December 1941 is usually remembered by Americans as that fateful month when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, thus thrusting the United States into World War II. However, consider an alternate scenario: Adolf Hitler appears triumphantly before the Reichstag announcing the destruction of the Soviet Union, following the German capture of Moscow and the “cowardly escape of that war criminal, Joseph Stalin,” to somewhere in the vast Russian hinterlands. “Just as I predicted,” the Fuhrer crows before cheering hordes in Germany’s puppet legislature: “All we had to do was to kick down the door and the whole rotten structure will collapse!”
And collapse it did, as Hitler points out. The Soviet Union lost four million men; 8,000 aircraft; and 17,000 tanks; the Fuhrer boasts. The Soviet breadbasket region of the Ukraine was quickly overrun, along with half of Russian coal and steel output. Major Russian cities were captured, Hitler states smugly—Minsk, Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad. The commissars capitulated, the Russian people are cowed, and Soviet lands are open to master race colonizers.
Pausing for effect and waiting for the cheering to subside, Hitler brushes aside his trademark lock of hair that cut across his forehead like a black scythe and continues: “Wonder weapons!” he shouts. “Our scientists, our gallant workers of the Reich have produced miracles of modern technology! Soon the skies will be filled with jet aircraft, bombers and fighters, and rockets and missiles with enough range to hit any place on earth. We can destroy those who dare to challenge our supremacy in Europe, in Asia, in the world!” More applause, punctuated by vigorously bobbing heads and expansive grins of triumph in the crowd. “Our submarines patrol the Atlantic, a German lake! Britain is crumbling, ready to surrender.” Then, as an aside: “One torpedo from our new Type XXI submarine will sink that whole miserable island.” Riotous laughter and applause.
Then out comes the map, huge, blazing with colors—black and yellow and gray. Three vast spheres of influence, German (with a nod to the Italians), Japanese, and the Americas, light up the background behind the Fuhrer. The audience claps, and many begin imagining vacation junkets to Asia, Africa, and the farthermost regions of mighty Germania’s global domain. More glances at that huge gray area on the map; with a wink and a nod, someone in the crowd utters, “soon, all that will be ours, too.”
This is the world we avoided, one portrayed with disturbing plausibility by such writers as Robert Harris in Fatherland and Phillip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle. Sound unbelievable? Consider this: After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, few observers expected the Russians to survive; even Henry Stimson, President Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, was convinced that Russia would fall within three months, leaving the United States and the beleaguered British alone to face the monstrously powerful Third Reich. How powerful? After two years of war, Germany produced twice as much steel as Great Britain and the Soviet Union combined. Indeed, Richard Overy, in his superb Why the Allies Won, declared that “on the face of things, no rational man in early 1942 would have guessed at the eventual outcome of the war.”
Yet victory was achieved, as the result of the world’s other great powers pooling their resources to defeat what likely was the most ambitious threat to global civilization in human history. With American production genius, British perseverance, and the Soviet Union’s recuperative powers, the Allies beat their Axis foes in every dimension of total war—on the ground, at sea, and in the air; in the laboratory, on the factory floor, and at the strategic planning table; and most importantly, in the moral battle for the minds of millions of men and women, civilians and soldiers alike.
America’s role was of course indispensable, and not just in production figures, but in the spilt blood and sacrifices on countless battlefields in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. Indeed, the success of the Normandy invasion alone created conditions for America’s longer-term victory over its second totalitarian foe over the half century following WWII, the Soviet Union. Which means it’s hard to overestimate the profound significance of Victory in Europe Day, symbolizing the war that was won and the world we avoided.
Like many in my generation, I have family members who fought in that conflict, which is why I encourage everyone to visit a WWII military cemetery in the coming weeks, and—sometime in your life—to make a pilgrimage to that extraordinary American military museum at Omaha Beach. Gaze with somber appreciation at those regiments of crosses perfectly arrayed on that hallowed ground. Ponder the sublime meaning of those silent sentinels that commemorate freedom’s costly triumph over barbarism and tyranny. And remember May 8, 1945, V-E Day.