Key point: What if Berlin had been limited in its territorial aims and tried to turn the West against the Soviets? Maybe they would have eventually only had a one-front war?
September 1 marked the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, which cost the lives of an estimated fifty to sixty million people and was the most terrible war in world history. We all know how the war turned out—with an overwhelming Soviet-Western Allied victory over Nazi Germany ending with the destruction of Germany and the death by starvation of millions of its citizens. Given the way the events of the war played out, there was no other foreseeable outcome other than her defeat. But as most historians are aware, German defeat in the war would have been far from inevitable had Nazi leader Adolf Hitler refrained from making certain critical mistakes. This series of articles represents an attempt to summarize the top mistakes and omissions that Germany made during the most terrible of all wars in human history. Of course, the easiest way Germany could have won World War II was by avoiding a fight with Britain, France, and the United States of America. Germany had the military potential to defeat France and could have likely forced Britain to make peace, but with a Navy less than one-sixth the size of Britain’s, it had no means of attacking U.S. territory, let alone defeating the U.S. military. Here are some actions that Germany might have taken to achieve its territorial objectives without fighting the Western Powers.
Accept British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s offer of a second Four-Power Conference
It is a little known fact that Hitler passed up a huge opportunity to satisfy his few remaining territorial demands after the signing of the Munich Pact for the return of the “free” German city of Danzig and/or the Polish Corridor along with some former German colonies in Africa and the Pacific without the need for war between Germany and Poland, let alone between Germany and the United Kingdom and France. In announcing he had achieved “peace in our time” at Munich in September 1938, Chamberlain revealed his belief that the Munich Agreement was just the prelude to a second and much more comprehensive Four-Power Peace Conference between the UK, France, Germany and Italy. His intended purpose of this second conference would have been to redress Germany’s remaining legitimate grievances stemming from the unjust Treaty of Versailles and thereby secure a more just and lasting peace to avert the potential outbreak of World War II.
Hitler could have accepted Britain’s generous offer and scheduled the conference for late 1938 or early 1939 rather than foolishly violating the Munich Pact in March 1939. He could have requested the return of all of Germany’s lost eastern territories from Poland. After this proposal was rejected by the Poles, he could have demanded the return of merely Danzig and the Polish Corridor perhaps with some of the same assurances to the Poles offered by the German delegation at Versailles in 1919, namely to allow the Poles a road/rail corridor to the German port of Danzig just as he offered Poland in real life. Britain, and probably France as well, would have likely pressured the Poles to accept such a reasonable compromise proposal and informed them they would not support Poland militarily if Poland rejected it just as they told Czech leaders after Munich. It is also possible—and perhaps even likely—that without the promise of Allied military support, Poland would have agreed to cede the rest of West Prussia and perhaps even East Upper Silesia, but not Posen, to Nazi Germany in order to avoid war. Thus, Hitler could have achieved the last of his territorial objectives without war, with the exception of those pertaining to the Soviet Union. At the same time, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini could have made demands for France and Britain to honor their promises to Italy for more Yugoslav territory in return for entering World War One on the side of the Allies. These territorial claims included the entire Istrian peninsula and northern Dalmatian coast and adjacent islands in the Adriatic Sea as well as a protectorate over Albania, all of which ended up being annexed following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941.
The effect of such a negotiated settlement might have been a long-term peace for Europe, (with the exception of Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union of course), likely transforming both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy into mostly satisfied, rather than revisionist, powers generally supportive of maintaining the British-led world order. This, of course, was the ultimate objective of Chamberlain’s accommodationist policy of Nazi Germany all along. Strangely, Hitler did not appear interested in convening such a Four Power Peace Conference. Had Hitler’s claims against Poland been negotiated peacefully, not only would he have succeeded in averting the outbreak of war with Poland and the Western Allies, but he would not have felt the need to sign the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 carving up eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Whether Stalin would have still invaded and annexed the Baltic States, eastern Finland, eastern Poland and northeastern Romania from 1939–1940 is unclear. However, it is likely he would have invaded all of those nations at some point during the 1940s regardless of what Hitler did or did not do since his massive expansion of the Red Army was completed by June 1941, by which time the Soviet Union boasted seven times as many tanks and four times as many combat aircraft as Nazi Germany.
Don’t Violate the Munich Pact by Occupying the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia
After demanding Slovakia declare independence, Czech President Emil Hocha traveled to Germany to meet with Hitler and request a German guarantee of the Czech Republic. Instead, Hitler strong-armed Hocha to sign a decree authorizing the entry of German troops into his nation effectively ending Czech independence. Afterwards, he sent troops to occupy the Czech Republic on May 15, 1939 in flagrant violation of the terms of Munich Pact. If Hitler had accepted Czech President Emil Hacha’s request to make the Czech Republic a German protectorate without actually occupying it with German forces, then he would not have been in violation of the Munich Pact.
It is hard to overestimate the negative impact Hitler’s foolhardy violation of the Munich Pact had upon Chamberlain. After all the euphoria in London and Paris over the avoidance of war with Germany in 1938 with the Munich Agreement, which enshrined the Wilsonian principle of self-determination to allow the 3.5 million Germans in the Sudetenland to unite with Germany, Chamberlain viewed Hitler’s violation of the pact as a personal insult and breach of honor. This caused him to do an about-face and guarantee Poland against potential German military aggression, which Hitler had never even contemplated up to that point. This gave Poland the footing it needed to refuse all of Hitler’s subsequent attempts to negotiate the return of this Polish occupied German city. This abrupt reversal in policy ended up triggering a world war which would cost over fifty million lives. Less than six months later, France and Britain were dragged into the war. Had Hitler not violated the Munich Pact and instead used a Four Power Conference to settle his claims to the Polish Corridor with Poland, then he might have been remembered as the most successful German Chancellor in German history (with the exception of Otto von Bismarck) for accomplishing the never-before realized dream of a united Germany. Instead, he is universally despised as the German leader who killed five million Jews in the Holocaust and presided over the destruction of Germany in 1945.
Only Occupy the Polish Corridor, Not All of Western Poland
On September 2, 1939, the day after Germany invaded Poland, Hitler offered to withdraw from all of Poland except for the Polish Corridor, which constituted scarcely more than 4 percent of Polish territory, in order to avoid war with Britain and France. Unfortunately, his offer was ignored by Allied leaders who proceeded to declare war the following day. However, if Germany had limited itself to liberating the Polish occupied German city of Danzig and invading the Polish Corridor, which represented the full extent of his territorial claims on Poland, and which it captured in the first four days of fighting, then Hitler could have requested an armistice from Polish leaders on September 5. The Poles would likely have accepted their peace offer after the Soviets invaded Poland on September 17 in order to defend Poland from the all-out Soviet invasion and planned Soviet annexation of nearly two-thirds of Polish territory under the original Hitler-Stalin Pact. The Allies likely would have followed suit by making peace with Nazi Germany, too, thus ending World War II after a mere two weeks of fighting. Indeed, Polish leaders feared that had Hitler done this, then Britain and France would never have declared war on Germany.
Having to only fight a one-front war against the Soviet Union might have enabled the Poles to hold out for a few months instead of a few weeks against the Soviet onslaught perhaps resulting in a few hundred thousand more Red Army casualties. This, in turn, would have delayed the Soviet invasion of Finland until 1940. Peace with Nazi Germany would have opened the door to a major Anglo-French military intervention in the Russo-Finnish War consisting of 150,000-300,000 troops, which might have enabled the Finns to hold out until spring 1941 when Operation Barbarossa began—if not retake lost territory. This might have led to the curious prospect of Nazi Germany, France and Britain fighting on the same side, however briefly, in a war against the Soviet Union. This series of events also would have almost certainly led to a German-Polish alliance against the Soviets that Hitler had long sought for as the Poles would have had no choice but to ally with Nazi Germany if they had any hopes of ever regaining the two-thirds of their territory which had been annexed by the Soviets under the terms of the original Hitler-Stalin Pact. Poland would most likely have joined in the German-led invasion of the Soviet Union in exchange for promises for Germany’s support for the return of these lost territories.