Monday, December 30, 2013

What if Germany had won the Great War?

"What on earth made Stauffenberg and the rest of those behind the 1944 plot to kill Hitler think the Allies would be interested in a negotiated surrender?", asks Antony Beevor in his book about the Normandy invasion. It's a good question. The plotters were undoubtedly brave but astonishingly naive in that they imagined a postwar settlement that allowed the Anschluss to stand, the Sudetenland to remain part of Germany and Alsace-Lorraine to become a de-militarised zone. These enemies of the Third Reich only became so when they realised the criminal nature of the regime they served, not because they were opposed to imperialism. I was reminded of this when reading Martin Kettle's musings on what would have happened if Germany had won the Great War. A lot of us who have an interest in history would agree with EP Thomson, quoted by Kettle in his article, that counter-factual speculation is "ahistorical shit" - but we do it anyway. Martin Kettle has imagined a rather benign future had the Second Reich been victorious:
"But one can say that a victorious Germany, imposing peace on the defeated allies at the treaty of Potsdam, would not have had the reparations and grievances that were actually inflicted upon it by France at Versailles. As a consequence, the rise of Hitler would have been much less likely."
It is probably a lack of imagination on my part but whenever I ask myself these kinds of questions, more often than not I come to the conclusion that perhaps things wouldn't have turned out so differently. There's lots of possibilities raised by Kettle's argument which he doesn't address but two or three stand out:

1) It is implausible to suggest that a ruling class which had effectively worshipped military power since Bismarck would let its territorial ambitions rest at Alsace-Lorraine.

2) It is also naive to imagine that the internal stability of Germany would be secure, what with the combination of a vigorous labour movement, which Kettle alludes to, enduring under an elite with no interest in parliamentary democracy.

3) Had Germany been victorious, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would have remained in place. Russia was to pay six billion German marks in reparations and surrender her interests in Eastern Europe. Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania would have become German vassals - something those who imagine East European expansion was Hitler's idea might like to remember. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were looking forward to a world-wide revolution that would eliminate these concerns but we already know that this did not materialise. Lenin would have died anyway and the more realistic Stalin would have looked for a way to regain what had been lost. Perhaps Russia would have defaulted on reparations and it would have been German troops that crossed the border into Russia instead of French troops into Germany. Or maybe something else but at the risk of striking a deterministic note, confrontation between Russia and Germany was nigh on inevitable, as would have been Germany's eventual defeat.

I might be misreading it but there's too much of Germany as a victim of Versailles in Kettle's piece.  Germans felt as if the treaty was a continuation of the war by economic means.  This had some justification but it doesn't do to imagine that it went beyond anything Germany would have done had the outcome of the Great War been different and no 'counter-factual' speculation is worth anything without acknowledging that the origins of German militaristic expansion pre-date 1918.

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