What If Germany Had Won the First World War?

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

German president and former field marshal Paul von Hindenburg walks with Prince Oskar of Prussia in Potsdam, June 24, 1924
German president and former field marshal Paul von Hindenburg walks with Prince Oskar of Prussia in Potsdam, June 24, 1924 (Bundesarchiv)

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 be 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 an 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.

Central European empire

1916 map by Wilhelm Greve showing the whole of Central Europe under German control
1916 map by Wilhelm Greve showing the whole of Central Europe under German control (Cornell University Library)

Germany had its own propagandists dreaming of a great victory in Central Europe.

The above map, by Wilhelm Greve, was published in Berlin in 1916. It shows a “liberated” Flanders, France’s northern provinces under occupation and Germany in control of the left bank of the Rhine.

In the Balkans, Albania, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia are also occupied, as is Poland. The rest of Central Europe has been incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Russia has lost some 285,000 square kilometers of its territory.

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 its 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; Hlučínsko was transferred to newly-created 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.

Germany’s peaceful penetration

1920 map of "Germany's peaceful penetration" of the world
1920 map of “Germany’s peaceful penetration” of the world (Cornell University Library)

Despite Germany’s defeat in the war and the dismemberment of its empire, the Western world continued to watch it warily.

This 1920 map warns that Germany is outselling Britain in everything from machine parts to children’s toys and that it is peacefully penetrating non-German parts of the world “with elements of [its] spiritual and material culture.” The Germany of tomorrow “will remain a menace,” the mapmakers said, “because vanquished Germany will renounce neither her ambitions nor her methods.”

The map alleges that Germany is eying control of Eastern Europe and almost the entirety of Africa and South America, yet when it comes to areas with German population it oddly leaves out the United States, which even at the time had a large German minority.

Comments

  • Very interesting article and your right to point out how fantastic allied propaganda could be in demonizing and exaggerating German ambition but I would also add that Imperial Germany also had colonial ambitions and this would have had a global impact. Here are some of my ideas of what COULD have happened had Imperial Germany won the Great War.

    For example if they had won the war they could have made demands on France to cede more of its colonial territories such as the whole French Congo/French Equatorial Africa perhaps other parts of the French empire in Africa. I’m thinking especially of forcing France out of Morocco and turning it at least into a pro-German state to make up for past humiliations with the 1st Moroccan and then the Agadir crisis. As your article hints it is very likely that German victory would have either annexed the whole or part of Belgium, or at the very least turn it into a pro-German puppet state. This would mean that the Belgian Congo would almost certainly have been annexed by Imperial Germany. Another factor is Portugal and its African colonies of Angola and Mozambique as Germany made it no secret that she wanted more territory at their expense. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why Portugal went to war with Germany in 1915.

    German victory in the Great War would have meant she would have gained a huge empire in central Africa at the expense of France, Belgium and Portugal.

    I’m not sure if Imperial Germany would have asked Britain to pay such a heavy price in case of victory. Historical links especially between the Royal families and the necessity of making a lasting peace would have dictated a more cautious approach to Britain by German policy makers (well, if they were wise enough). The most that would have happened would have a return of colonial territories lost during to the British and her Dominion allies in the war especially South West Africa and New Guinea/Pacific islands. The worst consequence for Britain would have been a more assertive and independent minded Boer/Afrikaans lead South Africa which most likely would have been supported by Germany. Dominions like Canada and Australia may themselves have become less dependent on the UK for security and emphasise their independence more from the mother country and build up their relationships with the USA as in this history. Other parts of its empire would most likely have risen in rebellion after the alternative armistice especially in India and Ireland. In fact, one should not forget what Germany’s ally the Ottoman Turks would have demanded and it seems that Britain (and Italy) would be expected to cede territories such as Egypt, Sudan, British Somaliland, Aden, Muscat and the Trucial states, while Italy would probably be expected to cede Libya and the Dodecanese at least. However, I doubt that Imperial Germany would have being a permanent and reliable ally to Turkey and risk aggravating Britain and others, so that its hard to say whether Turkey’s ambitions would have been satisfied although she could have benefitted at Russia’s expense in the Caucasus and possibly Central Asia.

    It is unlikely though that Imperial Germany would have been able to get back lost territories in China and the Pacific from Japan. The latter would have been in a strong position after the war and Germany would have found it difficult to risk war far away in the far-east for such small territories.

    Other consequences could have been growing German economic influence on a Global level and possible competition for influence in Latin America with the USA.

    Finally, it is unlikely that Zionism would have been able to get a ‘Balfour-like Declaration’ from Zimmerman or whoever to support a mass return to Palestine. Not only would the Ottomans refuse but without the rise of Nazi movement (which benefitted from Germany’s defeat in real history) would many of Europe’s Jews be attracted to migrating to a rather backward and impoverished ‘homeland’. However, even if there was no Israel it should not be assumed that the Zionist dream would have died. Nationalist demands would most likely have surfaced in a German dominated Europe and amongst colonized peoples. Therefore, it is almost certain that Jewish nationalism would have become a force amongst Jews in Europe and America whether they were religious and secular. There would have been far larger Jewish communities in world today and they could have pushed for some kind of partial return to their ancient homeland.

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