COUNTERFACTUAL history runs the danger of falling into the trap of being idealistic, a form of wish-fulfilment. The best counterfactuals alter a single event or person and speculate what might happen thereafter. The most popular has to be an Axis victory in World War II, based on either the absence of the halt order to Guderian before Dunkirk, the RAF losing the Battle of Britain, or Halifax succeeding Chamberlain. But what if Britain had avoided war 80 years ago next month?
It is difficult for us to understand the aversion Britain had to war in the 1930s. The experience of the First World War was a baptism of fire for the British people, hopefully never to be repeated. Our divergence would start in March 1939, when Britain does not extend a guarantee to Poland. Poland had annexed Czechoslovak territory at the same time as Germany annexed the Sudetenland in 1938. It had also taken territory by force from Russia in the Twenties. It was not an Eastern European version of Belgium.
While Britain rapidly re-arms with the development of shadow factories and conscription, it does not declare war when Germany invades Poland in 1939. Britain did not in real life declare war on the USSR when it also invaded Poland a fortnight after Germany. The pithy excuse officially proffered was that the guarantee actually referred only to Poland’s Western borders and its corridor to the sea.
A Poland Debate follows replacing the real-life Norway Debate. However, the practice of diplomacy is different from the prosecution of a war. Chamberlain wins well. Poland is not seen as worth gambling the nation’s fate. Rapid re-armament continues. A Cold War between the Entente and Germany develops. Germany’s policy was based on the geopolitical teachings of Karl Haushofer, so it is reasonable to suggest there would be no German pre-emptive strike westwards. Germany could announce the creation of a European Economic Community amongst the nations of Eastern Europe, with all the countries subordinating their domestic and trade policies towards Berlin.
There had to be a British General Election by 1940 and the situation on the Continent would not have been an excuse to cancel it. Chamberlain was dying of cancer. His most likely replacement was Rab Butler. But it is possible that the turmoil at the top of the Conservative party would have seen Clement Attlee winning in 1940. The Left wing would be strongly anti-war, as the USSR and Germany were effectively allies. But it could be all-change in 1941.
The absence of fighting in the West would probably have meant Italy not entering the war. But it would also mean Operation Barbarossa starting several weeks earlier. It might go too far to suggest that there would be a co-ordinated attack with Japan, forcing the USSR into a two-front war, but Hitler could promise Japan replacements for the supplies cut off by American embargoes, not the least oil from the Caucasus. Striking North could have been seen as less risky than attacking Pearl Harbor.
With no losses from any Western campaign and an earlier timetable, Hitler could have taken Moscow, which could have led to Stalin’s fall and replacement by Beria, who continues the fight behind the Urals. Not wanting to be left out, Italy could have invaded Greece. This would have been the trigger for Britain to enter the war. The security of the Eastern Mediterranean would have been in direct British interests.
How would Germany react? Supporting Italy in this venture risks forcing Germany into a two-front war itself. If Japan attacks the British Empire in the East, it risks bringing the USA into the war as well. The nightmare of having Britain, France, USSR and USA ranged against the Axis powers would be realised. Fully engaged in Russia, and despite having the economic power of Eastern Europe at his command, Hitler would face a dilemma. The Axis pact signed in September 1940 was always a defensive agreement. Based on real events, when Hitler needlessly declared war on the USA after Pearl Harbor, this is the point when Germany and Britain would be at war.
There would have been less inhibition over the strategic bombing of Germany territory. France could have allowed Bomber Command to use its airfields for daylight raids on the Ruhr heavily escorted by Spitfires and D.520s. A German invasion of Western Europe would have been better resisted as the more-prepared British Army would have probably adopted the ideas of J F C Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart, especially as these resembled those used by Germany to conquer in the East.
How would it all end? The economic power of the Allies outstripped the Axis, and would have been better mobilised during the two-year breathing space afforded by averting the gaze from Poland.
There is always one fixed point in any World War II counterfactual, and that is the atomic bomb, which originated in Britain. It is feasible that development under Attlee would have been given the highest priority. This is where any world war would have had a hard stop. Instead of a B-29 over Hiroshima, there could have been a Lancaster over Hamburg.