Decisions during wartime are monumental things. Each move and countermove has the potential to change the course of history. Here are ten shocking ways the Second World War could have unfolded differently than it did.
Listed in rough chronological order.
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 proved to be his undoing, but it didn't have to unfold in the way it did. After the fall of France a year earlier, Hitler seriously considered invading Britain. In fact, he even had his military chiefs come up with a plan, an operation dubbed Sea Lion. Preparations began in earnest, with both the British and Americans convinced that an invasion was imminent. What's more, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact securely in place (a treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the USSR), Hitler didn't have to worry about a Soviet incursion; Stalin was content with his share of Poland, and he had his sights set on Finland.
Operation Sea Lion. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
But Hitler nixed the plans to invade Britain. For starters, it became painfully obvious that more time and preparations were needed. An invasion in 1940 would have been met with utter failure. Britain's navy controlled the Channel, and as the Battle of Britain revealed, the Luftwaffe could not dominate the skies in the way needed to support the attack. What's more, Hitler was unreasonably impatient about wanting to attack Russia. Some historians say Hitler convinced himself that he'd die young, precluding him from seeing his ultimate dream come true. History's most notorious gambler decided to make his move.
But instead of invading Britain in 1940 or the Soviet Union in 1941, one of two things could have happened differently. For one, Hitler could have delayed his attack on Russia until 1942 or 1943 (Stalin would have been none-the-wiser). Or, Germany could have continued its air assault on Britain while continuing its naval blockade around the Isles. Then, after an appropriate period of preparation, an amphibious landing could have commenced on British shores in either 1941 or 1942. This isn't ridiculous considering how long it took the Allies to prepare for its invasion of Normandy — something that wouldn't happen until mid-1944. Then, with Britain knocked out, Germany could have started its preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union.
Had Sea Lion been successful, a likely scenario would have seen the British government and monarchy relocated to Canada. From there, working with the Americans, the Allies could have planned for an invasion of Africa, which in turn could have led to further incursions in Italy and the Balkans. One thing's for sure, however, it wouldn't have been easy — especially if Germany's subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union turned out to be successful.
The isolationist movement in the United States was alive and well in 1941. It was not a foregone conclusion that the country was going to enter into the war — especially after its harrowing experience in the Great War. But with Japan's invasion of Pearl Harbor, the President's hand was forced.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh was so vocal about his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II that he became an unofficial leader of America's isolationist movement. Credit AP.
Japan's fateful decision to confront the United States stemmed from its need to secure oil and rubber reserves from the Dutch East Indies and southeast Asia. Had it not attacked Hawaii, its expansionist policies would have likely drawn in the United States eventually, say, after an invasion of the Philippines.
But for argument's sake, let's assume that the U.S. were never given a reason to formally enter into the war. In such a scenario, Britain and her colonial allies would have been left in the lurch. America's support for Britain and the USSR would have consisted exclusively of material aid. Britain's RAF would have struggled in Africa, likely never achieving the ability to invade Italy or some other "soft underbelly" region. No Western Front would have emerged. The Soviet Union would have likely still defeated Germany, but it would have taken considerably longer. And under those conditions, Stalin would have likely claimed all of Europe for himself.
A longstanding debate among historians is whether or not Operation Barbarossa could have actually succeeded. Several mistakes were made during the operation, including a 38-day delay to start the invasion and Hitler's catastrophic decision to divert the main thrust southwards to help Army Group South capture Ukraine, thus delaying the attack on Moscow. By the time Army Group Central reached the outskirts of Moscow in early December 1941 — a teasingly close distance of 15 miles (German soldiers could actually see the spires of the Kremlin) — winter had set in, forever thwarting Hitler's plans to take the nation's capital.
Credit: Hugo Jaeger.
This is one of the most significant events of the Second World War, if not the most significant event. Things would have turned out quite differently had the Soviet Union fallen. First, it would have knocked out a significant military power. Then, armed with Russia's vast resources (including the oil regions to the south and the breadbasket regions of Ukraine), the Third Reich would have converted into the autarchy of Hitler's fantasies. Nazi Germany would have likely emerged as a superpower, eventually defeating Britain and claiming all of the Middle East (probably linking up with Japanese forces). It would have eventually developed nuclear capabilities, kindling a Cold War with the United States.
Frighteningly, the Nazis would have succeeding in murdering all the Jews and Romani of Europe. And through the diabolical Hunger Plan, they would have starved tens of millions of slavs to death as well, "cleansing" the occupied territories of its native peoples (Hitler was a big fan of the American pioneering model). Needless to say, this would have been a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order, possibility setting the stage for a totalitarian dark age (though as history has since shown, even the Soviet Union eventually collapsed).
Imagine a scenario in which both Hitler and Stalin came to a mutual agreement to cease hostilities on the Eastern Front. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact restored, Germany could focus its efforts on defeating Britain.
Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands, Moscow, Russia, 28 Sep 1939. Credit C. P. Chen.
This one's a bit of a stretch for at least two reasons. First, Germany desperately needed Russia's oil reserves to continue its war effort. Second, Stalin would have been extremely hesitant at allowing Germany to continue running roughshod around Europe; the Third Reich would continue to pose a serious existential threat to the USSR. Still, the possibility that this could've happened is quite frightening.
Given Hitler's penchant for so-called "wonder weapons," there's little doubt he would have used the atomic bomb if he had it. This is the same regime, after all, that developed a precursor to the intercontinental ballistic missile. The Nazis even used mosquitoes as biological weapons.
Needless to say, it would have been lights-out for the Allies had Germany come up with the bomb first. It would have resulted in victory for Germany on all fronts. Mercifully, the Nazis never appreciated the potential for a weapon that was so closely associated with "Jewish science."
Had it been up to Winston Churchill there would have been no Western Front. With memories of the Great War's static Western Front still haunting him, he was resistant to launch an amphibious attack on France, preferring instead his "soft underbelly" strategy of attacking Axis powers through Italy and the Balkans. But by the time the United States consolidated itself in the war, Churchill and the British military had to take a back seat to American planners. Hence the attack on Normandy in June 1944.
American troops look over German armor destroyed during the drive towards Rome, 1944. Credit: Carl Mydans—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.
Of course, Stalin also demanded a Western Front — not only to offset the terrible losses incurred by the Red Army (Stalin would later say, "You paid with your steel, we paid with our blood"), but to also prevent rival Allied forces from establishing a foothold in Eastern and Central Europe. He was already looking ahead to post-war Europe and the creation of a communist bloc.
But had Churchill gotten his way, it's likely that an exceptionally strong Allied invasion of both Italy and the Balkans would have occurred. Alternately (or in supplemental fashion), an invasion force could have come through Norway (which is why Hitler insisted on stationing over 400,000 troops there over the course of the entire war — even as Berlin burned). The complexion of the war would have been vastly different, with the bulk of anti-Axis forces coming from the east and south. It's difficult to predict what would have happened next, but a German defeat would have still been likely. Though it's interesting to think about France's fate given such a scenario.
The 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler was a tragedy on multiple levels. Not only did it fail in its primary objective, but it led to the capture of 7,000 people, of which 4,980 were executed. Worse, it resulted in a retrenched and further radicalized Nazi party. Called Operation Valkyrie, the plot was organized by Wehrmacht officers who wanted Hitler out of the picture. They were hoping to make a separate peace with the Allies and continue the war against the USSR. It's highly unlikely, however, that the Western Allies would have gone for it (recalling Roosevelt's infamous "unconditional surrender" speech — and the fact that the Allies already had an agreement in place stating no separate peace under any circumstances).
The destroyed interior of the briefing room in Hitler's Wolf Lair in East Prussia.
There's been much debate over what would have happened had Hitler been killed at that stage in the war. It's unlikely that his death would have resulted in the collapse of the Nazi party or the war effort. Even Claus von Stauffenberg, a leading member of the Valkyrie Plot, accepted that he would "go down in German history as a traitor." Indeed, despite the sorry state of the war, the cult of personality surrounding Hitler was very much alive and well.
Had the plot been successful, however, a likely scenario would have seen either Hermann Göring or the fanatical Heinrich Himmler ascend to the lead role. Either of them would have had the plotters captured and executed. The Nazis would have continued the war, but there would have been an increased chance of an early surrender (though, the regime would have undoubtedly been accused of committing a Great War-like Stab in the Back). Germany could have potentially avoided the cataclysm that was to befall them in the following months.
Another possible scenario is that the death of Hitler could have kick-started a more vociferous internal resistance movement — one that could have even started a civil war. But owing to widespread German patriotism and sense of duty, this scenario is quite improbable.
By the time the Battle of Stalingrad had ended, the Soviet Union had transitioned itself from Great Power status to something approximating a Superpower. By early 1943, the war was no longer in doubt, with Stalin's Red Army persistently pushing the Wehrmacht back towards Germany. And as it went, it gobbled up territories that would later form an Iron Curtain separating Eastern Europe from the West. But as historian Anthony Beevor has noted, Stalin —for a brief time — seriously considered taking all of Europe for himself.
And he might have been able to do it, despite the fact that Russia was importing copious amounts of material and equipment from the U.S. (Russian soldiers were eating American canned food and driving in Jeeps and Studebaker trucks). But after the fall of Berlin, the Red Army consisted of 12 million men spread across an astounding 300 divisions. Meanwhile, the Allies had 4 million men spread across 85 divisions. By V-E Day, the Americans were still several months away from developing the bomb — enough time for the Soviets to push the Allies back into the French waters. What would have happened after that, with the advent of the bomb, is anyone's guess.
On the flip side of this alt-history coin, we also seriously need to consider Churchill's Operation Unthinkable — the continuation of the war against the Soviet Union after the fall of Nazi Germany. Like Stalin, Churchill had anticipated hostilities after the war and wondered if there was no better time to wage World War III than the present.
But cooler heads prevailed. The Red Army stopped at Berlin and Eisenhower never considered waging war against the Reds (unlike his compatriate, George Patton).
The bomb was dropped on Japan because military experts presented President Truman with projections showing millions of U.S. casualties by the time Japan would surrender (these projections were based on casualties incurred during the fight for Okinawa).
Had Truman refused to drop the bomb, Operation Downfall would have been put into effect — and it would have been the largest amphibious operation in human history.
Operation Downfall. Credit Wikimedia Commons.
The two-part invasion was set to commence in October of 1945. Operation Olympic would have seen the capture of the southern third of the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyushu, while Okinawa would have been used as a staging area. Then, in spring 1946, Operation Coronet would have seen the invasion of the Kanto Plain, near Tokyo. Airbases on Kyushu captured in Operation Olympic would have allowed land-based air support for this second phase of the attack. In total, 30 divisions would have been required. In response, the Japanese were preparing for an all-out defense of Kyushu. Had it gone down, it would have been a bloody mess.