It recently came to my attention that they’re making a TV series based upon Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a classic in the alternative history sci-fi genre. It explores the now almost-clichéd question: What if the Nazis had won World War 2? In particular, it imagines life in a USA split after the war between Germany and Japan in a fashion somewhat similar to what happened to Germany in our timeline.
I never really bought that alternate timeline. Or, really, any timeline in which the Axis powers defeated the Allies. After all the history books I’ve read and countless iterations of the videogames I’ve played, I’ve come to the conclusion that the real-life Axis probably did about as well as they possibly could have in the war, given the massive forces arrayed against them over the course of the struggle.
It’s hard to describe just how far out of their weight class both Japan and Germany found themselves in the industrial battlefield of the Second World War. On paper, they were technologically and numerically inferior to their opponents. Worse, they found themselves repeatedly on the tactical offensive (attacking enemy armies) and the strategic defensive (needing to entrench their gains before the inexorably rising tide of enemies overwhelmed them). This is exactly the opposite of where you want to be.
And yet they won. And kept winning. Over and over and over again. For about three years straight. By the winter of 1941, the German army was at the gates of Moscow, the Japanese had conquered the entire West Pacific, and the British were reeling under a terrifyingly effective submarine blockade. In our timeline, we think that it was a close-run thing. This leads careful observers to often come to the conclusion that if one or two little things had gone differently, the Axis could have swept the globe.
But in reality, I believe that we’re actually in the crazy one in a hundred timeline where virtually everything that could have gone right for the Axis did. As evidence of this, consider the plight of simulation-style wargame designers. Generations of wonderfully precise nerds have discovered that if you want to get the battles to work out so that the mean result is the historical one and you start from the real life order of battle (which, thanks to the historians, is pretty accurate for the Second World War), you have to add a huge magic fudge factor for the Axis powers. This can be anywhere from a 20% increase to a full doubling. At the same time, they generally reduce the Polish and French strength drastically in order to get them to collapse on schedule like they’re supposed to.
Even the Germans and Japanese, themselves, weren’t willing to assume (or even expect) they’d have that kind of superiority in their planning. Think about that for a second! They were fighting under the stated belief that they were of the master race(s) and they weren’t willing to go as far as the later nerds who just wanted to make the numbers add up. If, like me, you’re not willing to assume that 1930s Germany was actually populated by Space Marines from the Warhammer 40K universe, the logical conclusion is therefore to presume that they actually got a long streak of fortunate breaks. Which would naturally be modeled in a playthrough of one of these games by a series of really good dice rolls.
Which means that if we’re going to do a satisfying alternate history where the Nazis triumph over the USA, we need to make some different assumptions. Readers of God, Gold, and Glory may recall that I postulated that the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War was best seen as a three-way struggle among the new strains of socialism for global domination: International Socialism (Communism), as represented by the USSR; National Socialism (Fascism), as represented by Germany and its allies; and Democratic Socialism (New Deal), as represented by the USA. In real-life, International Socialism and Democratic Socialism teamed up to take out National Socialism in an intense total war. Then they spilt the world between them and fought a series of proxy wars for fifty years until eventually Democratic Socialism proved triumphant.
I would argue that the winner of any plausible version of the Second World War should be the side that contains the alliance of two of these socialist strains against the third. Therefore, if we want Nazi Germany to triumph over the USA, what we need is a Nazi-Soviet alliance against the western powers.
This is less crazy that it might seem. To most modern Westerners, the Nazis and the Soviets occupy the far poles of the political spectrum. Which makes sense. After all, neo-nazis and unreconstructed communists still hate each other with a passion. But it is worth recalling that in 1939 the Nazis and the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact to divide Eastern Europe. And this worked out quite well for both sides. Poland was diced up nicely. The Soviet Union got to annex the Baltic States and a disputed chunk of Romania. And, in exchange, the Germans got essentially unquestioned dominion over the rest of central and southern Europe.
In real life, we know that this was just a lull before the real fighting broke out in 1941. Both Hitler and Stalin were convinced that there would eventually need to be a royal rumble between their countries. Therefore, the peace agreement was merely a chance to arm and dominate other, unrelated countries before the final showdown.
In our timeline, FDR’s administration was much more favorably disposed to Stalin’s USSR than Hitler was. But, as we know from the Cold War, despite this initial warmth the underlying ideological and realpolitik concerns rapidly asserted themselves between the USA and the USSR. So we’ll need to come up with the basis for some lasting common cause between Germany and the USSR to unify against the USA.
The answer comes with a little thought. Remember that all three sides at the time are seeking to pose as the true and valiant defenders of the people against the depredations of the evil plutocratic elite who ruled the old order. Not coincidentally, this plutocratic elite was largely Anglo-American. And the rulers of the British Empire in the 1930s happened to be the Conservative party, who stood in favor of maintaining the traditional Empire and in opposition to the Democratic-Socialist Labour party.
Therefore, in our alternate timeline, we’ll presume that Hitler and Stalin come to an agreement that the traditional Anglo-American capitalist enemy is the primary opponent. In alliance with Italy and Japan, they seek to overthrow the existing imperial order and liberate/absorb their worldwide colonies into their own orbits. Each side amps up their anti-capitalist rhetoric during the war and talks about how even the new enemy is wise enough to not be distracted by the reeling White Terror/Jewish banker conspiracy.
Note that this happens to be the precise rhetorical line the loyal Stalinists in Western countries took between the publication of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in 1939 and the German invasion of Russia in 1941. It’s worth keeping in mind that, at the time, this insistence that fighting Germany would be an evil imperialist adventure was a startlingly sharp about face. Street thugs associated with the Nazis (and associated national-socialist parties) and local Communist parties had been fighting each other on the streets of Europe since the end of the World War 1. This pattern of conflict solidified our current idea of the political spectrum as running from Communists on the far-left to Nazis on the far right, with center-leftists and center-rightists representing the portions of the tottering establishment that were more inclined to one side or the other.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in the ’30s, the pattern eventually escalated into a full-blown proxy war between the Nazis, who were supporting Franco and the army, against the Soviets, who were supporting the leftist civilian government. The Western powers remained scrupulously neutral, but many influential Western leftists went to volunteer for the Spanish Republic during the struggle, because they saw fascism as an intolerable threat to their values. Non-Stalinist leftists like George Orwell grew disillusioned with the way the Soviets treated the non-Communist left during the war, and were appalled by the way the Stalinists in the West so rapidly shifted their allegiance to Hitler after Stalin signed the pact.
As far as the war itself goes, we’ll assume that this new agreement gets hammered out in the fall of 1940. Just as in our timeline, Germany has quickly conquered France and the British subsequently won a close-run victory over the skies of Britain. But instead of gearing up for a second front in Russia, Hitler decides to re-arm and make a second, more aggressive push against metropolitan Britain and their Mediterranean and North African possessions in 1941. Simultaneously, the Russians send an army down through Afghanistan and the Caucasus mountains into India and the Near East, threatening the core of the overseas British Empire in the manner that the British imperials had feared could come to pass all throughout the 19th Century.
This four-pronged attack stretches the British to their limits. Historically, they were able to send Imperial regiments from South Africa, Canada, Australia, and India to supplement the mainland British forces in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal and their supply lines in the Mediterranean. But with so many of the colonies directly under attack by the Russians, along with the German and Italian pressure in Greece and North Africa, each region is thrown essentially on its own resources.
In this scenario, I believe it’s fair to presume that the Germans and Italians would have been able to establish enough control over the sea that Rommel would have had the supplies and equipment available to him to make it to Cairo. This would have been a big deal strategically, as it would mean that any reinforcements and supplies from the Empire would have to travel the long way from the mainland, leaving them increasingly open to depredation from the German submarine fleet.
This leaves the core territories of the British Empire – the British Isles and India – besieged and desperate. We know from our timeline that the British plight after the fall of France inspired FDR to deliver all sorts of quasi-legal assistance to the British well before Pearl Harbor enabled him to join the war openly. The broad national sentiment was largely in favor of true-neutral isolationism, but elite American opinion was largely on the side of the British and against Germany. Especially after the shock of the sudden fall of France, which had been considered the rough equal of Germany based on the experience of the First World War.
We’ll presume that the dramatic fall in British fortunes leads to FDR and his administration deciding to take emergency measures to prop them up. I presume this would take the form of increased arms shipments on American flagged merchant ships, along with an increased flow of “volunteers” to the British cause. When they were inevitably sunk by the Germans, the USA would take the incidents and blow them up along the lines of the Lusitania. The USA has a history of entering wars based on these sorts of affronts to the national honor. For instance, “Remember the Maine!” and the impressment crisis that led to the War of 1812).
Notably, though, in our timeline this happened after Germany had backstabbed Russia and launched a devastating surprise attack. That meant that the sizable faction of the American elite that was pro-Soviet had dropped their pacifism and had been loudly advocating for the USA to enter the war against Nazi Germany. They were not able to get this to happen until Pearl Harbor, but it is impossible that the American public could have been galvanized against the sneak attack into a unified whole under FDR with the Communists still agitating loudly for peace.
Let’s move back to the events on the battlefield. The Germans are able to gear up in 1941 for a full scale invasion of the British Isles, the plans for which were known as Operation Sea Lion in our timeline. In real-life, the reverse operation (Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy from England) relied on total Allied air and sea superiority over the Channel, required about three years to plan and arrange, and was one of the most complicated logistical operations ever embarked upon by mankind. And though it worked, it wasn’t amazingly successful. So we should begin with some considerable skepticism that an invasion of Britain along these lines is even possible.
Analyzing the situation more closely, the Germans in 1941 will have a different set of strengths and weaknesses than the historical Allies did. First, the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force during the French campaign was a significant blow to the British army. Most of the personnel were evacuated at Dunkirk, but virtually all of the heavy equipment was lost. And in this timeline, with the Empire under such strain, it would have been difficult to rebuild it and get the army back to a ready state.
Second, the Royal Navy at the time is far stronger than anything the Germans could possibly assemble. In particular, it had just dealt a significant blow to the German navy during the conquest of Norway in 1940. This is especially true if the British were willing to largely abandon their colonial possessions to defend the homeland. But, for our purposes, I think it is fair to presume that the British government would have considered it politically and militarily infeasible to allow the loss of Egypt and Malaysia without a fight. So we’ll assume that during the critical months crucial fleet resources are not available for the defense of the Channel.
Third, as proven in Battle of Britain in late 1940, the Royal Air Force was just barely capable of winning a battle of attrition over their home airfields and cities against the numerically superior German Luftwaffe. A large part of the German difficulty in establishing air superiority over southern Britain had to do with the limited range of their best air-to-air fighter craft, the Bf-109. Even operating from airfields in the Low Countries and northern France, they could only fight for about 15-20 minutes before needing to retreat and rearm. This meant that bomber sorties often needed to operate without fighter cover, leading to large losses from local British interceptors.
However, the Germans were already working on a major improvement to the Bf-109, the series F, which had about double the range of the previous models. A few of these craft even saw service at the end of the air battle in 1940. I believe it is safe to presume that if the Germans had decided to redouble their efforts in 1941, they would have made it a priority to refit many of their air wings with the new craft. This would have tilted the balance of power in the skies over southern England significantly, were the battle to be replayed in 1941. Of course, the British were also frantically improving their designs as well, phasing out their earlier Hurricanes for the newer, more effective Spitfires.
So the success of this hypothesized 1941 Operation Sea Lion largely depends on the ability of the combined and expanded air and sea forces of the Germans to support a Channel crossing and the subsequent resupply of these forces against the determined opposition of the Royal Navy and RAF. If the Germans were somehow able to get enough forces across the water and keep them in supply, it is fairly certain that the German army could dispatch the remnants of the British army.
Since the goal of this hypothetical is to get the USA into the war on the side of the British, we’ll presume that the Lusitania-style incident that FDR desires occurs sometime in the winter of 1940-1941. Say December 7th, 1940, to give us the same date to live in infamy. This gives the USA enough time to commit to the war effort but not enough time for them to deliver a sufficient amount of men and material anywhere to substantially change the outcome of any of the distant theaters of war.
We’ll also presume that the USSR and Japan declare war on the USA in response to the American declaration of war on Germany, in a way similar to how Germany declared war on the USA in support of Japan in our timeline. Remember that in our alternate timeline, the USSR is engaged in a large-scale ground war against the British in India. So this war makes sense for the USSR, because any American support for the British Empire against Germany is necessarily also support against the Communist offensive in the Indian subcontinent, given that British resources are somewhat fungible across the theaters of war.
OK, at this point we’ve put our thumb on the scale a little and maneuvered the USA into a notional two-on-one war that could conceivably be lost. But it’s worth keeping in mind that, even still, we’re a very long way away from the clichéd scene where Nazi troops parade through the streets of New York City. The oceans are vast, North America is huge, and even a USA entirely cut off from the Eurasian continent would remain the predominant industrial power. Notably, unlike Japan and Germany, the US at this time is self-sufficient in terms of critical material for building and supplying an industrial-era war economy (e.g. food, coal, oil, rare metals, etc.).
So far, I do not think that we have strained our suspension of disbelief budget overmuch. But, next time, we’ll see how much more we need to lean on the scale to get from here to The Man in the High Castle. Spoiler alert: it’s probably going to be a lot.