What If Stalin Wins Big In 1941?


Dale mentioned something like this earlier, but I didn’t give it much thought until I read Barbarossa by Jonathan Dimbleby, which suggested the German defeat at Moscow was far worse than is commonly supposed.


What Really Happened?


Hitler probably left it too late to take Moscow in 1941, a problem made worse by a general lack of strategic clarity, but by the end of 1941 taking Moscow was probably his only real hope of weakening the USSR to the point it could be beaten in 1942.  However, by the time the offensive began, it was far too late.  The Germans were overstretched and forced to retreat, a retreat that very nearly turned into an outright rout.  Luckily for them, if not for anyone else, the Germans were able to stabilise their lines and repel a Russian counter-offensive in early 1942 before trying to take Stalingrad and losing there.


What Might Have Happened?


If Dimbleby is correct, the Russians made a blunder too – they failed to hit the Germans hard enough to cut off their supply lines, such as they were, and encircle German units before they could be pulled back.  In this timeline, the Russians gamble and launch a series of such attacks at German units that are already short on everything from tanks and guns to ammunition and manpower.  The Russians take heavier losses as 1941 gives way to 1942, but the Germans suffer worse.  Some units get encircled, trapped, and forced to surrender.  Others break and run.  It takes time for the German high command to realise how bad things have become and take corrective measures and, by then, the retreat has become a rout.  The Russians keep pushing west, burning up their forces just to kill as many Germans as possible.


The defeat sets off a major conflict within the German command.  In OTL, Hitler assumed supreme command of the German military in late 1941.  In ATL, he has enough political sense left to avoid taking a position of sole responsibility.  However, this actually makes things worse.  The lack of a supreme commander, or even someone in overall local command, leaves the Germans badly disorganised at the worst possible time.  Disillusionment with Hitler starts to sink in amongst many of his senior officers, although there is – as yet – no suggestion this discontent will take effective form.  A number of officers try to take steps to preserve their forces on their own, adding to the chaos.  The braver ones demand orders from Hitler.  They don’t come until it is too late and, when they do, they are disconcertingly vague.  Guderian eventually decides the orders tell him to form a defensive line and does what he can to go it, overriding anyone who says otherwise.  Few do. 


Stalin has good reason to be pleased.  The Germans have been beaten and routed.  He orders preparations for a major offensive as soon as possible, with the goal of retaking as much of the occupied lands as quickly as possible.  The Red Army’s morale gets one hell of a boost from outright victory. 


In London, Churchill and his cabinet find themselves grabbling with an unexpected problem.  On one hand, they’re at war with Hitler and allied to Stalin.  On the other, Churchill – unlike Roosevelt – has no illusions about Stalin.  He doesn’t want to fight a war that will leave Britain drained beyond easily recovery, not if it means trading one tyrant dominating Europe for another.  From his point of view, a war that leaves both Germany and Russia ground down would not be a bad thing, even if it would devastate large swathes of Eastern Europe.  His nightmare is the Red Army making it all the way to Dunkirk.  Still, there is very little he and Roosevelt can do about it.  Britain is reeling under the Japanese offensive and it will be months, perhaps years, before the UK and US can invade France themselves. 


Stalin opens his big offensive in 1942.  In OTL, the thrusts against the German lines were largely ineffective.  In ATL, they do a great deal of damage.  The Germans are already weak and the Russians have learnt how to bleed them.  Matters are made worse, much worse, by partisans behind German lines.  The combination of the Germans taking everything they needed and nutty racial theories, to say nothing of the prospect of being liberated at any moment, ensures a great many people who would have preferred to stay on the sidelines have to choose a side.  The Germans are still better fighters than the Russians, and they’ve done everything they can to strengthen their lines, but the Russians breach the defences in multiple places and push onwards.  The deeper thrusts are repelled, as the Germans are still more mobile too, but it won’t last.  The Germans are burning up men and equipment they cannot replace in a hurry.


This sets off another political crisis.  Hitler blames the disaster on the high command and moves for a purge.  The army command is thoroughly disillusioned and unwilling to go along with it.  They blame Hitler for the twin disasters, a little unfairly, and make noises about removing him if he pushes too hard.  Hitler is furious, but rational enough to take a step back from the brink.  A civil war will only tear the Reich apart, leaving the gate open for the Russians to walk in and take over.  He can deal with the rogue generals later, he tells himself, and reluctantly gives his blessing to a united military command. 


The generals don’t waste time.  Industrial production is ruthlessly rationalised.  They effectively abandon the desert war, channelling supplies that would have gone to Rommel to the east.  Rommel himself is told to pull back to Libya and withdraw, with the intention of dealing with Russia first and then worrying about the Middle East.  The SS divisions are put firmly under army command, with instructions to win the war and carry out atrocities afterwards.  There is no way, now, to convince the Russians (and everyone else) that the Germans are better than Stalin, but it does slow down some of the worst atrocities.  The generals also urge Hitler to try to make peace with at least one of his enemies.


It doesn’t work.  Churchill and FDR are unwilling to come to any sort of agreement with Hitler or his generals.  (Churchill does drop hints about making deals with a post-Hitler government, but they’re not very serious.)  Stalin stalls, as he thinks he’s going to win anyway.  He’s even starting to think he doesn’t need a second front. 


Perversely, the German defeat in Russia leads to Japanese defeats in early 1942.  As the Germans pull out of Libya, British fighting power can be redeployed to Burma and India.  It’s far too late to save Singapore, and British prestige still takes a beating, but the fighting in Burma is much more even and the British even start pushing the Japanese back towards Singapore.


The Germans are not in a position to resume the offensive, even as the Russian offensive finally burns itself out,  They fall back, deploying scorched earth tactics in a desperate bid to slow the Russians, then cutting off Russian offensives and slicing them up when the Russians push too far.  It might have worked, as a tactic, if the Russians didn’t have manpower to burn.  They keep pushing, forcing the Germans to burn up their tanks and manpower.  It’s growing increasingly evident, at least to impartial observers, that the Germans are rapidly losing fighting power.  Their allies start trying to back away, to figure out ways to escape the conflict without getting destroyed.  It doesn’t help that Germany, starving for manpower, is throwing its allies straight into the fire. 


The Russian offensive is a slow grinding steamroller, but it works.  As German fighting power collapses, the Russians push through the lines and relieve Leningrad, then start muscling their way towards Poland.  This sparks off a series of political earthquakes in the Balkans, as German allies clash with communist (and other) factions that want to switch sides or simply get out of the war.  Matters are not improved by the Germans putting immense pressure on both Italy and Vichy, demanding more contributions to the war.  The French try to stall, stringing Hitler along while pleading with Britain and America to send troops to liberate France.  Hitler catches on and storms Vichy.  In OTL, Vichy France fell without (much of) a fight.  In ATL, the French fight back.  The Germans are still superior, but they don’t have the manpower to crush Vichy.  The fighting spreads out of control, drawing in French Communists as well as Free French.  French North Africa sends troops to Southern France in a desperate bid to stem the tide of war.


Roosevelt and Churchill are unable to intervene on any large scale.  The US troops in Britain are too few in number for a major invasion, while Britain is reluctant to mount a major operation to help the French.  It isn’t clear if the Germans can be stopped, or even delayed long enough to land more troops.  They drop supplies to the French, as well as helping to move troops from Africa to France, but there’s little else that can be done.


The Russian advances (and the French crisis) lead to a major – and acrimonious – conference between Britain, America and Russia.  Churchill wants to settle the post-war world, as best as possible, while the Western Allies still have influence over the Russians.  He isn’t naive enough to believe the Russians will honour any promises they make, if they become disadvantageous, but he wants a clear record of their agreements to prove they can’t be trusted and, more importantly, that his government took a stand against their demands.   FDR is less enthusiastic, but feeling the heat from American Poles and others who fear the Russians as much as the Nazis.  The conference settles very little.  Stalin gambles the Western Allies won’t abandon Russia, regardless of their refusal to make any real promises concerning the future.  They need Russia ... and besides, the Russian victories have led to a major rise in communist power right across Europe.  There’s a very real chance France will fall straight into Russian hands. 


The Germans are caught in a death spiral.  They cannot produce anything like the tanks and aircraft they need to stop the Russians.  Worse, their supply of trained manpower is falling rapidly.  They should have crushed France effortlessly, but instead the fighting is spinning out of control.  The French deal out a number of defeats that are meaningless, in the grand scale of things, but hurt the Germans and boost French morale.  In early 1943, the rats start fleeing the sinking ship.  Mussolini is overthrown – in ATL, he is killed ‘while trying to escape’ – and Italy looks for a separate peace.  Churchill is only too happy to grant it, as long as Italian forces withdraw from the war.  The Balkans and Finland follow suit, the former collapsing into civil war and the latter conceding the post-Winter War borders. 


The German position collapses completely in mid-1943.  The Russians move into Poland, driving through the remnants of the German occupation and threatening the borders of Germany itself.  The Polish Home Army goes underground, fearing what will happen if it links up with the Russians.  The Russians establish a communist government as they move west, purging anyone they think will lead opposition after the war. 


Hitler blames the entire disaster on traitors within the army and orders a purge of his own.  It cannot be done, not now.  The Germans try to retreat west as the Russians advance, bringing in the remaining troops from Norway – which slips out of German hands without a fight, the British landing troops to help restore order (and keep the Russians out) – but can no longer hold the line.  Germany effectively disintegrates, Hitler and his fanatics dying in the ruins of Berlin as the more rational Germans do their best to save what they can.  It isn’t enough.  By the end of 1943, Germany is effectively broken and occupied.  Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands are in Russian hands.  Northern France is in French Communist hands; Southern France is ruled by a strange alliance of Vichy and Free French.  Italy is technically democratic, but with a much larger Communist Party.


Japan takes it in the neck as more and more American and British combat power flows into the Far East.  The American advance is considerably faster, while British forces liberate the remainder of Burma, Malaysia and Indochina.  The Japanese are torn between continuing the war, even though it is hopeless, and surrendering while they have something left to bargain with.  The Russians are shifting combat power to the Far East themselves.  The prospect of snatching Manchuria, perhaps even Korea, is not one to be dismissed.  They’re already funnelling more supplies to the Red Chinese.


Churchill is grimly aware an iron curtain is descending over Europe.  FDR, now thoroughly disillusioned with Churchill, is inclined to agree.  In the name of destroying Nazism once and for all, the Russians are purging anyone they don’t like and establishing communist governments.  Communist France is already accepting military aid from the Red Army, raising the spectre of an invasion of Southern France.  Churchill wants to do something about it, but his options are limited.  The Russians won’t be intimidated by British troops and the US is unwilling to get involved when Japan remains a potential threat.  The atomic bomb might make a difference, but it won’t be ready until 1945 (at best). 


Where do we go from here?


Japan is beaten, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.  The Russians are building up for an invasion of Manchuria, while holding much of Europe in an iron grip.  It seems likely there will be a cold war in this timeline, but a very different one.  Or will the French Civil War draw in both sides, to the point it turns into a Third World War?  Communist parties are on the rise everywhere, through simple conviction – or – perhaps more practically – a desire to be on the winning side.  Will Italy go red?  Britain?  Spain? 


Where do we go from here?