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Niall Ferguson, Virtual History: Extract

In this extract Ferguson takes these different essays and weaves them into a counterfactual narrative history. Here he deals with how the Second World War could have come about.

When the German challenge came therefore, it found Anglo-America unready. Historians will doubtless never cease to ask if an earlier increase in the pace of rearmament could have averted ‘the deluge’. But such speculation simply ignores the strength of the forces arrayed against any more assertive policy. The reality was that the German centralisers led by Hitler were able to transform the federal Europe created in 1916 into an increasingly centralised ‘leader-state’ without paying the slightest heed to Anglo-American views. First the German states themselves were merged into a single state in 1938. Austrian troops marched into Berlin to a rapturous welcome, and the provinces or Moravia and Bohemia were formally deprived of their traditional rights – this in the wake of a summit meeting between Hitler and the new British Prime Minister Clement Attlee (who had succeeded MacDonald on the latter’s death in 1937). Then, in 1939, the Germans turned to the rest of the European Union. Poland was partitioned in September 1939, its western provinces being absorbed into the Reich. The next year it was the turn of France and Italy.
What no one was prepared for, however, was the invasion of Britain which followed almost immediately after the German occupation of Paris. In fact, Hitler had been secretly preparing this for some time, so that immense amounts of shipping had been concentrated in the Maas and the Scheldt estuaries by late May. When this naval force was unleashed, the antiquated destroyers of the Royal Navy, some of which had been commissioned when Churchill was still at the Admiralty, were overwhelmed. Confronted by the combined might of the Luftwaffe and an invasion force equipped with superior weaponry (including tanks, an innovation of the previous war with which the British were unfamiliar), the defending forces stood no chance. The thirteen German divisions which landed on the morning of 30 May swept through the 1st London Division defending the vital line between Sheppey and Rye, and by 7 June had reached the outskirts of London.

Niall Ferguson (ed.) Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (London: Papermac, 1997) pp.430-1

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