(Updated Dec 9, 2020)
The other day I was reading an interesting article about the latest archeological discoveries in Pompeii, when I came across something that I found surprising: that, during World War II, the Allied aerial assault of 1943 — with more than 160 bombs dropped — completely destroyed Pompeii site’s gallery and some of its most celebrated monuments. Over the years, 96 unexploded bombs have been found and inactivated; a few more, experts say, remain likely to be uncovered in areas not yet excavated.
This is the kind of thing that everyone would know by heart, had the Fascist powers won World War II.
There would be more: for example, the completely unnecessary bombing of the cathedral at Rouen and the Montecassino abbey, the mockery of the laws of war in which the British and Americans often indulged (1), the Altmark incident, the invasion of neutral countries such as Iran, Vichy France (attacked in Mers-el-Kebir, then Dakar and later in the Torch operation of 1942, in a series of straightforward illegal acts of war) and Iceland (as well as the attempt to do the same with Norway, pre-empted by Germany; and Belgium, which came close to being invaded by the allies — Winston Churchill’s idea first, and a French idea later — before the Germans did the same, forcing its army to deploy ON THE FRENCH BORDER in early 1940).
There’s also the bullying of others like Portugal (forced to cede Azores bases to the British, under threat of Allied invasion, in 1943), and the multiple provocations and continued trickery by the U.S. administration to get the country to join the war against the majority opinion of U.S. citizens. And the British Security Coordination, the infamous BSC, a branch of British intelligence that employed all sorts of illegal operations in the U.S. possibly including murder to drive the country into the war on the British side.
Let’s not forget the murder of German prisoners during multiple battles, not only by Soviet troops but also Americans who, after the end end of the war, looked for Waffen SS tattoos in the arms of captured soldiers, so they could kill them then and there. Straightforward assassinations by American troops, such as that of General Ernst Fick, the former head of a prisoner camp, were rarely, if ever, prosecuted. During operation Market Garden, the 1944 “A bridge too far” Allied defeat, in which withdrawing Americans disposed of lots of German prisoners, a jeep was seen around Holland, full of American paratroopers, adorned with the head of a German pierced with an iron stake and tied to the front. Unique, weird? Maybe. Check out this May 22, 1944 Life Magazine Picture of the Week, “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you-note for the Jap skull he sent her”:
Rape and murder of civilians in occupied countries, even by non-Soviets? Check. Then, there’s the subsequent large-scale, non-stop aerial campaigns to kill as many civilians from the likes of Germany and Japan as possible (Japan, interestingly, never attacked a single American civilian target and was still subjected to savage, deliberate murder from the air, intended to maximize civilian killings, from the very beginning of the war) by whichever means necessary — including the use of beloved air heroes to simply exterminate as many enemy civilians as possible, when the war was already won, because yeah fuck them.
All of that, and the Pompeii bombings, would be marked on schoolchildren brains with branded iron, had the Fascists won the War. Had the Axis won, these would be the sure signs that the Allied were always doomed to lose. There would be no Schindler’s List movie, or book.
One may laugh. Lots of people will. Yes, one can write one of those “if the Nazis had won” novels, a “Man on the High Castle” in which Aryan schoolteachers teach blond kids just how evil the forces of democracy were. And that’s it. When it comes to World War II, most people — especially those who pride themselves of being atheist, science-first types — believe on historical determinism: they will tell you that the Fascists were always doomed to lose. Come on, there were sure signs all around.
We just had the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the largest monument to Allied victory in World War II, so this is a good day to explain why I don’t believe that the Fascists were doomed to lose, at all. Actually, looking closely at the facts, my conclusion is close to the opposite: the Fascists had all the cards to win World War II, and they only lost because they played a very strong hand very, very badly. And nobody is more to blame than their top two players: Adolf Hitler of Germany and Benito Mussolini of Italy.
Henry Kissinger, in his magisterial chapter on World War II in his classic “Diplomacy,” notes that Hitler was, besides everything else, terrible at international geopolitics.
A self-taught provincial Austrian with no foreign languages and a pretty slipshod grasp of basic facts of history and geography, Hitler won a brilliant victory in the internal game of German politics, which he mastered, and then turned this victory into a rout by establishing a very strong state in record time (1933-39, six years, less than your typical U.S, Presidency) out of a defeated and bankrupted country. The case can be made that Germany was ripe for a Fascist takeover, and pretty much any Fascist leader would have been able to accomplish that. But Hitler was smart and effective while taking power. The problem, from Kissinger’s point of view, is not there: the problem starts when he moved on to exert influence on the international stage, in the clumsiest possible manner.
As Kissinger explains, Hitler was the luckiest leader in German history. Germany may have been on its knees, or a similarly bad position, by 1933. But the Versailles treaty that left the country impoverished and set on revenge had also created the perfect opportunities for expansion and economic growth.
In 1914, Germany — outside of its moderately-sized colonial empire in Africa and tiny specks of Asia — shared borders with three large empires with which it had to deal very carefully (France, Austria-Hungary and Russia) and with four small, rich countries that didn’t provide much room for expansion, even if annexed (the Benelux countries and Denmark) and were in any case closely watched and protected by other powers.
By 1919, Germany was surrounded by weak, small countries that could be bullied, bought off, isolated, played off against each other, carved out and incentivized to do Germany’s billing: Poland, Czechoslovakia, the rump Austrian state, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Baltic States… With just a little discretion, Hitler from 1933 could have taken full economic and political control of central Europe without the need to fire a single shot, much like Germany did in the 1990s as soon as the Iron Curtain fell and the Berlin government suddenly found it extremely important to ensure that the Croat and Slovenian nationalists secured their own countries.
Instead of choosing moderation, Hitler as we all know went full steam ahead on every front. And still, even as he guaranteed that Germany would only receive absolute cold hostility from the democratic powers, he succeeded in a fashion: in early 1939, with the Czech Republic gone and Slovakia turned into a protectorate, with Spain in the hands of a thankful German ally, Hitler had secured one after another stunning diplomatic success, without getting Germany embroiled in a European war.
Hitler was clumsy but, because of a variety of reasons, he thought his luck would hold for ever. It didn’t. Even as he knew for a fact that…
a) Germany had no real need to invade Poland, much less to do so immediately. There was nothing of urgent strategic necessity for Germany in Poland.
b) Fascist-leaning Poland was, in many senses, a potentially powerful and useful German ally, that could be easily bought off with German investment and aid, to be used if needed against Russia, Hitler’s ultimate enemy as he kept saying over and over again (and, again, such has been the strategy deployed by German governments since the 1990s).
c) The deal finally agreed with the Soviet Union to divide Poland and keep the Soviets away from an alliance with Britain and France gave Stalin the green light not only to take a chunk of Poland, but also a chunk of almost-as-Fascist Romania (Bessarabia, modern-day Moldavia), and all of the solidly Fascist Baltic States and almost-as-Fascist Finland.
d) And this Poland invasion would result on CERTAIN war against Britain and France, which had ABSOLUTELY NO APPETITE for war against Germany.
… Hitler still invaded Poland, setting off a timer that he didn’t need to set off. Now, suddenly, he was at war against two great powers at the same time, and he had a third great power (the Soviet Union) on its eastern borders, ready to wage war at a moment’s notice. Now he knew he had no real choice other than getting the Western Allies out of the war first; or else he would have to knock the Soviets off before they could join the Western Allies in a large coalition against the biggest power of central Europe: and if he failed, as he did, all would be lost. As it was. (2)
Mind you, this is not an extravagant, minority opinion. As Lothrop Stoddard reports in his weird, fascinating little travel book “Into the Darkness: Berlin 1940,” this was the majority, consensus opinion of average Germans right after the war started:
Embattled Poland was the last local obstacle to Mittel-Europa. By a series of amazing diplomatic victories, Adolf Hitler had taken all the other hurdles without firing a shot. This led the average German to believe that the Fuehrer would complete the process without recourse to arms… Why, they asked, should Britain and France stick their noses into what was none of their business? Most Germans did not believe that the Western Powers would risk a general war over Poland. The German people was thus psychologically unprepared for what actually happened. When they found themselves suddenly plunged into a decisive struggle with the Western Powers, Germans were torn between two emotions: disgust at what they considered a stupidly needless war, and fear for the consequences which it might involve. All sorts of persons I talked with stigmatized the war as a tragic blunder. Some of them went so far as to criticize their Government for having acted too precipitately.
This Hitler four-dimension chess-playing, to me, doesn’t sound like evil genius. More like evil stupidity. And I haven’t said anything about the criminal, moronic policies that forced thousands of Germany’s most brilliant minds out of the country, and left them scheming to destroy his regime; the silly racism that still led Germany to treat even key allies, actual and potential, with disdain because they were insufficiently Aryan in the minds of semi-literate buffoons; the unfulfilled plans to invade the likes of Catholic, Fascist-leaning Ireland (it sure looks like Hitler was really into invading fellow Fascist countries); and the contradictions in a mind that only wanted peace with Britain but first gave Britain no choice other than declaring war on him. And I haven’t even started off with Mussolini.
Italy was no Germany in 1939, we all can agree on that. Italy was a significant European power, but it didn’t have a large enough industrial base, or an efficient enough state, to wage war for years against determined, powerful enemies.
Go tell that to Mussolini, who joined World War II only so he could get a small slice on southern France. This is the ruler of a country with substantial interests and colonies in Africa who willingly went to war with Britain, the biggest power by far in Africa and the Middle East. This man couldn’t really be surprised when the British rolled over his colonial empire in a matter of months, really. But he won Nice, the French city.
Mussolini wasn’t a complete idiot because, on the brink of the German occupation of Paris in June 1940, he thought that Fascism was the wave of the future. He was an idiot because he did shoot himself on the foot so many times. In 1940, because he felt he didn’t have enough enemies in Britain (and Britain’s shadow partner of the time, the U.S., which was very obviously angling to get in the war sooner than later), Mussolini — like Hitler before him — decided to invade yet another Fascist-leaning country of limited strategic importance: Greece. (3)
This was, from the Fascist point of view, idiotic enough by itself. Strategically, it only made sense for Italy to engage Greece if it guaranteed somebody else’s support: for example, that of also Fascist-leaning Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania or even Yugoslavia, which was as well close to fall in the Axis camp. But Italy didn’t secure any support from anyone, and soon found itself in big trouble. All the while, let’s remember, while losing battle after battle against the British in Africa.
In fact, an argument can be made that Italy’s misadventures in Greece helped Turkey make up its mind AGAINST joining the war on the Axis side, a huge relief for the Allies, especially the Soviets, which had no way to defend their southern flank against Turkish encroachment (4). Even more importantly, Italy provided an opening for the British to launch an anti-Axis coup in Yugoslavia that forced Germany to invade yet another potential Fascist-leaning ally, so it could later invade Fascist-leaning Greece in early 1941, leading to a delay of weeks in the planned Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union — a delay that eventually left the German armies at the gates of Moscow before the Russian winter set, saving Russia from extermination.
From the outside, anyone could have said that Mussolini and Hitler went from victory to victory. By late 1941, the Allies’ situation was dramatic. But the Axis’ fumbling and stupidy had sowed the seeds for disaster, and disaster came for them, soon enough.
My point is that all of this wasn’t pre-determined. All of these were stupid decisions; any number of different decisions at keys point could have resulted in completely different outcomes. It wasn’t written on the stars that Democracy and Communism would inherit the world in 1945. History is just the result of human decisions, it’s not a mystical process governed by mysterious laws; history is what happens when idiots like Hitler and Mussolini get full, unchecked power.
- A couple of high-profile examples will suffice: Hitler sent for SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny on October 21, 1944, just ahead of the Ardennes offensive, and told him that the Americans had put three captured German tanks flying German colours to devastating use during at assault at Aachen, Netherlands; that’s why he directed him to create the famous, phoney ‘American’ task force that sought to seize bridges across the Meuse between Liège and Namur and to spread alarm behind the enemy lines when the Ardennes attack began. A year earlier (Oct 4, 1943), right after the allied raid on Dieppe, there was a grave incident during a smaller, follow-up raid on the German-occupied Channel island of Sark. A raiding force of sixteen Commandos seized a German work party, tied them with ropes, and marched them to the beach where they bayoneted and shot to death some of them, still trussed, before withdrawing.
- One interesting, rarely mentioned aside to the Polish question: Poland, as a fellow Catholic authoritarian fascistic power, had been somewhat supportive of Franco’s 1936 coup in Spain. Poland’s embassy had been a place for refuge for noted Spanish conservatives, such as Gregorio Marañón, who were facing death by shooting squad at the hands of their “democratic” opponents. Franco was highly sympathetic to Poland, and Spain’s official press received the German assault on a fellow Catholic power pretty coldly, even going as far as to praise Pole heroism on the face of overwhelming odds. Hitler’s adventurism in Poland did much to weaken Franco’s initially strong support for National Socialism. By the time both leaders met in Hendaye, Oct 23, 1940, at the peak of Nazi success, Franco flatly refused to join the Axis, which eventually had very damaging consequences for the Fascist war effort, as Hitler feared. Even though Spain eventually sent ONE DIVISION worth of volunteers to fight Soviet Germany (and the division’s members confessed to being appalled by the German treatment of Polish civilians whom they met along the way), Spain’s potentially war-deciding support for Hitler never materialized. As Stanley Payne wrote in his biography of Franco, a full perspective of the problems faced by Spanish neutrality may be obtained by comparing Spain’s attitude to Sweden’s, “which in certain respects accomodated German pressure to a greater degree than did Spain.” For example, Sweden allowed the passage of German troops through its territory (which Spain denied), for long shipped large amounts of strategic raw materials to Germany only, and at times denied asylum to escaping Baltic Jews, while Spain opened its borders to those fleeing central Europe consistently and without exceptions, and kept trading with the Allies (and the Axis) throughout the war. Spain could have very easily allowed Germany or Italy to knock down Gibraltar, shutting down the Mediterranean to British shipping, dooming Malta and most probably the British Middle East. A handful of Spanish infantry divisions would have been more than enough to push the issue in favor of the Axis in North Africa, opening up Iraq and Iran to Axis influence, and the Soviet underbelly to Islamic insurgencies. Up to the Torch operation (the US-British invasion of Northern Africa) in November 1942, the prospect of Franco joining the war was the stuff of Churchill nightmares, and the understandings and compromises reached to avoid that outcome are the sole reason why Franco was allowed to remain in power after 1945. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was truly a disaster for the Fascist International; in a final twist of historical irony, it was the Soviet-controlled Polish government that presented the UN motion which put Spain under a UN embargo between 1946 and 1950.
- Poland wasn’t the only issue in Franco’s mind when he met Hitler: Franco repeatedly cited Mussolini’s hostility and provocations against Greece, soon to result in the disastrous Greco-Italian War of 1940-41, started five days after that summit, as another sign that the Axis “lacked seriousness.”
- Turkey was extremely pro-Axis, and had every reason to get in a war fought against its traditional enemies, Russia and the Western powers that brought the Ottoman Empire down. As late as 1943, when it was becoming obvious to everyone that the Axis would lose the war, Winston Churchill tried to convince Turkey to join the Allies and reap some gains out of it, and was completely rebuffed in the little-known Adana conference.