The What-Ifs of the Last Days of Adolf Hitler

Had any one of three plausible scenarios happened, the Second World War might have been concluded a year earlier, sparing millions of lives

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Adolf Hitler shows Mussolini the wreckage of his conference room in East Prussia hours after he survived Stauffenberg's bomb on July 22, 1944

History is about what happened in the past, not what might have happened had events turned out differently. Even so, reflecting on what might have happened can sometimes cast light on the significance of what did actually take place. While too many variables and imponderables soon cloud any counterfactual crystal-ball gazing had history followed another course, it is often possible to imagine with some plausibility the immediate consequences of an alternative scenario. In turn, this can help consideration of the character of major change in history, the role played by the contingent, even accidental, and by human agency, or the degree to which outcomes were inevitable, shaped by forces too great for any individual or contingent set of events to have substantially altered. 

In his classic What is History?, E.H. Carr created the imaginary example of a man who came out of a pub late one wet, dark night and was run over as he tried to cross a road at a dangerous bend to get a packet of cigarettes. He used this invented story to emphasise the structural determinants of what seems at first glance to be purely accidental. No one would say that the man’s craving for a cigarette was sufficient cause of what took place. The poor state of the road, the absence of street lighting, the excessive speed driven at that dangerous bend, were all factors that helped to cause the fatal occurrence. Explanation of major historical change works in similar ways. We never presume that it occurred accidentally, without underlying, deeper causes. Nevertheless, the accidental or contingent has to be allocated its place in the causatory framework. Had E.H. Carr’s man stayed five seconds longer in the pub, he would not have been killed. However much structural determinants made a road accident at that point a distinct probability at some point, what actually happened was an accident caused by human agency, with severe consequences for the man and (we presume) his family. How do such considerations work if we apply them to an important juncture of history, to Germany’s persistence in fighting on for months to a totally catastrophic end in 1945 when it was obvious to all, within and outside the country, that complete disaster beckoned?

The consequences of Germany’s continued fight when the war was objectively lost were indeed catastrophic, and not just for Germans. Had the war ended in the summer of 1944 instead of nearly a year later in May 1945, millions of lives would have been saved. Around half of the entire German military losses of the war, some 2.6 million military personnel, occurred in the last ten months of the conflict. In these same months civilian deaths in Germany were also far higher than at any other point in the war. Most of the 400,000 or so killed by Allied bombing, which injured a further 800,000, destroyed nearly two million homes, and forced the evacuation of five million people, lost their lives in the final phase of the war. At least a further half a million Germans died as the Red Army marched into the eastern provinces of the Reich in early 1945, while countless more were marched off to an uncertain fate in the Soviet Union. Over two million more were killed during flight and expulsions from eastern Europe in the early postwar years, involving in all around 11.5 million ethnic Germans, though such ethnic cleansing would probably have taken place even had the war been ended earlier. Most of the combined losses of British and American servicemen, around 800,000, took place after the D-Day landings. Though most of the immense Soviet casualties took place during the brutal German occupation, the losses of the Red Army fighting their way into Germany were nonetheless huge. And hundreds of thousands of civilians across Europe fell victim to the fighting as it gradually closed in on the Reich. Some 200,000 or so civilians died in the horrific destruction of Warsaw alone, following the ill-fated rising in August 1944. Not least, the race victims of Nazism continued to be slaughtered as the war dragged on. The gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau carried on their ghastly work until the autumn. Between May and October 1944, about 600,000 Jews were killed there. The horrific death-marches of concentration camp prisoners, not all of them Jews, forced by murderous guards to trek westwards from Auschwitz and other camps as the enemy approached, then pointlessly criss-crossing Germany in the last weeks of the war, left a further quarter of a million victims. On top of these were the tens of thousands of foreign workers and the hundreds of German civilians massacred in the final burst of fury of the doomed Nazi regime. The overall total number of dead in the whole of Europe in the last ten months of the war cannot be established with certainty. It could not have been much lower than the military death-toll during the  entire First World War.

The course of the war during those last terrible months certainly seems in retrospect to have been exorable. But could Germany’s defeat have possibly been brought about far earlier, in the summer of 1944, sparing the untold death, destruction and human misery of those last months? 

The best chance of ending the war early would have arisen had Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg been successful in his attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. With Hitler dead, the coup d’état planned to follow the assassination would have stood a reasonably good chance of success. As it was, once it was plain that Hitler had survived, the hopes of a coup rapidly began to crumble and had collapsed entirely by late that evening. The conspiracy to topple Hitler, undertaken at enormous peril by men (and women) of great courage and high principle, had faced daunting problems of organisation and execution. It came within a whisker of success. Had Stauffenberg been able to prime the second bomb he had taken with him to Führer Headquarters — he had been forced to hurry his priming even of the first bomb because the time of Hitler’s military briefing had unpredictably been advanced — the likelihood is that no one would have survived the blast. As so often, luck had been on Hitler’s side. The bad luck for the plotters arose in part, however, from flaws in the enterprise. Stauffenberg had proved to be indispensable to both parts of the operation-carrying out the assassination at Hitler’s headquarters, and running the coup d’état from Berlin, over two hours away by plane. Precious time was lost, compounded by avoidable mistakes, such as no one being on hand to meet Stauffenberg at the aerodrome when he returned to Berlin. Even so, the best hope for a successful coup was lost not because of organisational mistakes, but because Hitler had unexpectedly survived.

With Hitler dead, Stauffenberg and his co-plotters would have moved swiftly to take control of the armed forces and to replace the Nazi regime with the alternative government that they had prepared. That their coup would have been successful, even in these circumstances, is by no means certain. Nazi loyalists in the SS and within the Wehrmacht would undoubtedly have moved to overthrow the government installed by the conspirators, proclaiming the assassination to have been the most heinous stab in the back imaginable in Germany’s struggle against forces determined to destroy the country. Most likely, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and German police, would have headed a ferocious fightback against the new government. A civil war might have ensued. Assuming, however, that the plotters were able to reckon with sufficient backing in the Wehrmacht to secure their hold on power and suppress any counter-rising from Himmler’s forces, they would rapidly have tried to open negotiations with the Western powers, Britain and the US, to end the war in the West. 

The British and Americans had, in fact, long thought that any successful coup from within Germany would result in a takeover of power by the Wehrmacht — seen as the pillar of the regime’s aggressive expansionism — and might well endanger their alliance with the Soviet Union, held together solely by the determination to destroy Nazism and German militarism once and for all. The Western Allies would, therefore, almost certainly have rejected the successful plotters’ overtures towards a separate peace, and remained insistent upon unconditional surrender on all fronts. Since the only alternative open to the new government would have had been to continue a war it considered lost, inhumane and immensely destructive to Germany, it would have felt compelled, however unwillingly, to have accepted unconditional surrender, in the East as well as in the West. Whether all army units, especially on the Eastern Front, would have laid down their arms might reasonably be doubted. But the collapse of the Eastern Front under the Soviet offensive that had begun a month earlier, on June 22, and subsequent disarray of German forces there, would probably have meant that any opposition to a concluded unconditional surrender would have fairly swiftly disintegrated. It is imaginable that the war with Germany would have been over by the end of July 1944.

Millions of lives, as already noted, would have been saved as a consequence. Whether a lasting peace would have resulted, and whether the path to democracy would have been as swift and uncontested as proved to be the case in western Germany, are open questions. By July 20, 1944, there were no foreign troops on German soil. Even an unconditional surrender at that time would have left the Reich territorially intact. Though deprived of its eastern conquests, Germany would still have held at that point Austria and the Sudetenland, even the annexed western parts of Poland. The victorious powers would have removed these from Germany. But there would have been no division of Germany itself, something only finally determined at Yalta in February 1945. A united Germany might well have proved a greater source of postwar tension among the victorious powers had war ended in July 1944 than the divided postwar Germany did in reality. And establishing a stable, successful democracy, as actually came to pass in West Germany after 1945, would not have been easy. The resistance leaders who would have formed the new post-Nazi government were themselves no democrats. Some even wanted to hold on to significant Nazi territorial gains. Even after what did happen, a third of West Germans still opposed the attack on Hitler’s life as late as 1952, when around a quarter of the population retained a “good opinion” of Hitler. It seems certain, therefore, that a new “stab in the back” legend, of the kind that had helped to undermine German democracy after the First World War, would have been a barrier to the successful foundation of a new democracy after the Second World War.

The other two chances of ending the war earlier were missed strategic opportunities, on the Eastern and the Western Fronts. The first of these even preceded the Stauffenberg bomb-plot, and might conceivably have ended the war in the early summer of 1944.

This was a Soviet offensive, one most feared by the German Army General Staff, based upon the prognosis provided by Major General Reinhard Gehlen, the highly competent head of the Foreign Armies East military intelligence unit. The expectation in the General Staff was that the Red Army would exploit the temporary disarray on the Western Front following the landing of the Allies in Normandy at the beginning of June and would launch a huge attack in the east concentrated on a single weak point in the German defences which would have the effect of delivering the death-blow to the eastern army. Gehlen had pinpointed an area around Kovel in the Ukraine, on the edge of a bulge of Army Group Centre, stretching eastwards beyond Minsk, as a special weakness. If the Soviets were to attack through Kovel in a massive offensive, Gehlen pointed out, in a north-westwardly sweep (reminiscent of the German “sickle-cut” through the Ardennes in 1940), there would be little to stop them reaching Warsaw at breakneck speed and advancing from there to the Baltic coast near Danzig. The German Army Groups Central and North would be cut off then and completely destroyed in the process, and the way would be clear for an assault on Berlin, whose defences were then far less well prepared than they eventually would be in April 1945. That was what the Germans feared would happen. Such a Soviet offensive, they thought, would have had several considerable chances of success.

Instead, when the big Soviet offensive — Operation Bagration — did take place a fortnight or so later, it involved a series of powerful attacks against four different German Army Groups along different sections of the long Eastern Front. Certainly, Bagration was itself devastating. As Army Group Centre crumbled, the German army lost more than a million men within 150 days and the Red Army pushed deep into Poland. Bagration was, even so, not the death-blow that the alternative offensive strategy might have brought. Despite the heavy losses, the Eastern Front did not totally collapse. Field-Marshal Walter Model was able to call upon last reserves of panzer troops to block the advance on Warsaw for several weeks, and to stabilise — for the time being — the tottering front. Probably, the Soviet military leadership had, in the light of earlier examples where the Germans had surprised the Red Army by the extent and force of their defence and imposed significant losses, overestimated the resilience of the Wehrmacht at this time. It has also been surmised that Stalin’s own experience of the Red Army’s defeat by the Poles near Warsaw in 1920, for which he had some personal responsibility, might have played a part in the decision not to risk a repeat disaster on the Vistula, this time at the hands of the Germans, by undertaking the big attack through Kovel. Whatever the reason, the chance to end the war early came and went.

Had the offensive been successfully undertaken, and had Berlin fallen (as seemed a likely consequence), the war would have been close to being over. Hitler’s suicide would surely have taken place in June or early July 1944, since, as was in reality the case nearly a year later, he would not have allowed himself to be captured alive. German defences not just in the east might well have collapsed since any successor as leader, whether drawn from the military or from the ranks of leading Nazis, would have had little choice but to sue for peace. By then, the Russians would probably have pressed to a line far to the west of where the eventual east-west division was fixed. The Western Allies might well have been able to break out of Normandy earlier, as, presumably, German troops from the Western Front were rushed eastwards. But, most likely, they would not have made anything like the territorial gains that in reality they did go on to make. Wherever the Iron Curtain eventually fell, it would have been in western, not eastern, Europe. Soviet dominance of the continent would have been more likely. This would hardly have been welcomed by the Western Allies. So possibly, a “hot”, not “cold” war between West and East would have ensued, with a distinct chance that the first atom bomb would have fallen not on Hiroshima, but on Moscow.

A final chance to end the war in 1944 was lost through miscalculation on the part of the Western Allies. By mid-August 1944 the Germans seemed in the eyes of  Western Allied leaders to be heading for imminent defeat. The German army had lost over 200,000 men in western Europe during August following the Allied break-out from Normandy. Morale in the Wehrmacht was extremely low at this point as retreat looked like turning into a rout. Paris fell without a fight on August 25, Brussels was liberated on September 3 and Antwerp captured with its vital harbour undestroyed next day. The Allies were jubilant. The end was in sight. Or so it seemed. From this point onwards, the offensive stalled. The initiative was lost, and not fully regained until the following March. A significant factor was the difficult relationship at the top of the Allied military leadership between the supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the British Commander Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Eisenhower’s strategy was to advance on the Reich borders on a broad front before German defences could be consolidated. Since the Allies had by this time some two million men on the Continent, with many more on the way and with almost complete air supremacy, it was a feasible prospect-though much could go wrong. However, Montgomery, keen to press into the Ruhr-Germany’s industrial heartland  — and on to Berlin, insisted on an operation to seize the Rhine crossings in the Netherlands. Eisenhower, to the dismay of some of his generals, concurred in according priority to Montgomery’s strategy. However, once the attempt to capture the bridge at Arnhem through airborne assault had proved disastrous, amid high British losses, and given that the Scheldt estuary near Antwerp had not been secured, allowing large numbers of German troops to retreat to safety, Allied hopes of a rapid end to the war had evaporated.

Had Eisenhower’s original strategy been followed through, there might have been the chance of a German military collapse across much of the Western Front. A rapid advance through the Reich’s western provinces and into northern and central parts of Germany, including a push on Berlin, could have been feasible. Presumably, the German leadership would have had to transfer forces from the east to try to hold the crumbling Western Front, opening up the way for the Red Army to enter the Reich from the east far earlier than January 1945, as turned out to be the case. Where the lines would have congealed by the time that Germany capitulated — Hitler having at some point committed suicide — is anybody’s guess. Conceivably, however, more of Germany would have fallen to the Western powers than in reality transpired, and before any final agreement with the Soviet Union on the division of Germany had been reached. Depending upon the date of surrender, the Reich might have survived with truncated borders-and the scope for future border revision problems. With most if not all of Germany dominated by the Western powers, the scope for tension with the Soviet Union following the end of hostilities would have been increased. Probably, however, a form of Control Commission, such as did in fact take over, would have run Germany, following a deal with the Soviet Union. Politically, the outcome might have ultimately resembled what did come to pass-though without the immense losses that accompanied the terrible last phase of the war.

In each of the three speculative scenarios sketched above, human agency — Stauffenberg’s inability to prime the second bomb, the Soviet military’s leadership misjudgment of German army strength in the east, the decision to risk the landing at Arnhem — had played its part. But the human misjudgment was in each case conditioned by other factors-the organisational difficulties of the German Resistance, the risk aversion of the Soviet leadership because of earlier costly experience, the difficulties of unifying American and British war strategy. E.H. Carr’s parable used to illustrate historical causation has its echo in the examples used above. History followed no inevitable course. But what eventually transpired was far more than simple chance.

The possibilities of the Germans themselves bringing about an early end to the war depended in large measure on one or other of the scenarios outlined coming to fruition — in particular the success of an attempt to kill or depose Hitler. Even in the very last months, most of the Nazi leaders beneath Hitler were prepared to make overtures towards a negotiated peace. As late as April 1945 Himmler deluded himself that he could open negotiations with the Western Allies and prove useful to them in a continued war with the Soviet Union. But every attempt within the German leadership to broach the prospect of a negotiated peace foundered on Hitler’s utter refusal to contemplate a “cowardly capitulation”, such as in his view had ruined Germany in 1918. The incapacity as well as unwillingness of Germany’s dominant elites to challenge, sideline or topple him, once the bomb plot of July 1944 had failed, meant that his veto on all attempts to negotiate terms with the Allies met no opposition. And from the point of view of Germany’s enemies, the longer the war went on the less reason there was to bend from the demand of unconditional surrender. 

Ultimately, with Hitler dead and Germany militarily exhausted and totally defeated, the new head of the German state, Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz, saw no alternative but to bow to Allied terms. By then, compared with the imagined scenarios presented above, millions more had died and Germany was a devastated country, completely occupied by its enemies.