Different responses are drawn from the world’s famed historians when posed with the question, “What if the Germans won in the First World War?”. Those who have seen the workings of divine hand and iron laws dialectical materialism in theory and practice share different views on the matter.
For EH Carr, a historian of the Soviet Russia, to make speculations as such was just a “parlour game”. He was more candid compared to how EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class. A counterfactual speculation on how things might have been if the result turned out differently for him was “unhistorical shit”.
Other historians shared that they cannot help but be intrigued. Johan Huizinga wrote, “The historian must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes.” Hugh Trevor-Roper supported this affirmation by stating the importance of recognizing that there are real alternatives to any moment in history.
While historians argue, writers wrote away the possibilities in fiction. Germany’s likely victory over Britain in 1940 became the subject of many fictional works. In 1964, a film, “It Happened Here”, by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo depicted the possibility of collaboration between Britain and Hitler.
The same subject was pursued by novelists Robert Harris, Owen Sheers and CJ Sansom in their books Fatherland, Resistance and Dominion respectively. The latter runs on a plot of Britain ruled by Lord Beaverbrook and Oswald Mosley in 1952.
Compared to Hitler’s Nazi-era, the first world war became subjected to a far less counterfactual speculation. The theme, however, was pursued with passion by Niall Ferguson. In an essay, Ferguson wrote the possibility of Britain staying out of the European War which broke out in the August of 1914. He noted significant accounts of the cabinet debates of 1914 where the Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government, nearly decided to vote out of the war. Ferguson also made a slip by portraying the kaiser as the godfather of the later European Union, a note that received many critics.
Already there are two camps that argue about the war. One side sees the war as “an unmitigated catastrophe in a sea of mud”, as Margaret Macmillan would put it. The other side sees the war as “about something”.
Macmillan further said, “It is condescending and wrong to think they were hoodwinked”, referring to the people on all sides of the war who thought they were fighting a just cause.
Martin Kettle of the Guardian commented that the first world war was definitely about something. He claimed that it was a war between empires. But, an effort to define empires have yet to made in a polarized debate between “collective myths of national sacrifice on the one hand (certainly in Britain and France) and an indiscriminate muddy catastrophe on the other.”
He also claimed that it is crucial to make counterfactual speculation to help process the arguments and get beyond the debates with the centenary well along its way.
It is a fact that the first world war came to an end in November 1918 with the surrender of German armies near Compiegne. But the defeat of Germany may have been overturned in the spring of 1918 had the Ludendorff’s offensive on Paris and the Channel been successful. And it was a close call. If the likely would have happened, many ponder on what the 20th Century Europe would be like.
“Obviously, it would have been dominated and shaped by Germany. But what kind of Germany? The militaristic, conservative, repressive Prussian power created by Bismarck? Or the Germany with the largest labour movement in early 20th-century Europe? German history after 1918 would have been a contest between the two – and no one can say which would have won in the end,” Kettle wrote.
He speculated that Germany would have imposed peace and sealed the war with a treaty of Potsdam. The reparations of France at Versailles would not have resulted and the rise of Hitler would have less likely happened. As an offshoot, the Holocaust and the second world war would not have necessarily followed.
And if the Jews in Germany and Europe would have lived free from the iron claws of the Nazi forces, Zionism would not have such an international moral force as it did right after the defeat of Hitler. Turkey, being among the victors of the first world war, would have also shaped Middle East differently.
He further said that in the kaiser’s Europe, France would have hosted the seeds for fascism and not Germany. But, its military and naval might would have been controlled by Germany by controlling its steel and coal in Alsace-Lorraine.
Furthermore, Britain defeated by the German forces would have given up its oil agenda in the Middle East and the Gulf to Germany. Being unsustainable, it might have ended up as “a modest north European social democratic republic – like Denmark without a prince,” Kettle wrote.
America, he claimed, would be spared from the postwar economic problems in the 1930’s. Franklin Roosevelt would not have to march American forces to fight against Europe standing as a firmly isolationist power. But, the country might have a looming enemy of Japan. The Soviet Union, would have been a very strong foe of the victorious Germany, but it would have not have been invaded as it was in the second world war. And World War II being less likely, there might have never been a cold war either, as Kettle speculated.
Kettle sees the counterfactual speculation as a parlour game. But, the outcome to him mattered. He imagined a different Europe had Germany won in 1918. The possibility of Germany’s victory might be grim and repressive to many but there is also the possibility of many people being spared from deaths in 20th Century Europe.
The endless possibilities of what did not happen are worth reflecting given that the outcome would have made a very big difference to modern Europe and the whole world, for the matter.
The centenary of 2014 would help in the process of getting past the varying and rival national perspectives by seeing more than the tragedy and objectifying the possibilities at any moment in history, particularly the first world war.