Could the Soviets have defeated the Third Reich alone?

Allow me to present two counterfactuals that may have resulted in knocking Britain out of the war early, and consequently the United States.

They are rooted in decisions taken within the German high command in 1940, mainly with Goering. The first - Field Marshal von Rundstedt does not issue the “Halt Order” allowing the British Expeditionary Force to evacuate from Dunkirk. Goering does not influence the Fuhrer on the decision and the vast majority of the BEF along with French elements are captured.

The second - Goering orders the Luftwaffe not to engage Fighter Command over the skies of Britain, instead allowing the British unmolested on their island. There is no ‘finest hour’; no morale boosting boys repulsing the Luftwaffe in their Hurricanes at Spitfires. The writer Max Hastings explains better than I could the importance of ‘finest hours’ and how Churchill was a master of utilising them;

In the face of the calamity at Dunkirk and with no display of Britain’s fighting spirit against the Germans, pressure mounts on Churchill as to just why the British should stand along against a Germany which is already master of the continent. Following the disastrous Norway campaign, the catastrophe at Dunkirk and no Battle of Britain, another vote of no confidence is called in the House of Commons. Churchill is forced to resign.

Hitler, never wanting war with Britain in the first place (in Mein Kampf he speaks of an alliance with his fellow Aryans), sends out peace feelers which are immediately accepted by the new British government. A peace is established on the basis that Britain will not interfere with German efforts on the continent if German does not interfere with British Empire affairs. The men captured at Dunkirk are repatriated and the public gladly close the book on a brief but inglorious period in their history.

Consequently, there is no Battle of the Atlantic. U-boat operations never harass United States shipping. With Britain now at peace, lend-lease does not exist. Isolationist sentiment is strong - there is little will to become involved in a war in Europe that has little to do with the American public. Many Americans even admire the industrious German triumph.

So, in 1941 on the eve of Operation Barbarossa the USSR stands ready to take the greatest sucker punch in history - but with no prospects of any western aid. Can the Soviets still drive the Nazi war machine out of the Union and push the Wehrmacht back to Berlin, or is Stalin doomed without the western Allies?

I’m no Liddell Hart, but I’ll offer an educated guess:

That depends on Germany’s war aims. If they want to conquer the Soviet Union, they are screwed. Without Lend-Lease or German troops tied up in the West, the Soviets might have been pushed back even further than they were, so they might have lost Moscow, but what would that really mean? Germany still suffers through a horrendous winter in 1941. Maybe the summer offensive of 1942 takes Stalingrad this time, but the Germans still had a dumb “no retreat” policy that let huge numbers of troops get surrounded. And the Soviets have more manpower and an industrial capacity that can’t be touched due to much of it being in the East. So maybe the war ends in 1946 or 1947 instead of 1945, but the Germans still lose.

But what if the Germans had more limited war aims? What if they simply wanted to take a lot of valuable land and weaken the Soviets? In that case, a good strategy might be to stop after taking the Ukraine and the Baltic states(don’t enter white Russia), treat the people decently instead of what the Nazis actually did, and have a smart, mobile defense that the Soviets rather primitive tactics can’t penetrate except at great cost(while minimizing German casualties). In other words, bloody their noses and offer them peace terms once they’ve exhausted themselves in a futile attempt to take back lands where the people don’t even like them in the first place.

That leaves Germany and its allies in undisputed control of Europe, with Russia reduced to primarily an Asiatic power and lonely Britain only 17 miles away from continental Europe but might as well be on the other side of the Atlantic for all the good it does them.

I’ve read that Stalin was in shock the first couple of weeks of the invasion, and expected to be overthrown and killed at any moment. If a German envoy had offered Stalin a truce in exchange for everything west of the the Volga, Stalin might have taken it. And if so, Stalin would have probably spent the next few years purging yet more people in order to save face, while Germany consolidated it’s hold.

This is an interesting speculation. Certainly, Britain hung by a thread in 1940. However, that doesn’t mean an invasion of England by Germany would have succeeded, or as you note, even tried. The question is, what would have happened then? Was Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union inevitable?

I think that if Britain was taken out of the war (while retaining its independence and empire), even the most rabid isolationists in the US would have seen the danger. We would have forged a quasi-military alliance with Britain (even if the Anglo-German treaty ostensibly forbid it) and quietly talked with Russia about the Nazi threat and what they might do about it.

Hitler would have taken a year or so, just as in the actual timeline, to consolidate his conquests. It’s probable that his next target would have been the Soviet Union pretty much no matter what. It’s interesting to think how successful he would have been if not distracted by the Balkan sideshow in spring 1941, reaching the outskirts of Moscow in August, not October.

Still, I don’t think it would have been possible to completely conquer the Soviet Union. They would have just withdrawn to the Urals and continued a war of attrition, guerilla warfare, and partisan fighting. In the meantime, the Wehrmacht would have been tied down trying to secure a vast area that was over twice the size of the rest of Europe. And Russia was astoundingly primitive–the place wouldn’t have been exploitable except as farmland, and that farmland was mostly unmechanized. Plus, the Germans in Russia had a habit of killing all the potential slaves.

I also think that Occupied Europe would have gradually grown ungovernable if the Wehrmacht was tied down in Russia for several years. There is also the problem of the German economy, which couldn’t really have sustained the war for that long–it was on the brink of collapse as it was.

If we had remained stupidly isolationist, though (in this scenario), there would have been no one to shake loose Hitler’s grip on Europe, and German technological advances would sooner or later have enabled them to conquer Britain. We would probably have entered the war at that point, but we would consume all our efforts just trying to keep Hitler’s atomic-weapon-equipped long-range bombers away from New York and Washington. We would probably survive as an intact nation, but at great cost. Hitler would be the undisputed master of Europe.

I’d say no. The Germans, of course, would get a bump in the forces they could bring to bear against the Soviets (Rommel in Russia!), with less Luftwaffe and AA forces needed in Germany.

Meanwhile, lots of little things will be piling up on the Soviets with the loss of Lend-Lease shipments. No boots, no rations, no trucks, no rail equipment, no aircraft. They have to make up for all of that themselves. With Lend-Lease, they could afford to virtually shut down rail production, because the US supplied them with locomotives and rail cars. With Lend-Lease, they got an extra 100k trucks in 1944 alone, which gave them the means to execute a large offensive like Bagration. With Lend-Lease, they got nearly 20% of their military aircraft. With Lend-Lease, the loss of Ukraine stings less because the troops are getting fed with American-made rations.

Even if we assume that the Germans end Barbarossa in roughly the historical position, the Soviets are still in trouble. They have to supply their masses to make them effective. They need vehicles to launch counter-offensives. They need numbers of aircraft to make up for their pilots’ lack of training. They’re going to have a hard time taking the strategic initiative away from the Germans and keeping it.

Japan is the wild card in all this. With the UK out of the war and the US neutral, maybe the Japanese can be convinced to launch an offensive in Siberia. At the very least, the Soviets can’t be sure it’s safe to transfer divisions to Moscow in 1941.

If they have to retreat to the Urals, that means the bulk of the Soviet population and oil production is in German hands, which means the war’s over. The Germans can begin a strategic bombing campaign against the industrial cities of the Urals.

But even if it was safe for the Japanese to invade, what would be in it for them? Japan desperately needed oil, rubber and steel to continue the war in China, none of which would be gained by invading Siberia.

It would have lagged behind the rest of the world due to the effects of genocide and not fully exploiting female labor, but it would have been in much better shape than it was in actuality, due to the securing of the southeast european oil and the less intense requirements of fighting the soviets who themselves would have only the resources of East Russia to draw on and not America or Central Russia.

There’s oil and steel to be had in Siberia, though probably not developed sources.

But the oil and steel needs become a lot less pressing if you’re not planning a grand naval and air campaign in the Pacific.

The Soviets were a major strategic threat, elimination of that threat would be an end in itself. Why not take the opportunity if the Germans are doing most of the real work? The Japanese also didn’t gain much of value in WWI, but they took what they could get simply because it was easy.

one of the reasons that the Soviets had the industrial ability they did was their wholesale movement of factories out of the path of the invasion and having them set up on the far side of the Urals.

Would that logistical movement been possible without the Lend-Lease gifts from the USA of thousands of trucks, jeeps, and literally more locomotive engines than the Soviets started the war with?

Conversely, without that logistical ability, without moving their factories out of Kiev and so many other locations, would they have been able to keep fighting?

I have long held the theory that once Moscow is captured, the ability of the Soviets to move equipment to the front is almost fatally crippled. Every rail line seemed to move through Moscow (for obvious reasons). Having that junction torn out of their rail lines would have been close to unrecoverable, imo.

That being said, if the Soviets can still move their factories (doubtful), and if the Soviets can hold on long enough for General Winter to arrive, I think they stand a chance. And if they can stop the German advance (with the additional armor, aircraft, manpower and logistical ability that would be freed up by no “Fortress Europa”) I think they still win.

But that is a pretty big handful of “if’s”.

That’s true, but it’s unlikely that the Japanese would be willing to tussle with the Soviets again, given the trouble it gave them a scant few years earlier.

I have no doubt that Barbarossa was inevitable - it was a culmination of everything Hitler had strived for. In Mein Kampf he writes that the “future of Germany has to lie in the acquisition of land in the East at the expense of Russia.” Lebensraum, pan-German unity with Volga Germans, the destruction of bolshevism and the perceived Jewry that supported it, the slavik untermensh was high on the list of Nazi priories. If only Stalin had taken a nosy at the book before making his mind up about Hitler…

The problem I think with US involvement is that it is difficult to see what Roosevelt could practically do against Germany. Selling the American public on another involvement in Europe when less ill-will had been generated between Germany and the US (with Britain at peace before Barbarossa, the U-boats have no reason to target allied shipping) would have been a tricky proposition at best. The USS Greer, USS Kearny and USS Reuben James would have had no reason to be in the periscopes of the Kreigsmarine, inciting hostilities long before the official entry into the war.

I doubt after their experience the British would be in a hurry to engage Germany, particular a Germany that has stayed out of British interests and instead attacked communists. Consequently, the US would find it trick to use Britain as a ‘staging post’ - there’s no way D-Day could have happened, for instance, just to name the most obvious example.

I also don’t believe that the US would have changed its policy towards Japan as a result of events in Europe; Pearl Harbour would still have happened as a result. The consequence may have been a reversal of actual US policy, a “Japan first” strategy which emphasised the Pacific over the Nazi war with bolshevism or aiding Europe. This then might have resulted in US troops being in a position to invade the Japanese mainland before the bombs were ready, but the further we go from the point of divergence the trickier it is to predict.

I’d like to clarify a few misconceptions first.

The ‘Halt Order’ allowing the escape from Dunkirk is partly mythology; even if the Germans had gone all out to try to reduce the pocket they would have had a hard time of it and a large part of the BEF and French troops there would still have been able to be evacuated. The Germans were facing rough terrain and the supply line needed time to catch up with the speed of the advance, and didn’t actually halt for the entire evacuation. The halt was for three days for the German army to catch its breath.

I’m skeptical of Hitler having had any real sympathies for or desire to avoid war with Britain. He knew that invading Poland on September 1, 1939 would mean war with Britain and he didn’t lose any sleep over the matter. I know you haven’t made the argument that Hitler allowed the British to escape from Dunkirk on purpose in an attempted gesture at peace, but it is an often repeated one and is utter rubbish. Even if Britain had withdrawn from the war, when Hitler failed to conquer the USSR in a summer and fell into a grinding attrition war with the Soviets there would be good reason for Britain to resume the war.

The Balkans operations delaying the start date of Barbarossa from May 15th is a myth. The Bug River and many other rivers in Eastern Europe were at high flood for all of May and into June; they were the cause of delaying Barbarossa from its extremely optimistic May 15th start date. The primary effect the Balkans campaign had on Barbarossa was wear and tear on tanks and motorized transport used in the operation. The Germans also didn’t reach the outskirts of Moscow in October, the closest they came was at the end of November and it wasn’t really the outskirts.

The transfer of Siberian divisions arriving to save Moscow is also a myth. There’s a good dissection of the myth here.

So, I have a hard time seeing the scenario presented in the OP being very plausible. Going with the assumption that it happened anyway, I’d still give the Soviets better than 50/50 odds of defeating Germany with a good part of the other 50 not being the defeat of the Soviet Union but of a negotiated peace with some movement of the border one way or the other. Barbarossa was about as successful as it possibly could have been, but it wasn’t enough to deliver a knockout blow and the Soviets stopped it on their own devices; lend-lease aid from the US to the USSR didn’t start until November 1941 and didn’t reach high-gear until late 42/43 or so. The distances in the USSR were simply too vast, the weather frequently too harsh both in the twice annual rasputitsa and the winter, and the railroads the wrong gauge for Germany to have won the war in a single campaign. The Germans had also grossly underestimated the size of the Red Army and its ability to mobilize fresh formations. Halder’s comment in his diary in mid-August that “We reckoned with 200 divisions; now we have already counted 360” sums it up pretty well. As rough as Barbarossa was on the Soviets, it was very costly to Germany as well. From here, Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East by Earl F. Ziemke, Magna E. Bauer, page 45 if you wish to load the pdf (link isn’t directly to the pdf),

Bear in mind that this was before both the final push to try to take Moscow in Operation Typhoon and the Soviet Winter Counteroffensive.


It was, Lend-Lease didn’t even begin until November.

Hmm. The myth seems to be that the Soviets transferred crack “Siberian” divisions that spearheaded the counter-offensive around Moscow. But as for the number of divisions raised from Siberian reserves that were sent west instead of east, the Soviet figures don’t appear to be very clear on that point. I would assume it was not insignificant, though. But, regardless of Japan’s intentions, I still have to assume that they would be sent west anyways, where they were most needed.

So we could maybe include Japan as another of the small factors working against the Soviets in the absence of the western allies, but certainly nothing decisive.

Good points. While I’m sure that some of the BEF and French forces would have still been able to evacuate, if Hitler hadn’t simply turned it over to the Luftwaffe based on Goering’s boasting, then the miracle at Dunkirk would have been a lot harder to spin. If the Germans had made an effort with their ground forces to crush the pocket (at the expense of operations elsewhere in France, granted, but the outcome of the Battle of France is not in doubt) then the precious spin that Churchill milked out of the fiasco would have been unattainable. No “We shall fight on the beaches”, and if Goering had left Fighter Command alone, no “Finest hour”. As it happened, Dunkirk was still a fiasco spun by Churchill - losing all of the BEF’s heavy equipment, for starters. If it wasn’t just left to the Luftwaffe, a disaster turns into calamity even he is unable to paint in a good light. I’m not saying the Germans would have found it easy, but without a halt order you have ground forces in the mix too.
That’s why in my OP, it’s Goering and his Luftwaffe which take a different path.

On Hitler’s attitude towards Britain, I disagree. War with Britain and her Commonwealth was not in Germany’s interests, which were primarily on the continent. I could mention Hitler’s views as expressed in Mein Kampf again, but repetition is a bit boring so let’s see what German sources thought of the Tommies.

From the same link as above.

I’m also not convinced that Hitler knew that Britain (and France) would actually declare war if he invaded Poland, especially given how they’d rolled over on the Sudetenland the previous year. More akin to calling a bluff than picking a deliberate fight. Given the Phoney War (which gave rise to the concept of the western betrayal of Poland - the Polish Plan West expected aid from their nominal allies, aid that never came), Hitler was right in thinking that Britain and France simply weren’t ready for war in 1939 and called the bluff. The rest, as they say, is history…

IIRC WWII Germany did not have any long range bombers. I think the JU-88 was about the longest ranged bomber they had and it was definitely not a long range bomber.

Supposedly they were kicking around ideas for the “Amerika Bomber” which would reach New York from Europe but I do not think it ever got off the drawing board.

No doubt if they put their minds to it they could have developed a long range bomber but that would have taken time.

From a high-level view it’s hard to see Germany defeating Russia short of a panic treaty by Stalin. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things that went wrong for Germany after the start of Barbarossa that it’s easy to make a case that they do win.

On thing that hasn’t been mentioned so far: if Britain sues for peace after Dunkirk then the Luftwaff doesn’t go through the disastrous Battle of Britain and likely makes more of an impact in the Eastern Front.

We could also do what-if’s in Russia’s favor: what if Statlin hadn’t purged his high command in the years before Barbarossa?

I was speaking of a hypothetical situation. With resources freed up from not having to fight England, the Luftwaffe could have focused more on R&D than sheer production, as there would have been no air threat to Occupied Europe or Germany at all. The inevitable resumption of the war with Britain (after the hypothetical 1940 truce, and after the neutralization of the Soviet Union) would not have occured until the Germans developed a long-range strategic bomber fleet. And of course, if they had developed the atomic bomb by then, game over for England, though not necessarily for the US.

Unlikely. The US had committed to investigating uranium fission even before Pearl Harbor; and if Japan attacked in this counterfactual the US and UK would be allies against the Japanese and presumably the joint research would have taken place. Meanwhile, an increasingly paranoid Hitler was micromanaging everything and had dismissed atomic energy as “Jewish physics”. Chances are still better than even the US/UK would have a working A-bomb before Germany.

I’m more prone to believe that he simply didn’t care than that he felt certain one way or the other that the British and French would keep to their guarantees of Poland’s independence. He was going to make war on France at some point regardless, and that meant war with Britain. Regarding the Sudetenland, the British and French provided no guarantees to the Czechs during the crisis and in fact told them they were on their own if they didn’t accept the agreement worked out in Munich between the British, French, and Germans – an agreement that Czechoslovakia was not even a party to.

This speaks more of Hitler’s sometimes delusional thinking than anything else. Keeping mainland Europe from being dominated by a single nation had been British policy and a core national interest going back centuries. Their safety from having defeat forced upon them provided by the English Channel and their ability to opportunistically harass at the mainland provided by control of the seas go back centuries as well.