The TV drama SS GB, based on the 1970’s novel of the same name does highlight one of the key themes in alternative history “what if the nazi’s won World War II”. Its a question that pops up quite a bit, notably the Robert Harris novel “Fatherland”, the 1964 British movie “it happened here”, the series and novel “the man in the high castle” or more recently this series on Youtube. I would argue that a flaw in many of these alternative histories is firstly a failure to consider how unlikely it would be for a nazi state to last for any extended period of time. And secondly, the extremely low probability of them actually winning the war in the first place.
The fact is that the nazi’s were terrible at running a country. Nazi rule was government by chaos, as this episode of a BBC documentary discusses. Hitler had some strange Darwinian views of how to organise a government. When people wrote to him asking that they be appointed to such and such a post, he’d simply write back and tell them that if they thought they were the alpha male then they should just take over. So the end result was much squabbling and backstabbing. Seven departments in the nazi government actually claimed to represent the Fuhrer, who spent most of their time fighting each other. Needless to say corruption was rife and decision making was haphazard at best.
One need only look at Germany’s military procurement policies during the war. Many obsess over Hitler’s “wonder weapons”, such as the V-2 rockets, superguns, the tiger tank, jet and rocket powered fighters, etc. But it is often forget that the allies had seen similar ideas floated, that were either rejected or developed on a slower less aggressive time scale as it was understood that they were simply not practical weapons of war. It cost as much to build a V-2 as it did to build a bomber, which could deliver a larger payload and could be reused. More people probably died making V-2’s than died in London being attacked with them. The Me-163 rocket fighter killed more of its own pilots than allied airmen. If Germany had a free press or some sort of congressional oversight many of these projects wouldn’t have never gotten very far. But such was the chaotic nature of the third Reich that these and many equally foolish projects were undertaken, squandering resources the nazi’s simply didn’t have.
My guess is if the nazi’s won, once they’d run out of foreigners to blame for all of their problems, they’d have quickly turned on each other. The state might have held itself together so long as Hitler was alive, but he was by all accounts not a healthy person by the time of his death. Its doubtful he’d have made it to the 1970’s as portrayed in Fatherland. My guess is once he was dead, the other leading nazi’s would have engaged in an epic power struggle. Keep in mind that even before he was dead, just isolated in Berlin, the nazi leadership fought with one another, with the prize merely being who got to go to the allies with their hands up. Can you imagine what would happen when the prize was to be master of Europe?
Inevitably this means the nazi state would have fractured into a series of warring fiefdoms, not unlike pre-unification Germany, with the nazi’s as a sort of ruling class, surrounded (and outnumbered) by a large number of locals (non-nazi’s in Germany, Slav’s, French, English, etc.). Gradually, one by one these fiefdoms would have been overthrown by the local populace, ending the thousand year Reich about ten centuries early. The fact is that nazism is simply too an extreme a political philosophy to survive long term.
However, we are skipping the other key point – that nazi victory was very unlikely, so unlikely that I think its kind of pointless to speculate on it. Its like asking what would have happened had William Wallace survived his execution by flinging lightening bolts from his arse. The fact is that Hitler was a nut trying to pull off the impossible. The idea that one country could simultaneously defeat four of the most powerful empires in history, the USA, The USSR, the British Empire and China (oh btw you do know WWII started in 1937 when the Japanese attacked China), is simply bonkers. And even if they could win, occupying such a vast area would have simply been impossible.
Certainly things could have gone against the allies, but it would have merely delayed the inevitable. Take for example the idea of the nazi’s winning the battle of Britain and invading. Certainly had they gained control over the skies of southern England, this would have raised the risk of an invasion. However, the Germans simply didn’t have the resources (e.g. landing craft, large numbers of paratroop aircraft and paratroopers, mine clearing and beach assault adapted vehicles, a portable harbour, etc.). It took the allies two years to prepare for D-Day, the Germans had a few months and a fraction of the resources.
Indeed, a war game played out in the 1970’s with British and German military commanders (many of them the very same people who’d have been in charge in the event of an actual invasion) resulted in a German defeat. Although the cost to the British would have been high. If this scenario had played out it would have seen the Royal Navy, charging down the North Sea from Scapa flow, with minimal air cover, to try and cut off the invasion force after it sailed. While this plan would have likely succeeded, it would have been a naval banzai charge, not unlike Japan’s operation Ten-Go. With a much reduced Royal navy and battered and depleted army, the UK won’t have been able to mount operations overseas, nor protect against U-boat attacks on convoys. And there’d be nothing to stop the Germans coming back and trying again the next summer. It would have been a case of winning the battle, but losing the war.
Of course, the real reason Britain was saved was because of the inept leadership of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s obsession with attacking Russia. But even if the UK had fallen, or been knocked out of the war, while it would have certainly effected how events panned out, it would have simply delayed the inevitable. With America, Russia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and various resource rich colonies around the world (e.g. the mine in the Congo where the Uranium for the atomic bomb came from) still in the fight, it probably wouldn’t have changed the eventual outcome.
And we are also assuming that the US would have stayed neutral, but my guess is that if it ever looked likely that either Britain or Russia were going to get knocked out of the war, the US would have intervened, much as they did in 1917. Hitler hated America’s ethnic diversity, free press, free markets and intellectual freedom (basically for all the reasons Trump voters dislike America). And there is no way the US was going to leave a nut like him in charge of Europe. The US was in the war in all but name long before Pearl harbour, supplying munitions, ships and fighter aircraft under a dubious system of “lend lease”. US sailors had even been dressing up as Canadians and serving on ships escorting supplies across the Atlantic.
In the event of ground combat in Britain, its inevitable that US citizens would have gotten caught up in the crossfire. The British and Americans had been reading diplomatic traffic from the German and Japanese for long enough that they probably had a dodgy dossier that could be deployed as a justification for war (this is how an isolationist Congress was convinced to declare war in 1917). If all else fails, they could simply do something deliberately provocative to force Hitler into declaring war on them. And of course it was only a matter of time before one of those “Canadians” got captured by the Germans and gave a home address in Wichita Kansas (Das ist nicht in Canada!). Either way, America’s entry into the war was more or less guaranteed.
Even in the best case scenario for the nazi’s, if they somehow managed to beat the UK and then the Russians, they’d have only lasted until mid-1946 at best. Why? In two words – atomic bombs. From the earliest days of US involvement in the war they adopted a policy of Germany first, meaning defeat of Germany would be given priority over defeating Japan. This confused many, given that the Japanese had been the one’s to attack Pearl Harbour and were more of an immediate threat to America. However Roosevelt had been alerted by a letter, signed by several leading scientists, that German academics had stopped publishing papers on nuclear physics, hinting that they were probably working on something big, likely to be an atomic bomb. So plan A for the allies was knock Germany out of the war before Hitler got his hands on any nukes. And if that failed, plan B was to develop their own bomb and use it against the Germans.
However, the reality was the allies had vastly overestimated the nazi bomb program. The German’s were hopelessly behind the allies for various reasons. Its been suggested that Heisenberg, the lead German scientist, didn’t really have his heart in it (a topic the play Copenhagen debates), that he may have even gotten his sums wrong and vastly overestimated the size of a bomb’s critical mass (and thus concluded that an airdropped weapon was impossible). More likely however, it was the fact that the nazi’s, being a bunch of anti-intellectual bullies (like Trump supporters or Brexiters, they tended not to listen to the experts), they never took what their scientists said seriously and never pursued their bomb program with the same vigour as the Americans did.
So its likely that the US would have had the bomb available in mid 1945. In our timeline they used it against a nearly defeated Japan, one by one (leading many to question whether such attacks were necessary). How the allies would use it against Germany would have depended on the circumstances. In a situation where the nazi’s held much of Europe it would make sense to stockpile bombs and unleash them on Germany en-masse. The Atomic piles at Hanford, were producing enough material for 1-2 bombs a month, so by mid-1946, the US would have between one and two dozen bombs available.
B-29‘s based out of Iceland, Turkey or the Azores could reach targets in Germany, if the UK wasn’t an option. The US had also started development of the B-36, the world’s first intercontinental bomber in 1940 (prior to the US even joining the war) specifically to cope with the scenario whereby the US lost all of its possible bases in Europe. Aside from its longer range the B-36 also flew at a much higher altitude. So high that only a handful of German late war anti-aircraft guns or aircraft could reach them…..and very few of those were capable of night operations.
How ever the allied planners went about it, the fact is that some if not most of those bombers would have made it through to their targets and in the space of one night several of Germany’s major cities would have been destroyed, most of the leading nazi’s killed along with millions of Germans. Needless to say, what was left of Germany would have little choice but to surrender the following morning. So to my mind, the real alternative history is to consider not “what if the nazi’s won, how would the world look?” but “if the war ended with a nuclear attack against Germany, what would have happened next?”.
Well for starters I suspect the Russians would have taken one look at the radioactive wasteland called Germany and declined to have anything to do with the clean up. While they’d have likely ended up in control of Eastern Europe, the splitting of Germany wouldn’t have happened, nor would there be a Berlin wall, eliminating a major cold war flash point. Of course rebuilding Germany would have been harder, quite possibly it might not have happened, with what was left of the country might have been reduced to an agrarian condition post war.
Perhaps more importantly this scenario might have meant the penny dropping with regard to nuclear war earlier. Up until the 1960’s both sides military took the view that nuclear weapons were just another weapon which they need to integrate into their arsenal and the public need to get used to the idea that this is the new normal (the movie “Atomic Cafe” neatly summarises this era). The generals and politicians didn’t get the message, until the reign of McNamara, that nuclear warfare is not the sort of battle where you get to tot up the scores afterwards and work out who won. In a nuclear war, there are only ever losers. “Winning” a nuclear war, while digging yourself out of the radioactive ruins, is going to be a bit of a hollow victory. But by the time the penny did drop, both sides had a massive arsenal and it was already too late to avoid the stand off that followed.
So its possible, that a cold war that started with the mass use of nuclear weapons might have scared the superpowers straight. Both the US and Russia would have developed nuclear weapons, but their deployment would have been more muted. The doctrine would have been more towards nuclear weapons as a sort of national suicide weapon, if ever at risk of being overrun (not unlike India’s current stance with nuclear weapons). Crucially they would have never allowed such weapons to proliferate (e.g. the UK, France or Israel would be denied nuclear weapons and faced sanctions if they tried to develop them). No way the US would risk putting them in Turkey, nor that the Russians would try putting them in Cuba. And flash points like the Korean war would have panned out very differently, as both sides would have been anxious to avoid anything that could escalate to a nuclear exchange.
But certainly any scenario whereby the nazi’s hung on for longer than they did is a alternative history that would have been much darker, it would have led to a world war 2 that killed even more people, although ultimately there was simply no way they could have won.