What If Germany Had Won the First World War?

Allied propaganda envisaged of a globe-spanning German empire. It turned out rather differently.

Many a what-if has been written about a German victory in World War II. Alternate histories of a German victory in World War I are less popular, but they exist. Indeed, people started thinking about the consequences of a German victory during the war itself and feared it might give way to a German empire spanning nearly the whole of Europe.

Here is a look at some of the maps that have been produced to show a hypothetical German victory in what was at the time called simply “the Great War”.

Morgen die ganze Welt!

1917 map by Stanford's Geographical Establishment of Germany's supposed war aims
1917 map by Stanford’s Geographical Establishment of Germany’s supposed war aims (Cornell University Library)

We begin with an alarmist map from 1917 (possibly 1918) that pulls together disparate quotes from a few military thinkers and a quite a few more fantasists to argue that Germany’s war aims encompassed half the globe. It was clearly meant to cajole Americans into supporting the war and bears little relation to reality.

A German Europe

Map of Germany's presumed war aims in 1917
Map of Germany’s presumed war aims in 1917 (The British Dominions Year Book 1918)

The British were less panicky, but this map published in The British Dominions Year Book 1918 still looks incredible in hindsight. It gives the Germans all of Eastern Europe, from Finland in the north to the Caucasus in the south, and has the Austrians seizing what are now Romania and Serbia.

The map doesn’t say where it got its ideas from except “an officially circulated pamphlet published in the beginning of 1917.”

Greater Prussia

Fictional map of Prussia in 1924
Fictional map of Prussia in 1924 (1Blomma)

This looks more reasonable. It’s a map of Prussia as it would have continued to exist inside a victorious German Empire. The lightest-blue acquisitions are fictional: Flanders and an Ardennes Province in the west, where Belgium used to be, and a Southeast Prussia and Lodz in the east, in what is now Poland.

The map was made by a Swedish artist who goes by “1Blomma”. It assumes the 1918 Spring Offensive was successful and forced the French out of the war. The Germans would then first occupy the Belgian and French territories east of the Meuse River and later seize Flanders as well when it elected an anti-German government.

Click here for the original.

War aims in the West

Animation of the Schlieffen Plan
Animation of the Schlieffen Plan (BBC/The Great War)

What if the infamous Schlieffen Plan — which proposed to trap the French armies between the Atlantic coast and their fortresses on the German border by attacking through neutral Belgium — had worked? (Some military historians in Germany contended after the war it could have if only Helmuth von Moltke had stuck with the plan. More recent analysis suggests it was doomed from the start.)

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg set out Germany’s war aims in 1914 in the so-called Septemberprogramm. The purpose was to weaken France to such an extent that it could never wage war on Germany again. All fortifications in a zone running from Dunkirk in the west to Boulogne in the east were to be razed. Germany would seize the iron mines at Briey and force a commercial treaty on the French for the benefit of its own enterprises.

Belgium was to partially incorporated into the German Empire; Luxembourg was to be annexed altogether. The Netherlands would remain independent but brought into the German fold. Perhaps, Von Bethmann-Hollweg suggested, Antwerp could be given to the Dutch in exchange for a customs union and alliance?

Vassals in the East

1915 propaganda map of Germany's presumed war aims
1915 propaganda map of Germany’s presumed war aims (Imperial War Museum)

This 1915 propaganda map gets plenty wrong. There was no German plan to occupy England, for example, nor one to restore an independent Scotland. But the Baltic and Polish parts get close to the truth.

In the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the new Bolshevik government in Russia ceded the Baltic states and what used to be Poland to Germany. The plan was to turn them into vassals under German leadership.

The treaty also recognized an independent Ukraine, which the Germans planned to carve up into spheres of influence with Austria.

The Germans toyed with annexing the Crimea and creating new states in the Caucuses. The emperor’s youngest son, Prince Joachim of Prussia, was briefly considered a candidate for the throne of Georgia after it declared its independence from Russia in 1917. But no serious plans were made for this and obviously nothing came of it.

Dismemberment of an empire

German propaganda map from 1936, showing territorial losses suffered after the First World War
German propaganda map from 1936, showing territorial losses suffered after the First World War (Cornell University Library)

In reality, Germany lost about a tenth of its population and territory in Europe after the war: Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France after forty years of German control; Denmark received Northern Schleswig; Poland got parts of Silesia and West Prussia while the region of Hlučínsko was transferred to Czechoslovakia.

This 1936 map, which was published in German schoolbooks, shows the territorial losses in red and those parts of Germany that were demilitarized under the Versailles Treaty in stripes. What the map calls a “diktat” also established freedom of navigation on Germany’s major waterways, which are highlighted in green: the Danube, Elbe, Oder and Rhine Rivers.

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