Did Germany Win the World Wars Before It Started a New One?
“World War II,” or the Anglicized “Second World War,” began formally on September 1, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. It ended officially with the surrender of the Japanese on September 2, 1945 on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Yet it is more elucidating to envision “The Second World War” as a series of wars—only later and in hindsight constituting a holistic continuum of a second global catastrophe following 1941-1918.
In truth, “The Second World Wars” began and then ended—and yet again then began again as something quite different. The world was certainly not at war for six continuous years with clear opponents fighting in a unified, coherent struggle.
For example, from September 1, 1939 to June 22, 1941, the two most powerful nations in the world, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were not constantly at war—the U.S. not at all and the Soviets not after March 1940.
The Soviet Union had fought three brief, bloody, and ultimately successful, border conflicts against a host of disparate enemies—against Japan (May–September 15, 1939), Poland (September 17–October 6, 1939) and against Finland (“the Winter War,” of November 30, 1939–March 13, 1940)—all without a formal Soviet declaration of war.
For the United States, from the invasion of Poland to Pearl Harbor was still 27 months away. When Germany started “World War II” the U.S. fleet was still based in San Diego—and would stay there for the next year. Isolationism was the dominant foreign policy. Americans certainly had no desire to “save” France—either before or after May 10, 1940.
Few contemporary observers had felt that either the U.S. or U.S.S.R. would fight against Germany on the continent, and probably none expected so after June 1940. Millions of Americans, over two decades after the Versailles Treaty and still suffering from the Great Depression, had for some time revised their historical perceptions of a “successful” World War I. Many doubted that the cost of 117,000 American dead had been justified by a noble and necessary Wilsonian effort to save Western democracy.
Instead by 1939, 1917–18 had become recalibrated as a bitter reminder that American interventions in Europe’s perennial squabbles could not do much in the long-term to achieve continental peace and thus were better not again attempted—even more so after June 1940 when Europe was already conquered and occupied.
As for the Soviets, the Russians had lost to Germany in the First World War. The Red Army’s mostly unimpressive performance during the joint Soviet-German 1939 invasion of Poland was reminiscent of its past incompetence during the lost Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1921. The costly 1939–40 Winter War against Finland was yet another timely reminder that Stalin’s opportunistic and cynical non-aggression pact with Hitler was a far better deal than the various alternatives—whether fighting Nazi Germany or the specter of an alliance with the appeasing or isolationist Western democracies.
After the conclusion of the “Phony War” (September 3, 1939–May 10, 1940), and the serial defeats of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Greece, and Yugoslavia, the continental war for Europe was over.
It was clearly won by Germany, where there was already some talk of troop reductions. The United Kingdom, with naval superiority, air parity over its homeland, and an empire rich in manpower and resources, remained the sole enemy of Germany and Italy. Under Churchill, the British were still fighting the Italians and later German subsidiary forces in North Africa, German submarines in the Atlantic, and the Luftwaffe over the homeland.
Yet there was zero chance of the British returning to French shores. Britain suffered concomitant worries over Japanese designs on Singapore, Burma, and India. Deadlock was the British aim until help might arrive from somewhere else. In the meantime, heroic British and imperial war production, superb advances in fighter and bomber aircraft, and state-of-the art radar, sonar, and cryptology made it unlikely, in a cost-to-benefit sense, that Hitler, even with a compliant U.S.S.R. at his rear, could invade Britain—just as Britain alone could not have invaded the continent and defeated the Third Reich.
Because Hitler was already planning the invasion of the Soviet Union in mid-summer 1940, he was content with conceding—after the failed air assault during the Battle of Britain (July–October 1940) and the stalled first chapter of the submarine and surface fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic—that neutralizing and isolating the British was wiser than attempting to destroy the empire and invade Britain, while remaining for a few months longer in the de facto alliance with Moscow. By the same token, the go it alone British Empire at this point was not idle but had turned to peripheral fighting to save as many of its imperial holdings as possible, especially in the Mediterranean, Egypt, and Suez.
Again, the war in most of Europe was finished by late June 1940 and was won by Germany and its lesser, pile-on ally Italy. The Third Reich had solidified its European hegemony to Yugoslavia and Greece by April 1941, followed by the fall of Crete on June 1, 1941. Germany then had accomplished almost all its agendas and was in its strongest position since the unification and foundation of the modern German state.
At the end of what could be better called the “Continental War,” any map of countries that would later make up the European Union and NATO would show them all by mid-1941 under firm German or Italian control. Despite romantic talk of the “resistance,” Germany controlled continental Europe with an amazingly small force.
By early 1942, when German forces on the Eastern Front began to surge past 170 divisions, there were probably no more than 40 divisions stationed in all of Western Europe, to keep in check—almost always successfully—a continental population of perhaps 140 million. Europe’s major capitals by mid-1941—Amsterdam, Athens, Belgrade, Brussels, Copenhagen, Oslo, Paris, Prague, and Warsaw, were all under German occupation. The other major cities and capitals of Europe—Budapest, Bucharest, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome, Sofia, Stockholm, and Vienna were either pro-German “neutrals,” in active alliance with Berlin, or already well incorporated into the Third Reich. All the key European ports at the Algeciras, Bilbao, Valencia, Lisbon, Piraeus, Naples, Genoa, Trieste, Marseilles, the French Atlantic coast ports, Antwerp, and Rotterdam were German occupied or in fascist hands.
In sum, the war for Europe that began on September 1, 1939 had all but ended with the fall of France on June 25, 1940, with a few subsequent annexations in 1941, and the isolation—but not the conquest—of Britain. The combined populations and industrial potential of occupied Europe to any other conqueror should have offered enormous advantages in wearing down Britain and deterring or even eventually defeating Russia. In other words, such a European victor would have likely integrated these now subservient economies with Germany’s, rather than plundering them, enslaving or terrorizing their populations, and murdering millions of those under Nazi occupation.