What If …?
Over a dozen years ago Robert Cowley compiled an intriguing book of essays under the title What If? The essay authors – all outstanding historians of the day – were invited to compose a credible outcome, a “what if” alternative, for a pivotal moment in history if circumstances had taken a different, often minor, turn of events.
For example, in 1889 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show toured Europe featuring Annie Oakley’s famous shooting skills with her Colt .45. Her act concluded with an invitation for a gentleman in the audience to step into the arena and allow her to shoot off the ash from his cigar at a distance far enough away to make it interesting. It was all show because there were never any real takers. Her husband, Frank Butler, was planted in the audience as a stooge. He would bravely step forward with a Havana clenched in his teeth, allowing Annie to bring the crowd to its feet with her keen shot.
When the show made a stop in Berlin for a performance at the Charlottenburg Race Track, Annie offered her customary dare. In the audience was the young and showy Kaiser Wilhelm II who immediately took her offer, much to her shock and the horror of the Kaiser’s security detail. Stepping on to the arena, the local police tried to intervene but Wilhelm waved them off.
Annie couldn’t back out without losing credibility, so she paced off her usual distance and took aim. Sweating under the pressure of shooting at a crowned head of Europe and wishing she hadn’t consumed so much whiskey the night before, she nevertheless shot away the Kaiser’s cigar ash to the crowd’s wild jubilation.
Cowley asks what if she had missed? There would have been no bellicose Kaiser Wilhelm II alive 25 years later to start war in Europe. When World War I did in fact break out, Annie wrote the bombastic Kaiser and asked for a second shot. He never responded.
History offers many “what ifs.”
In the aftermath of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was more punishment than peace treaty. It forced Germany to admit its ‘guilt" for the war as well as pay reparations for it. The Treaty’s major accomplishment was to invent Hitler.
Hitler rose to power in 1933 and obsessed over undoing the Treaty. He pursued this in a succession of trial provocations each intended to test the resolve of the former allies – primarily Britain and France. In 1934 he ordered the German home guard to arm for war and, the following year, reintroduced conscription – both flagrant violations of the Treaty. With no response forthcoming from the major world powers, Hitler was emboldened. In 1935 he began building tanks, planes, and submarines – further violations of Versailles. Still no intervention by England or France.
In 1936, Hitler ordered troops across the Rhine and created an armed threat in the demilitarized zone of the German Rhineland, the territory between the French border and the Rhine River, an unmistakable violation of the Versailles treaty. There his raw army recruits and 36,000 policemen faced nearly 100 French and Belgian divisions. France and Belgium were within their right to cross the Maginot Line and confront the Germans. But the French and English heads of state said nothing and did nothing.
One of the Rhineland occupiers, General Heinz Guderian, said after the World War II that if the French had responded to their provocation in 1936, “…we should have been sunk and Hitler would have fallen.” Another German officer confessed that the German General Staff considered Hitler’s move tantamount to a suicide mission.
I can tell you that for five days and five nights not one of us closed an eye. We knew that if the French marched, we were done. We had no fortifications, and no army to match the French. If the French had even mobilized, we should have been compelled to retire.
Hitler himself said:
The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.
The head of the French army, General Maurice Gamelin, believed that a confrontation of the German Rhineland occupiers would be unpopular at home, costly, and would lead to war requiring full mobilization of French armed forces. He counseled against action.
In England, not only were there no anti-German Rhineland protests, there were peace demonstrations. One Member of Parliament observed “the feeling in the House [of Commons] is terribly pro-German, which means afraid of war.” The Prime Minister during the 1936 crises, Stanley Baldwin, had tears in his eyes when he admitted that British public opinion would not support military intervention in the Rhineland.
Winston Churchill, a backbench Conservative MP in 1936, was the British Jeremiah – one of the few voices raised against German rearmament and its threat to future peace. He wanted his country to reinforce a French challenge of the Rhineland occupation under the coordination of the League of Nations. The League of Nations, however, was as useless then as the United Nations is now and nothing happened. Churchill predicted the Rhineland would become a hinge allowing Germany to swing its forces through Belgium to attack France. And that’s precisely what happened in 1940.
A “what if” opportunity thus passed unexploited in 1936 that could have prevented World War II.
An Austrian German by birth, Hitler provoked the 1938 Anschluss crisis two years after the Rhineland showdown. It was part of his plan to unite all German speakers in one state. “People of the same blood should be in the same Reich” he had written in his autobiography Mein Kampf. Hitler’s annexation of Austria was accomplished by threatening invasion so convincingly that the Austrian government resigned and Hitler’s armies were invited in.
German-Austrian union was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. Notwithstanding, England and France did not protest, did not mobilize, and did not defend the Treaty.
When an aggressor senses his opponent’s lack of resolve to confront him, he will act without restraint. And that’s precisely what Hitler did. He was now convinced that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Baldwin’s successor, and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier were both appeasers – paralyzed by their nightmarish memories of World War I – and therefore loath to confront his militaristic aggressions.
His next move would exploit their fecklessness.
In 1938 Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland – that portion of Czechoslovakia on its north, west, and southwest border which was populated by German speakers. If his demand was not accommodated, he would invade Czechoslovakia.
It was all bluff. At that time Czechoslovakia had one of the strongest armies in Europe. It was well trained and well equipped, thanks to the country’s armaments works – primarily those of Skoda, the Czech equivalent of Ford or GM. Moreover, its military industries were protected by military fortifications on the German and Austrian borders – all in the Sudetenland – which explains why Hitler wanted it.
Czechoslovakia probably could have won a fight with Germany given the poor quality of the German fighting force at the time. In fact, senior German generals were horrified with Hitler’s plans to invade, convinced it would ignite a world war which Germany would lose. So convinced were the German generals of a bad outcome, that one of the earliest conspiracies was plotted to overthrow and arrest Hitler. Representatives were sent to meet with Chamberlain, telling him that the moment Hitler gave the invasion order he would be arrested and imploring Chamberlain to intervene militarily in support of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia had mutual defense treaties with France and Russia, and England was a defense partner of France. Poland too would likely have joined if France and England were in the fight.
But it was not to be. A meeting was held in Munich involving France, England, Germany, and Italy. Czechoslovakia was not invited. Chamberlain followed his appeasement instincts and the Munich Agreement was signed transferring the Sudetenland to Germany. Betrayed by its treaty allies, Czechoslovakia conceded. Hitler agreed not to invade Czechoslovakia – an agreement that lasted six months when Germany troops swallowed up the remainder of the country, now defenseless without its Sudeten armaments and fortresses.
The cowardly Chamberlain flew back to England and landed among the adulation of adoring pacifists. Deplaning, he waved the infamous Munich Agreement, assuring the crowd at the airport that he had won for them “peace in our time.” That phrase has gone down in history as a verbal monument to the gullibility of naïve world leaders who appease international bullies expecting conciliation to preserve peace. Think Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Chamberlain’s surrender to Hitler was criticized by some far-sighted British politicians, among them Winston Churchill who unleashed his rhetorical fury on the worthless document:
We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude…we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road… we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.
Another “what if” moment was lost.
With the fall of Czechoslovakia, Hitler’s territorial ambitions now became apparent even to the western fools of Munich. The English and French publicly assured Poland that they could be relied on to protect it against German aggression. But the time for red lines had passed. Germany could no longer be denied its long sought destiny. Equipped with the armaments stolen in the Munich treaty, Germany was rolling like a juggernaut toward the Polish frontier, which bordered the northern Sudetenland acquisition. Germany was now the best armed military force in Europe, ironically clad in Panzer tanks that had been built for the Czechs by the Skoda works. England and France, Poland’s outfoxed treaty allies, could do no more than watch the eight-month massacre of an ally in 1939.
Sixty million people would die before the German beast was slain in 1945.
History may not repeat itself, but as Mark Twain said, it does rhyme. What can we learn today from this disgraceful episode of serial incompetence? One could certainly argue it teaches that preemptive military action, however unpopular at the time, is usually a winning antidote for an unbridled aggressor. Hitler had made his ambitions abundantly clear in Mein Kampf, assuming any of the western leaders had bothered to read it. And the provocations he initiated in 1936, twice in 1938, and in 1939 were straight out of his play book.
After World War II ended Churchill, whose resolve had saved the British, was ousted from office. So much for the thanks of a grateful nation.
However, a relatively unknown school, Westminster College in the small Missouri town of Fulton (population 7,000), wished to bestow an honorary degree on the statesman that got England into the war and kept it there to the end. And because Churchill was indisputably the best rhetorician of the 20th century, he was invited to be the keynote speaker. The audience numbered over 40,000 and his speech, which is often referred to as the “Iron Curtain” speech, alerted the world to a coming “cold war.”
Churchill’s speech presaged many of his thoughts that would later appear in his seminal recollection of the Second World War, most especially its first volume entitled The Gathering Storm. Here is an excerpt from the Iron Curtain speech that verbalizes the many lost “what ifs”:
Up till the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which has overtaken her and we might all have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honoured to-day; but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We surely must not let that happen again.
We surely must not let that happen again indeed.
Today we are once again confronted by the villainous face of evil. This time it’s Iran. Iranian leaders are as fanatical as Hitler but are many times more dangerous given nuclear weapons. Iran’s mullahs are believers in the 12th imam and hold the apocalyptic theology that bringing the world to an end will usher in the “second coming” of this imam. He will establish the Shia religion as the world religion and begin an unending era of peace. In short, a worldwide nuclear holocaust favors Iran’s theology.
Moreover, the west is once again afflicted with gullible leaders who believe appeasement is the answer to aggression. The recent “agreement” championed by Kerry and Obama does nothing to stop Iranian bomb-making. Worse, it deludes the America people into thinking that something short of military intervention will stop a nation intent on eliminating Israel, whose existence it won’t officially recognize. Israel will be our Poland.
Once again, our leaders believe that peace can be won without victory over disturbers of peace. We are standing aside while a replay of 1936, 1938, and 1939 passes before our eyes … while, as Mark Twain observed, history rhymes.
Once again the Left believes – and tries to convince the rest of us – that our choice is between war and peace when in fact it is, and always will be, a choice between fighting and surrender.