Would World War Two have happened without Adolf Hitler?
There are few that would dispute that Adolf Hitler was one of the darkest figures in human history. The atrocities he visited upon millions of people are beyond imagining. Often in hypothetical discussions about time travel, the first thought visited is, “I would kill Hitler”.
However, reflecting on his rise to power, it becomes apparent that modern history focuses heavily on the intrinsic factors that led to a nation appointing a man, who would otherwise have achieved a diagnosis of “criminally insane,” as their leader. The extrinsic factors get overlooked. Ultimately, would Germany have sought global conflict if Hitler had never existed?
Pride and Versailles
The area now identified as the country of Germany has a long and largely proud history, and, whilst it would be tempting to reflect back to the Merovingian dynasty and further, for the sake of brevity lets stick to the post Great War twentieth-century[i]. Germany had just proven they could contend militarily on a global scale; rightly or wrongly they had held their own in a war against some of the largest and most powerful nations on earth, and despite their resulting defeat this was a feat that few other nations could have achieved. They were a strong and proud people.
….. and then Versailles happened. Frankly the Treaty of Versailles is as close to gang-rape as I have ever heard politics getting[ii]. Rather than proving magnanimous in victory, the leaders of Great Britain, France and the United States behaved like thugs. Drunk with success and fury they took the bloodied but proud German nation and imposed unfathomably harsh sanctions on them; prohibiting their air force, reducing their army and navy to a size that would be limited even for a nation a tenth of their size, and demanding inflated reparations so high that it would prevent her operating on any serious economic level for over a century. The human and economic cost of defending the world against Germany (and her attempt at empire building in the Great War) was beyond imagining, however the Treaty of Versailles reads of retribution not redress. A proud and strong nation was mugged, berated, and castrated. The aim was humiliation.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War One her leaders were immediately contrite and conciliatory; what option did they have? However the German people were undoubtedly painfully aware of their new place in the world. Some of them got angry. The angriest of them, a man so enraged that at any other time in history he would have been dismissed immediately as insane, started speaking to the German people, and to their pride; stirring in the people something Versailles had stolen from them and whipping them into a frenzy comparable to the religious zeal of the crusades. This was a key factor in the strength and rise of nationalism, and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
In November 1939, an explosion ripped through the crowd at a rally in Munich. The blast originated from a bomb, placed behind a pillar on the stage. Several minutes earlier Adolf Hitler occupied this stage, however he left earlier than expected. Had he remained as planned there is no doubt he would have died that night. The man who placed the bomb was George Elser, a disgruntled worker who took exception to Hitler on political ground. However, would the war have looked different had Elser been successful? By this point the human cost was still incalculable. The events of Kristallnacht[iii] had occurred a year earlier. Hitler had already whipped the German people into a frenzy and directed that hate and anger and fear at the Jewish people. He had surrounded himself with like minded (but admittedly less charismatic) people who would have easily stepped in to succeed him in the event of his death.
What is unclear is whether any of the possible successors would have had the stomach for war. Britain had already declared war on Germany two months earlier. It is possible that at this point, and remembering the reprisals they experienced at Versailles, any successor would have felt committed to the course of war.
I have chosen the example of George Elser and the suitcase bomb as, of all the varied attempts on Hitlers life this was the closest anyone really got to success.
I don’t think the atrocities would have looked the same but I do believe, due to all the factors above, that Germany would have been driven to war regardless of Hitlers existence. They were humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles[iv] and they were still mourning their dead. There was a gap in the national consciousness that would likely not have existed had the victorious powers of The Great War taken a more balanced and forward thinking approach to dealing with Germany. The only shape that could fill that gap was nationalism. Any leader able to manipulate the pain of their people, give them someone to hate and tell them they could have an empire again, would probably have achieved just as much as Hitler, but at the time he was the only person trying to do this. Jews have been the victims of national powers throughout history. In 1290 Edward the First of England expelled all Jews from the country and at the time no-one seems to have flinched. Whilst I would like to believe the world had developed in the intervening six hundred and fifty years the evidence suggests otherwise. The Jewish people are often the first group to be targeted when a nation is angry. So it is not surprising that Hitler also targeted this group of people. It is actually kind of sickening to think that the acts visited upon the Jews in World War Two, acts that in my opinion fully demonstrate the darkest, rankest depths of human evil, may have been visited upon them because Hitler felt, as many before him, that the Jews were the easiest available targets.
The lesson I have taken from this reflection is that it is important to consider our actions and the ramifications of those actions as much in victory as in defeat. I have leaned very heavily on the feeling that Versailles broke a proud people so hard that they turned to one of history’s most evil[v] and unstable individuals to deliver them.
[i] That’s how history works right? In neat little unrelated sections.
[ii] I really dislike the term “gang rape” however given it was a group of nations violently and non-consensually violated every operational aspect of a single sovereign nation it was hard to find a better analogy.
[iii] I read accounts of Kristallnacht in primary school and I still get the occasional nightmare.
[iv] Article 231 of the treaty fills the singular purpose of getting the boot in.
[v] I’ve used the word evil a lot in this document. There are a great many books arguing if a man can be evil or just commit evil acts. Without going down the path of Kantian philosophy I use the term to describe a man who continually gives orders with the express intention of maximising human suffering.