillan who have compared the events of the present to the world leading up to the Great War. While some might feel this is a stretch, considering the events happening right now in the Ukraine, perhaps conflict between the great powers is not so ridiculous even in our post-Hiroshima world.

Here at Alternate History Weekly Update, we are going to cover this war in the only way we know how: sideways. I am going to discuss the common alternate history points of divergence and scenarios resulting out of World War I over multiple posts. I will give a general overview and also discuss the plausibility of each scenario, while suggesting other options for amateurs and professionals to try in their alternate history. I can't think of a better way to start this breakdown of World War I alternate histories then with the most popular one of them all: what if Germany won World War I? Or as I like to call it: the Pax Germanica.

To be honest when people think of "German domination" they general think of Nazi Germany or (if they really want to be nasty) they are referring to modern Germany's economic prowess. Nevertheless, Germany had an earlier chance to secure control of Europe during World War I. It goes without saying that if they had been victorious, the history of Europe would have been completely different. Counterfactual historians have discussed it and the master himself, Harry Turtledove, wrote about it in his young adult novel Curious Notions.

How they win the war varies depending on who you ask. The Schlieffen Plan is by far the most popular point of divergence. For those who don't know, the Schlieffen Plan, was German strategic war plan that was developed in 1905 in case Germany ever found itself in a two front war between France and Russia (as they did in our timeline). The plan, however, was modified before World War I and some scholars suggest that if the plan had been carried out as originally proposed, it could have ended in a German victory in the West before the war had ever begun.

Granted there is the old military maxim that no plan survives contact with the enemy (fun fact: the nephew of  the guy who said that was the one who modified the Schlieffen Plan), but that hasn't stopped alternate history writers from putting their faith in the unmodified Schlieffen Plan. "The Redemption of August" by Tom Purdom and "Uncle Alf" by Harry Turtledove are two examples of stories set in a timeline where the Schlieffen Plan was followed to the letter.

I personally am not convinced by how successful the Schlieffen Plan could be and I am not alone. You can certainly argue it did not take into account modern weapons and may have likely still have resulted in trench warfare on the Western Front. So are there any other possible points of divergence? Fiction does suggest a few. Well known counterfactual historian Niall Ferguson suggested in Virtual History, that the war in the West could have ended in 1914 if Britain had either stayed out of the war or if the British Expeditionary Force had been late in coming to France's defense.

Certainly there were people who were trying to keep Britain out of the war, such as Sir Edward Grey, and if Germany had respected nuetrality, Britain may have sat this one out. Of course, that means Germany completely rejects the Schlieffen Plan (both versions) which would require a point of divergence much earlier than 1914. If you are going to do that you may as well suggest that Germany just stay on the defensive in the West, never invade the Low Countries and focus all of their strength Russia.

Other point of divergences include having unrestricted submarine warfare never being prevented at first by the German High Command. Robert L. O'Connell suggested this in his essay "The Great War Torpedoed", originally published in What If? 2. Although it would have certainly brought America into the war earlier, O'Connell believes the loss of trade would have led Britain to collapse in 1916.

There there are those divergences where the Entente is forced to fight on another front or the Central Powers are able to free up more troops elsewhere. Guido Morselli proposed in Past Conditional: A Retrospective Hypothesis that if Italy had been knocked out of the war earlier, the Central Powers could have ultimately won (although the same result could have happened if Italy stayed neutral or actually honored the Triple Alliance). Friend of The Update, Andrew Schneider, proposed in his essay "A Nation Once Again: An Alternate History of the Easter Rising" that a more successful Easter Rising in Ireland could have drawn enough troops away from the Western Front to make a difference.

Surprisingly, there are many point of divergences set in 1918 when the war was close to the end. Even at this late date some writers believed Germany still had a chance to pull out a win. Not completely far fetched really, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk did free up battle-hardened German forces from the East to fight a French army dealing with mutinies. The Spring Offensive of 1918 (also known as the Kaiserschlacht) could have ended the war in a German victory if it had not been stopped at the Second Battle of the Marne.

Alternate histories set in 1918 tend to focus around this period of time. "Issue and Men" by Oswald Garrison Villard, "Si les Allemands avaient gagne la guerre…" by Gaston Hornsy and The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod all focus on a German victory around the Spring Offensive. Stephen Baxter took a slightly different track in "Mittelwelt" by suggesting if Philippe Petain had not been replaced as commander of the French forces, the Entente might have broken against the German onslaught.

So we have discussed how Germany could have won the war, but what happens once the war is over. What does a post-war world look like where Germany wins? Well you are going to see Germany enlarge itself certainly and many of the client states it and its allies created during the war might have a longer existence. They likely would have all been together in a German led economic union like the Zollverein. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire may also be tied into this economic union, especially to prop up their already fragile empires (if they still survive the war).

It is possible for Germany to be technologically dominant in this world. Victory in World War I would forestall the Nazis and thus the Jewish German nuclear scientists would not be driven away (although don't fool yourself that Europe would be less anti-Semitic), thus Germany would be the first to develop nuclear weapons. Not everyone, however, agrees with this hypothesis, including Robert Silverberg who wrote "Translation Error" where technological progress is stalled after a German victory. He might not be far off if you consider that Germany would be spending money maintaining their empire rather than investing in new technologies.

Socially, Germany would still be a conservative, militant autocracy with limited democracy. This would be further entrenched after the German victory, but it wouldn't last forever. The Reichstag wouldn't just sit idly by and let the Army seize all the power they carefully earned over the years. In fact in the post-war euphoria where Germany rules all (or most) of Europe, the people may be more willing to consider reforms. Economic crises and the changing political landscape of the defeated Entente (more on that below) may even cause Germany to moderate itself to differentiate themselves from their more radicalized neighbors. Or the exact opposite could happen as fear of their neighbors drives Germany further under the military's control.

France and Russia would pay the price for Germany's territorial gains in this alternate World War I, with Britain managing to avoid any occupation due to its geography and navy (Kaiser's Germany was probably even less prepared to invade Britain then Hitler's Germany). Britain, however, might lose some of its empire as a defeated power (Ireland, as suggested before, and maybe even South Africa). It is also popular for Germany to gain the Belgian Congo in a post-war world, although that is no guarantee as the Germans lost everywhere when it came to their colonies in the our timeline's war. Britain might not want to give them up and Germany, even in their triumph probably couldn't do anything about it.

Politics among the defeated nations would likely be radicalized. It is sometimes suggested that Germany would occupy France in its entirety or else create a French puppet monarch. Perhaps there will even be governments in exile as there are in the game Enigma: Rising Tide. I think this is wishful thinking on the part of many creators as the cost in men and material to keep the French (and especially the British) under control would have been cost prohibitive. More likely the Germans would have wanted to prevent the French from ever having the ability to threaten Germany again, much like what the Entente tried to do with the Treaty of Versailles and we all know how that ended up.

Unless the Germans had the will to intervene in France whenever a threat presented itself, we would likely see a fascist France arise bent on revenge. The same could happen to Britain and Italy (if they don't side with Germany in these victory timelines) as well. Then again Britain may even cozy up to a German led Europe as Ferguson suggested above. This Britain/German alliance is not unheard of, although it mostly appears in amateur scenarios and not often in professional fiction.

Russia is a different story. A German victory in the West won't necessarily forestall the rise of Communism or the Soviet Union. Some authors have suggested Germany could have helped defeat the Bolsheviks and prop up the Czar, but this is even more implausible than the occupied France scenario above. The allied intervention in Russia failed to do that in our timeline. One could argue Germany's proximity to a Red Russia might be a great motivator to secure their eastern flank, but the German leaders might find it hard to convince their people to weather a few more Russian winters after declaring victory in Europe. With the Soviets to the East and the fascists to the West, is it that far fetched to see an alliance of convenience to crush the German autocracy, much like the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of our timeline?

A threat toward Germany, however, may come from another direction. For example, the United States would still have the potential to be a rival to the German Empire. Most authors write off the United States in these scenarios by saying they would have sunk into deep isolation or else become pro-German due to the large numbers of German-Americans. Some authors even believe Germany might pick a fight with America as Robert Conroy suggests in his new novel 1920: America's Great War. It is even foreseeable that Germany would court allies in Latin America with promises of protection from American exploitation. In our timeline, the Zimmermann Telegram promised Mexico the American Southwest and there is nothing stopping Germany from still using that promise to bring Mexico into their sphere. Mexican Missile Crisis anyone?

Then there is Japan. They tend to do very well in a timeline with a victorious Germany. Distracted elsewhere, the European colonial powers are unable to stop Japan from gobbling up their Pacific empires (Germany wouldn't be able to do much to stop them either come to think of it). A Japan with an enlarged colonial empire so early in its history would be a significant player in international affairs and could lead to a multi-polar world with different regional power blocs competing for influence and stockpiling weapons. The chances for the "Great War" to remain the only "Great War" are as slim in this universe as they were in ours.

Of course all the above might just be crap after all. When it comes right down to it the Germans probably had less chance of winning World War I than the South did of winning the American Civil War. I will, however, wait to comment on that until my next entry in my World War I series: Entente Victorious.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his list of short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Great article! I just read it and it appears to be pretty accurate:

    Just a couple of things:

    -The U.K. might still have eventually entered WWI even without a German invasion of Belgium due to its commitment to balance-of-power politics and due to the threat which Germany posed to British interests.

    -As for this quote:

    "Of course all the above might just be crap after all. When it comes right down to it the Germans probably had less chance of winning World War I than the South did of winning the American Civil War."

    It really depends on how one defines "win". I don't know if Germany could have won on the Western Front in a WWI-breaks-out-in-1914 scenario short of having the U.S. cut off its loans to Britain and France or short of having France and/or the U.K. collapse before Germany did. However, Germany could have certainly won WWI in the East (in fact, it actually *did* win WWI in the East in our TL), and even with a status quo ante bellum in the West after WWI, Germany in this TL would still be better off after WWI than it was before WWI.

    Also, great job on mentioning the possibility of an Imperial German-U.S. Cold War after WWI in this TL. Given Kaiser Wilhelm II's Weltpolitik and his arguable insecurity complex as well, it would not surprise me if he eventually decided to pick a fight/confrontation with the U.S. in this TL.

    Also, how long will it be before you write that article about the Entente in WWI? I'm already eagerly waiting for it! :) :D

    1. Thanks for the nice compliment Coyote. You are right about Britain, but I just used Belgium as an example. Niall's counterfactual did cover Britain entering later though so even if Belgium wasn't invaded Britain could have still entered the war as you say and the result may have been a German victory in the end.

      That brings me to your next point: how to define "victory". I tried to define victory in this article to mean when Germany wins outright. The scenario you described about is actually going to be a subject for one of my future posts on the white peace alternative. Hopefully you will enjoy the direction I go with that scenario.

      Finally, although I answered your last question on Facebook I will reiterate that I have no definite date for future posts as I have 6-7 articles still to write on this subject and they will be spaced out across the year. Hopefully I can have the next one out soon.


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