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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.

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September 19th, 2011
9:09 PM
Very thoughtful what-if article. Thank you for publishing it. You make the excellent point that a significant amount of death and destruction in Western and Central Europe occurred in the period June 1944 through April 1945. How much could have been avoided, and whether it should have been avoided, is an interesting question. I further think that there is a lot to commend your analysis of the resulting situation if the Stauffenberg bomb had been successful in killing Hitler. Regarding the other two situations, I _respectfully_ disagree. In both the cases you cite, there are great similarities. As the Germans armies retreated to the German homeland, the character of the war changed to a defense of family and home. Also, remember that there was strategic decision by the allies to invade, capture, and occupy the German homeland as well as the requirement for unconditional surrender. The German military was going to stiffen on that basis alone. Second, in both cases, the allied armies outran their supply and organizational abilities. This was a reflection of the technology and understanding of organizational abilities of those times. Even the vaunted German "Blitzkrieg" in its heyday hit such limits and was forced to pause. Third, it may be that, had the Soviets been a different nation and army, they might have been better able detect the German weakpoints and to have conducted a German style offensive and destroyed the German eastern armies more efficiently. Of course, had the Soviets not been Soviets in World War 2, they might have destroyed the Germans in 1941. Or collapsed in the first few weeks of the war, as the French had done the previous year. Fourth, in the case the Allies, it may well be true, that had the meager availible supplies been distributed in a different way, and had there been no other consequences, there might have been even more effective offensive. Certainly, that view has been put forward by a number of different groups, from supporters of various schools of military thought as well as supporters of specific generals, all the way through to Anglo-phobes. My own view is that there were very important political reasons for the division of supplies. And in the end, military should be subordinate to the political rather than the reverse. Again thank you for your thoughtful and well article. By the way, I just picked up your book and look forward to reading it!

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