10 “What Ifs” That May Have Altered the Course of WWII

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In the 1941 short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges, the two main characters discuss a fictional novel where every decision its character makes creates new paths. In every other story in history, the paths not taken are cut off because only one course of action can be taken. However, in this book, all paths are shown simultaneously. For example, if the character in the fictional book were to flip a coin, the story would contain details about it landing on both heads and tails.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” is a metaphor for how reality works for humans. When we come to a fork in the road, we can only take one path. But, at one point or another in our lives, we have probably all wished that we could look down those hypothetical paths that we never took. Would life be better, worse, or the same?

What better place to look down those alternate paths than the biggest event of the 20th century – World War II? Of course, it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether these alternate history scenarios would have come true, or if they are even feasible, so if you disagree, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

10. What if… Spain Got Involved in the War?

The main reason that Spain stayed non-belligerent during World War II was because they went through three years of civil war that ended just five months before the war started, so they didn’t have the military or the money to become engaged. If they were to join the war, they would most likely have been an Axis power because during the Spanish Civil War, the victor, fascist dictator General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist party were financially supported by the Nazis and Italy.

Mark Grimsley from HistoryNet says Spain could have joined the Tripartite Pact, which was signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan on September 27, 1940, but Spain wouldn’t have played too much of a role in the war.

Grimsley says that the most likely outcome is that Germans would have traveled through Spain and then invaded Gibraltar, which is British territory on the north coast of Spain. Gibraltar is a strong naval position because whoever controls it, controls access to the Mediterranean Sea.

If the Nazis were successful in taking over Gibraltar, it wouldn’t have changed the direction of the war, at first. Hitler would have probably only captured Gibraltar as a way to strike a blow to the morale of the British.

Once Spain joined the war, they probably would have wanted to invade Portugal, but they would have needed a lot of military and financial support from the Nazis, who were busy waging their own wars.

When Nazis invaded the USSR in June 1941, they would have pulled troops from Gibraltar and Spain to fight on that front. The Allies would then recapture Gibraltar and invade Spanish territory. The Spanish wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight simply because they don’t have the military. Neighboring Italy probably wouldn’t help either, because they would be busy preparing their own defenses for the impending Allies invasion.

As a result, Spain would be taken quite easily and the Allies would demand an unconditional surrender. Part of the deal would be that Franco had to resign. He may have refused, but he had enough enemies in the country and one of them probably would have assassinated him, quite possibly with help from the Allies, and then the monarchy would be restored.

Of course, none of that happened. Instead, Franco ended up leading the country until his death on November 20, 1975, and then Spain adopted democracy.

9. What if… FDR Didn’t Die Before the End of the War?

Franklin Roosevelt was elected for his third term as President in 1940 and he won a re-election in November 1944. However, the war took a toll on Roosevelt’s health and he died on April 12, 1945, just 11 weeks into his term, leaving Vice President Harry S. Truman to assume the role of President. Five months later, the Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan.

A big what if when it comes to the end of World War II is what would have happened if Roosevelt lived, at least until the end of his term? One question that is often raised in this alternate history scenario is: would Roosevelt had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan?

Well, on March 10, 1945, under the presidency of Roosevelt, the Americans fire bombed Tokyo, which consisted of a lot of wooden buildings. The city burned and 104,500 people were killed, whereas only 80,000 people died when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (40,000 people were killed in Nagasaki). So it wasn’t that Roosevelt was opposed to the death and destruction that the atomic bombs would have caused, and the Manhattan Project was developed under his Presidency, so let’s say it is very possible he would have used the bombs.

The biggest difference between our reality and this other speculative history is what would have happened after the war. Frank Costigliola is a history professor at the University of Connecticut and he says that if Roosevelt did survive into the post-war years, he would have continued to foster a relationship with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Costigliola says that Roosevelt wanted to have an alliance where the United States, Britain, and Russia essentially worked as the police of the world. Costigliola argues that Stalin would have eventually agreed to the alliance because it would have ensured the security of Russia.

Apparently, Roosevelt considered Winston Churchill and Britain to be the bigger problem. Churchill’s attitude was imperialist and colonialist and he’d be the roadblock to the alliance. However, Britain would be financially dependent on the Americans, so they would be forced to go along with the alliance.

If that did happen, then that would mean there would be no Cold War and the world would be a very different place than it is today.

8. What if… the Nazis Weren’t So Cruel?

The Nazi Party is the epitome of evil. But what if they had just been a little bit nicer?

One major difference is that Hitler may not have risen to power. Hitler was terrible at debating and instead he simply spoke passionately about how he saw the world. Having a scapegoat, like the Jewish people, was a convenient and effective way for him to build support because a sure way to bring people together quickly is sharing a common enemy.

But what if Hitler had a platform that supported German nationalism without scapegoating the Jews, and he enlisted or conscripted Jewish men to fight in the war?

In 1933, there were 522,000 Jewish people living in Germany and the Nazis would only have used healthy young men, so only a fraction of those 522,000 people would have been eligible to fight in battle. While more soldiers is usually beneficial, it’s doubtful that it would have changed the outcome of the war. Also, the German war machine relied on slave labor, so it may have been more difficult for them to get enough resources to actually invade other countries without their forced labor camps.

What was interesting is that when the Nazis invaded the USSR, it might have paid off to be nicer. When the Nazis rolled into the USSR, they continued to fight the war like they always did, and that was a war of annihilation. But the thing is that the USSR wasn’t exactly Utopia and Stalin was responsible for more deaths than Hitler. So the areas the Nazis conquered weren’t pro-Stalin and might have even taken up arms against him. Yet, the Nazis never used the anger of Stalin’s own people against him in any tactical way.

The Red Army ultimately repelled the Nazi attack on Stalingrad and from there, they started to push back. This resulted in the Battle of Berlin in the spring 1945, which was a decisive victory for the Soviets, and signaled the end of Nazi Germany.

7. What if… Germany and Japan Actually Worked Together?

When it came to being allies, Germany and Japan didn’t have the strongest relationship. The Nazis mainly signed the Tripartite Pact with Japan in September 1940 as a way to dissuade the Americans from joining the Allies. The treaty also set out two spheres of power – Germany would rule Europe, and Italy would be given a special place in it, whereas Japan would rule over Greater East Asia.

Essentially, both countries signed the treaty with only two clear goals – they both wanted to expand their foundations and they wanted to destroy Soviet Communism. Beyond that, they didn’t communicate very much and they weren’t nearly as coordinated as the Allies. If they had been, the world may be a very different place today.

Notably, Hitler and the Nazis didn’t know that Japan planned on attacking the Americans, which ultimately brought the most powerful neutral country into the war. If the Nazis and the Japanese did communicate, the Nazis may have discouraged Japan’s plans to attack Pearl Harbor and instead they could have performed a joint attack on the USSR. The Japanese could have attacked from the south, while Germany attacked from the west.

Also, if Germany, Japan, and Italy had collaborated more on science projects, like the Allies did with the Manhattan Project, they may have made greater advancements in military sciences to create better and more destructive weapons.

6. What if… Hitler was Assassinated in 1944?

Adolf Hitler was the Nazi party’s greatest asset, and he was also one of its biggest downfalls – especially by 1944. As the war was getting closer to the end, Hitler was pretty much losing his mind. He wasn’t exactly the most sane person to begin with, but by 1944, the Nazis had been at constant war for five years, during that time Hitler had been running a genocide campaign, while totally being surrounded by Yes Men, and he was quite possibly taking some powerful drugs. All of that can wreak havoc on someone’s psyche and there were high-ranking members of the Nazi party who saw that Hitler wasn’t mentally fit. They thought that Hitler was leading Germany into two suicide missions – the war on the western front against the British and Americans and the eastern front against the Soviets. So they created a plot to kill Hitler and take over the Nazi party. Once he was dead, their plan was to negotiate peace with the Allies.

On July 20, 1944, at the “Wolfsschanze” (“Wolf’s Lair”) command post near which was Rastenburg, East Prussia (present-day Poland), Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, chief of staff of the reserve army, planted a bomb in a suitcase near Hitler. When he left the room, the bomb detonated. Von Stauffenberg assumed the Fuhrer had been killed in the blast so he flew to Berlin to initiate Operation Valkyrie, which is where the reserve army would stage an uprising against the Nazi army. But Hitler didn’t die. Another person in the Wolf’s Lair moved the suitcase and Hitler only received minor injuries. Von Stauffenberg was arrested and executed the next day.

What if the bomb did kill Hitler? Would it have changed the outcome of the war? Possibly. The British and the Americans may have been open to peace negotiations with the new Nazi government. Although President Roosevelt did say in January 1943 that he would only take an unconditional surrender from the Nazis. It’s important to note that Roosevelt and Churchill had only discussed the idea of unconditional surrender, but they hadn’t agreed to address that publicly. When Roosevelt said it, it surprised Churchill. So it sounds at least plausible that the Anglo-Americans would have at least heard the terms of peace from the Nazis. Peace with the Nazis would also have given the Americans more time and resources to focus their attention on Japan.

It’s doubtful that the Soviets would have listened, though. Stalin wasn’t exactly the most easy going guy in the world and they had suffered massive losses when the Nazis invaded them; 800,000 Soviets were killed and 6 million soldiers had been captured by the Nazis. They also lost a lot of land and resources. When the Nazis advanced, the Soviet citizens fled their villages, they destroyed important buildings, drove away livestock, and burned crops so the Nazis couldn’t use them.

But by 1944, the Soviets were pushing back and it seemed inevitable that they would defeat Germany, so they had no reason to negotiate peace.

Now, going back to Britain and America, if they did agree to peace, the Nazis could have moved their forces from the western front to the eastern front. They probably wouldn’t have been able to push the Red Army back – they may not have even made it there in time – but if they did there is a slim possibility they may have avoided unconditional surrender.

Another possible outcome would have been that the Nazis would have rather been occupied by Anglo-Americans than the Soviets. So they could have withdrawn their troops from France, allowing the Anglo-Americans to advance on Berlin faster and it would give the Nazis more troops to fend off the advancing Red Army.

5. What if… the Nazis Didn’t Invade the Soviet Union?

In 1941, Hitler was both unhinged and cocky. And he had good reason to feel cocky, too – within two months he had conquered nearly all of Western Europe, the main holdout being Britain.

That’s when he decided to invade the Soviet Union, despite the fact that he had signed a pact of nonaggression with Stalin in August 1939. Operation Barbarossa was launched on June 22, 1941, and it ultimately didn’t go well for the Nazis. The Red Army just had too many men and Germany didn’t have enough resources to fight a war on both that front and against the Anglo-Americans on the western front.

The reason that Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union rather than invade Britain is because he thought that invading the USSR wouldn’t be too difficult (Napoleon probably could have told him otherwise). The plan was to do a surprise attack and to hit them hard. Hitler said, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” Of course, it didn’t exactly go that way, and after massive initial losses, the Red Army pushed back and it was part of the downfall of Nazi Germany.

If the Nazis didn’t attack the Soviet Union, would they have won the war? Probably not, because it wasn’t like Hitler would have been happy with what he already conquered. He may have chosen to invade Britain, instead of just bombing them. Or he may have given more support to the German Afrika Korps and expanded Nazi territory over North Africa and into the Middle East.

Of course, there are no guarantees any those scenarios would have been successful; especially the invasion of Britain, which was called Operation Sea Lion, because the British had support from the powerful Americans.

The main point is that Hitler was a war monger intent on invading as much land as possible. So if the Nazis didn’t invade USSR, they would have probably just invaded a different country (or countries) and kept expanding until they ran out of resources or Hitler was killed.

4. What if… the Nazis Captured Moscow?

The early stages of Operation Barbarossa went well for the Germans. Within a few weeks, they had conquered 40 percent of the Soviets’ land and a lot of its coal, iron ore, aluminum, and armaments industries. Yet, they never were able to capture Moscow. Most historians say that the reason the Nazis failed to capture the Soviet Union’s capital was because Hitler diverted armored units to Kiev first and this caused a delay in major operations against Moscow, which gave the Soviets more time to prepare.

Would it have mattered if Moscow was captured? Would that signal the German victory over the Soviets? Probably not, according to HistoryNet. They point out that Russia had lost other major cities and industries and they still defeated the Germans. Stalin was a pretty ruthless ruler and it’s doubtful that he would have surrendered under any circumstances. Also, Russia had more industrial areas east of the Ural Mountains, far out of the reach of the Nazis.

Also, if the Nazis took Moscow, it might have only been temporary. The Soviets had 18 divisions of troops stationed in Siberia in preparation for an attack from the Japanese. Since the Japanese weren’t going to attack and Moscow was captured, they would probably send the troops to Moscow. These fresh troops, who were well-equipped to wage war during the harsh Soviet winters, may have taken back the city from the Nazis, who would have been worn out from capturing the city and not as prepared to deal with the elements.

3. What if… the Nazis Developed Nuclear Weapons First?

After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Nazis started to develop their uranium project, but most historians do not think that they got far in terms of building an atomic bomb because it was a massive, expensive, and time consuming project and the Nazis were just spread too thin. But what if they decided to focus on building the atomic bomb and were the first to build it?

According to the periodical The National Interest, it may not have made too much of a difference. A big problem is that they would have also needed to develop a vehicle to drop the payload. The Americans used converted Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, and the Germans didn’t have a bomber that was that heavy duty. And whipping up that type of flying machine isn’t exactly easy, either. Apparently, the B-29 project cost more to develop than the Manhattan Project.

This would have left the Nazis with three different options for delivering atomic bombs. The first is that they could have developed small atomic bombs and then dropped them from Heinkel He 177 planes. Or they could have fired them from submarines. But by the time atomic bombs were developed, the Allies had strong anti-submarine technology, so they weren’t exactly the best carrier for something like an atomic bomb. A final option would have been V2 rockets, but they were notorious for exploding on launch and if there is one thing you don’t want to explode on launch, it is an atomic weapon.

Another problem is that the Nazis wouldn’t have been able to produce fissionable material quickly enough for atomic weapons to be effective. It would have taken weeks to develop just one bomb, so they wouldn’t have been able to do something like a full-out nuclear assault unless they stockpiled for years, and time was a luxury the Nazis didn’t have.

There are two obvious targets that would have been vulnerable to a Nazi atomic bomb attack – London and Moscow. If they were able to hit either of them, it may have helped as a short term solution. For the British, it probably would have weakened morale further than it already was. As for Moscow, an atomic bomb could have decapitated the Soviet leadership, but it wouldn’t have been a death blow and the Red Army would have continued to fight.

Also, the Germans would not have been able to strike the United States, who were, of course, working on the Manhattan Project. If the Nazis used their bomb on an American ally, would the United States hesitate to drop an atomic bomb on them?

In the end, if Germany developed the bomb first, this may have led to atomic bombs being dropped in Europe and the USSR, and possibly Japan if they didn’t surrender. But the final outcome would be similar – the Allies would win for a variety of reasons, like having less war fatigue, more soldiers, and more resources.

2. What if… D-Day Failed?

D-Day was one of the most pivotal events of World War II. On June 6, 1944, 156,000 American, British, and Canadian men invaded the beaches of Normandy, France – the largest amphibious assault in history. It also gave the Allies an invaluable foothold on mainland Europe. By late August 1944, the Allies had liberated most of Northern France. So D-day is often considered the beginning of the end of World War II.

What if D-Day failed, though?

According to many historians and military experts, it probably would have been disastrous for the Allies. Planning for Operation Overlord, which was the code name for the invasion of Normandy, started in January 1944, and General Dwight Eisenhower was put in charge. If it failed, it would have been a massive loss of men and resources. British General Sir Richard Dannatt said to gather up that many men, vehicles, and weapons again would have taken years.

It probably would have had a big impact on morale on all sides. Britain was running out of manpower and a defeat on the beaches of Normandy would have been devastating, while it would have invigorated the Nazis, who were confident that they were going to be able to hold off the Allies.

The Americans would have also felt a blow to morale as well. Dennis Showalter, a military historian, thinks that Eisenhower would have resigned and President Roosevelt probably would not have been re-elected in November 1944. 

As for how it may have changed the outcome of the war, it would have slowed down the Allies on the Western front, and the Americans may have even chosen to take a defensive stance in Europe and focus on Japan, allowing the Red Army to conquer Germany.

This ultimately could have led to the Allies not being able to get an unconditional surrender from the Nazis and the war could have dragged on until Hitler died (either naturally or he was killed) and then peace may have been negotiated; meaning Europe would definitely not look the way it does today.

1. What if… Operation Unthinkable Happened?

After the fall of Berlin, Winston Churchill saw an opportunity for the Allies to take down the USSR. Yes, that’s right. Churchill, who couldn’t defeat the Nazis, wanted to take on the army that defeated the Nazis.

He ordered plans to be drawn up for a land invasion to fight back the Soviets from territory they occupied as they invaded Nazi-captured land. The primary goal was “To impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire. Even though ‘the will’ of these two countries may be defined as no more than a square deal for Poland, that does not necessarily limit the military commitment.”

The plan was to start fighting a total war on July 1, 1945. In order to strengthen their numbers, the Anglo-American forces were going to enlist captured German soldiers, and once they recaptured Berlin, they would restart the Nazi war machine.

So what would have happened if Churchill decided to turn on the Soviets at the very end of the war?

The big problem facing the Anglo-American forces was the Soviets outnumbered them 3-to-1. The Red Army may have been caught off guard, but eventually they would push back.

A quite likely scenario is that instead of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Americans may have bombed Moscow. One of the reasons that the Americans dropped the bombs on Japan was to show off their might to the Soviets. So what better way to really scare them than by dropping their secret weapon on the Soviet capital? This was actually the “Plan B” of Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable. He wanted the Americans to drop atomic bombs on Moscow and possibly Kiev.

A nuclear strike on their capital would have certainly thrown the Soviets off balance, to say the least. The problem is: would the bomb scare the Soviets enough to surrender? Or would turning their capital into a radioactive wasteland anger them and make their much larger army crueler to both Anglo-American forces and citizens?

If the Soviets didn’t surrender, the ground war would continue and the Allies would have a difficult time fighting against so many more enemies. The Americans would also probably drop more atomic bombs on major Soviet cities. It would essentially become a war of attrition and the loser would be whoever couldn’t carry on anymore.

Well, at least the Cold War wouldn’t have happened.


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