The armistice and the Treaty of Versaille that followed were supposed end “the war to end all wars”, but ultimately led to far greater destruction just two decades later. But what might have happened had WWI ended differently? And how would history, and indeed the world, be different had the Germans been victorious? How It Works asked history expert Stephen Badsey for his opinion.
What would have happened if Germany had won World War I?
It depends on when they win it. If they win a short war in 1914, with the Schlieffen Plan [the plan to quickly defeat the French first to avoid fighting on two fronts] working, it’s different than if they win a negotiated victory after a long, hard fight at the end of 1916 or early in 1917, which is the other possibility. Either way, you get a large German Empire dominating central and western Europe. What is likely to happen is you get a very strong and dominant Germany, [but one] that is not quite as bad as Hitler’s Germany in two respects. One is that it doesn’t have a plan for the genocide of the Jewish population of Europe – at least we don’t think it would have – and it doesn’t have a plan for global domination. With those two exceptions, you get a very nasty, racist, expansionist state with enough power in terms of economic and political power to dominate Europe, which means it can do something no power had ever been able to do: it can afford to have an extremely large and extremely good army, and it can also afford to have an extremely good navy, large enough to defeat the Royal Navy. They don’t actually have to invade Britain, although they probably would, but they can just starve it into submission.
Would this have led to another war?
If Germany wins World War I, they get into a strong position [against the rest of Europe] and then there’s almost certainly a war about ten years later, in which the British are defeated. So the British have absolutely no motive for letting this happen. In 1914, the British have three things that nobody else on the planet has got: they’ve got the world’s only global empire with massive resources, they’ve got dominant control of the world’s financial systems through London and they’ve got the biggest and most powerful navy in the world. So, why should they sit there doing nothing while a country that will almost certainly defeat them in the next war ten years on establishes that position [to leapfrog them]?
“If Germany wins World War I, they get into a strong position [against the rest of Europe] and then there’s almost certainly a war about ten years later”
Without a German defeat, is there any chance of someone like Hitler still rising to power?
The short answer is yes. Mussolini came to power in Italy and Italy was on the winning side in World War I. The Treaty of Versailles was [Hitler’s] excuse, no reputable historians believe that World War II leads inevitably from World War I. The idea that a botched peace treaty in 1919 inevitably leads to World War II is not historically accurate.
What might a victorious German Empire have looked like in practice?
Again, it depends on when it happens. At the start of the war in 1914, the Germans have no real concept of any war aims except reaching the enemy capital, which had been their experience in the Franco-Prussian War from 1870 to 1871, for example. When that fails in September 1914, they realise they’re going to need some war aims so they come up with something called the ‘Septemberprogramm’. This is a plan for a domination of Belgium as a client state, the Netherlands, which is neutral, the annexation of large parts of northern France with its industry, an absorption of parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the establishment of a German frontier further to the East. All of this would produce a German-dominated super-state that would reach roughly from Calais to as far east as Kiev.
Could Germany have won the war with the entrance of the United States?
As it happened, the Germans made the conscious decision instead to try to go for another total win by introducing unrestricted submarine warfare in January to February 1917 in an attempt to starve the British out and that was the principal decision that brought the US into the war. Once the US is in the war as well, it’s difficult for the Germans to come up with any kind of win; they make a last attempt with their spring offensives after the collapse of Russia, in spring 1918, but these do not succeed.
What would a German victory in World War I have meant for the United States?
A dominant Germany in Europe does not pose a direct threat to the United States and given the physical distances involved with the Atlantic it is entirely possible that the United States would simply accept this position. President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 on the basis of having kept the United States out of World War I, but when German submarines start sinking American transport ships on the high seas in early 1917, they are compelled to enter the war. So in the short term, the United States might well have taken the view that this was no threat to it. What might then happen half a century on is an open question, but if Germany had developed into the kind of powerful, aggressive state most historians think it would, it’s entirely possible it would have challenged in South and Central America, or it might have challenged in the Atlantic or the Pacific [Oceans]. We might well have seen a war against that kind of German empire, going to war with the United States in a manner not too dissimilar to World War II.
“the British could just about mount the equivalent of D-day, taking a British counter-invasion, either of France, Belgium or even the German coastline some time in 1916. So hypothetically you might have seen D-day several decades before it took place.”
How would Britain have responded?
Even if there is a complete and spectacular German victory in 1914, which is not likely, as people have been trying to make a quick German win with the Schlieffen Plan work perfectly more or less ever since the battle actually took place. Even if that happens and France surrenders as it did in 1914, the imperative for the British to avoid the domination by any one power of Europe is so great that you would get a situation similar to that which the British faced with France under Napoleon a century earlier, that they would just keep rebuilding coalitions against this hostile Germany. And you could envisage that the British could just about mount the equivalent of D-day, taking a British counter-invasion, either of France, Belgium or even the German coastline some time in 1916. So hypothetically you might have seen D-day several decades before it took place.
If the US hadn’t entered the war, would they still have grown into the global superpower they are today or would they be more isolated?
The US entry into World War I established its position as an important global power. Indeed, one of the effects of World War I is that the new Soviet Union and the US emerge as non-European powers for the first time, playing a major role in the international system. And the effect of World War II is to establish the domination of those two non-European powers, the US and Soviet Union, with the European powers no longer playing the role they had played recently. This lasts through to the end of the Cold War in 1990 and 1991. Would the US have emerged into its assumption after 1945 of global interests without its involvement in World War I? I would say it’s unlikely. If Germany doesn’t threaten the US or its interests you’re going to see a more isolationist US. If a confident, expansionist, aggressive and militaristic Germany starts to threaten the US, the US would almost certainly respond.
If Germany doesn’t threaten the US or its interests you’re going to see a more isolationist US.
Would the League of Nations and, ultimately, the United Nations still have materialised under a German victory?
No, the League of Nations was very much the ideal of President Woodrow Wilson. And of course the US itself doesn’t join the League of Nations, but it is a product of the peace of Paris including the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. What you would see is something with some kind of form in Europe, an extension of what is known as the Zollverein, the pan-German Customs Union of the 19th century, forming into something which would bear some resemblance to the modern EU but only to the extent that it would be a very large trading block. Its laws, traditions and attitudes towards human rights would have been completely different. But no, with a German victory in WWI, the League of Nations and from it at the end of World War II the United Nations, I don’t think there’s any way this would happen.
Would Russia still have become the Soviet Union?
Russia had its own problems. It had already had its minor revolution, the uprisings of 1905, leading to political reforms and the creation of a Russian parliament, the Duma. If France is defeated in 1914, Russia probably makes peace with Germany and Austria-Hungary fairly quickly. What basis that will be made on is very hard to say at the moment, but it will almost certainly have been a limited Russian defeat. But what happens after that is not particularly connected with the war; it is the strain of fighting the war over the three-year period that precipitates the Russian political and economic collapse, and without that the idea of a Russian revolution in the way it actually happened is not a certainty.
Do you think World War II would have still happened?
If you got the Germany I’ve described, that has been successful in World War I and has achieved this kind of domination, who is going to fight it and why? The only thing that works is looking at the British strategy before, against revolutionary and Napoleonic France, where the British kept putting together alliances, kept being defeated and just wouldn’t give up until Napoleon was finally defeated, and that war lasted for a quarter of a century. So you could easily envisage the British drawing on the resources of their empire, simply refusing to accept German victory and carrying out a long and persistent war on the peripheries of Europe and around the world to prevent this domination, which could have gone on for decades. Whether Britain could have brought the US in on their side is hard to construct a scenario for, but that depends almost entirely on whether Germany tries to starve Britain into submission by cutting off its supply routes.
“So you could easily envisage the British drawing on the resources of their empire, simply refusing to accept German victory and carrying out a long and persistent war on the peripheries of Europe and around the world to prevent this domination, which could have gone on for decades.”
Stephen Badsey is a professor of Conflict Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. An internationally recognised military historian, he has written or edited more than 90 books and articles, his writings have been translated into five languages and he appears frequently on television and in other media.
This article first appeared in All About History issue 11 written by Jonny O’Callaghan