Sunday, June 30, 2013

An Alternate World War II: H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come

Reading Wells' The Shape of Things to Come from the standpoint of eight decades on, one is, of course, struck by how far the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries verged from his anticipations. Certainly his expectations about the conflicts that led to World War II are no exception; rather than the last gasp of the nation-state, they led to the birth of far more states (as a result of decolonization), and the dominance of international politics, and certainly the European politics on which he focused, by two states of unprecedented strength (the U.S. and Soviet Union). Yet, I was also struck by the number of parallels between his anticipations and what actually happened in the war--what he got right as well as wrong. Below is a list of the parallels that caught my eye.

* The war is ongoing by 1940.
* Despite widespread nationalistic hysteria, there is little enthusiasm among the civilian populations of the countries marching off to war.
* Germany's rearmament is an open process as well as a secret one.
* The war begins with fighting between Germany and Poland over Danzig.
* While war rages in northeastern Europe, Italy expands in the Balkans.
* Despite its commitments to its East European allies, France hesitates to fully enter the fray.
* While fighting Germany in the west, Poland finds itself attacked in the east by Soviet action.
* Germany and Austria are unified.
* There is a confluence between the initially separate aggressions of Germany and Italy into a common conflict between these powers on one side, and their enemies on the other, that extends "from the Pyrenees to Siberia."
* Hungary and Bulgaria fight on the same side as the German-Italian "Axis," entering the action through their participation in the invasion and occupation of Yugoslavia.
* The Axis entry into Yugoslavia is challenged by a significant guerrilla campaign.
* In East Asia, Japan invades "China proper," leading to open warfare between it and the United States.
* The war continues for several years in both Europe and Asia.
* Aerial warfare is a significant part of the conflict, with the belligerents relying on it heavily to achieve their aims. It is also highly indecisive--while still killing millions.
* The war contributes powerfully to the collapse of Europe's dominion over the rest of the world.
* The war sees the Soviet Union expand inside Europe, gaining territory at Poland's expense, and also establishing a new Soviet republic on territory taken from Romania, while more broadly consolidating a sphere of influence in the eastern, predominantly Slavic, part of the continent.

Especially given that the book was published in 1933, six thoroughly eventful years before the outbreak of open warfare among Europe's great powers, this is an impressive list of good calls, which comprise a substantial part of the war's outline as well as numerous particular details of its course--and testify to his real insight into the events of his time. Still, Wells got a great deal wrong, and it does not do to gloss over these, least of all those attributes of the conflict that may have been foreseeable. Two errors are particularly striking (certainly where the larger shape of the European war is concerned). The first is that he expected a smaller number of major powers to take part as belligerents than actually did so, particularly in Europe--his scenario excluding Britain and the United States from the fighting on the continent, while the Soviet Union and Germany also did not come to blows. The second is that he anticipated a "limited" effort on the part of those actors that did fight, waging a technologically sophisticated but economically constrained war.

Nonetheless, this may not have been so unlikely as it now appears. While Wells characterized Hitler as "the voice of Germany losing control," and viewed the country as having been maddened by the situation of Danzig, he anticipated a weak Germany--weak enough, in fact, that in the conflict over Danzig, it is Poland which strikes the first large-scale blow (with an air raid on Berlin), and then holds its own in the subsequent war, even with a Soviet-backed rebellion in Polish Ukraine. At the same time, he also anticipated a much weaker United States, much less able to intervene in a European war.

This was, in part, a reflection of his expectation that the Depression represented the final collapse of capitalism. Wells was aware of the American New Deal, and regarded it as a step in the right direction, but predicted that it would prove unsuccessful--not because of any flaw in the economic theory underlying it, but because he thought that American political culture, and American inexperience in such matters, would prevent the Federal government from successfully administering such a program. However, the New Deal actually returned the U.S. economy's output to 1929 levels by 1936, and left it 20 percent larger in 1940. Germany, too, achieved a significant reduction of unemployment, and the recovery of its national output, through "Keynesian" methods.

And of course, each nation was to translate that recovery into a stronger military position, and build on it, with a "military Keynesianism" of a kind which Wells simply seems not to have anticipated (identifying military spending solely with economic strain and privation as he did). Germany followed this course first in 1936, to which one might add that Germany (aided by its appearance of comparative dynamism) also attained a number of political successes that enabled it to further strengthen itself, like the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, and more dramatically, Germany's getting other nations to acquiesce in its union with Austria in 1938, and its absorption of Czechoslovakia in 1939, all of which substantially improved its strategic and military position when hostilities actually began. So did the German army's capacity for high speed and flexible movement, a function in part of its exploitation of the possibilities of the tank in ways that the Allies had failed to do during the '30s.1 The result was not only to make a Polish attack on Germany implausible, but to make Germany's war against Poland short and successful. Indeed, it enabled Germany to turn west and win similar victories over the Low Countries and France.

Had Germany not posed that kind of threat, had it in fact been attacked by Poland, and been unable to achieve better than a draw in that fight, while France dithered about supporting its ally, one could indeed imagine Britain remaining aloof from the conflict, especially if it were distracted by colonial affairs--and the United States being that much less inclined to enter the fray, while the Soviet Union remained content with shoring up its position in eastern Europe. Nonetheless, Germany's growing power and record of expansionism in the interwar period assured British involvement in a German-Polish war on some level. Subsequently, Germany's successes early in the war meant increasing U.S. involvement through its support of Britain, and after December 1941, its own open, direct, full-scale involvement. That involvement, in turn, greatly enlarged the U.S.'s power to act through an extraordinary spurt of war-driven economic growth, American GDP expanding over 70 percent between 1940 and 1945.1

This combination of an economically stronger and expanded Germany capable of threatening all of Europe, and an economically more powerful United States capable of a major transoceanic intervention, are at the root of the other, larger error Wells made about the character of the war, namely its totalistic nature.

Wells' expectation, in line with the fashionable military futurology of the time, was that "the next war" would not be a "total" clash of multimillion-man armies and navies, but a conflict of small, technically oriented establishments emphasizing "aero-chemical" power above their other arms. On that score he, and a great many others, were wrong (especially about the casual attitude of the belligerents toward the use of chemical weaponry). Still, Wells was more astute than many of his contemporaries in appreciating that strategic bombing would not win the quick, decisive, cheap victory enthusiasts of the technique promised--and not for lack of trying, with the U.S. and Britain in particular relying very heavily on this approach.2

Equally, he was right about the European powers trying to avoid a totalistic conflict--as they did in the earlier period of the war, haunted as their leaders were by memories of the domestic upheavals to which World War I led. Britain, and France, certainly refrained from this in the "phony war" phase, after which France was knocked out of the game, and Britain only made a more strenuous effort following the French collapse--an effort which exhausted its foreign exchange reserves by early 1941 (after which vast foreign, and especially American, economic aid was indispensable). Germany, too, was leery of a total war, actually avoiding full-scale mobilization until 1943, after it was embroiled in a losing fight against an alliance that included a fully committed United States and Soviet Union--its run of conquests instead massively subsidizing its efforts.

Putting it another way, it was a stronger Germany's series of swift political and military triumphs over its initial continental opponents (which let Germany go on the offensive so successfully as to leave Britain fighting for its life, and clear the way for an invasion of the Soviet Union), and the economic recovery, and boom, of the United States (which enabled it to not just intervene, but intervene massively), that made the European war truly and lengthily totalistic (the U.S. effort subsidizing Britain's, and along with the strains of the Axis-Soviet war to which Operation Barbarossa led, contributing to Germany's reacting in kind). All of this resulted in a conflict that was shorter than Wells anticipated (ending in 1945 rather than 1949), but far more decisive (with the Allies securing the formal unconditional surrender of the Axis countries, then proceeding to occupy those states and give them entirely new political institutions rather than merely suspending hostilities), and by some measures also more horrific (perhaps 30 million dying on the Eastern Front alone).

By contrast, had the war remained a continental affair among relatively anemic military actors, history might have gone rather more like Wells' anticipation. Indeed, like many a well-reasoned vision of the future which did not actually come to pass, his scenario retains a great deal of interest as a counterfactual long after it has ceased to interest us an anticipation of "things to come."

1. This failure is ironic given that Wells offered an influential presentation of the idea in the 1903 short story "The Land Ironclads."
2. Giulio Douhet, one of the foremost such thinkers, argued in his classic The Command of the Air that a squadron of twenty planes would suffice to "break up the whole social structure of the enemy in less than a week, no matter what his army and navy may do." (This quotation is taken from the Dino Ferrari translation published by Coward-McCann in 1942, where the remark appears on page 142.)

H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come: Eighty Years On


Anonymous said...

Very interessting. I must admit Wells vision was more plausibel then I remembered it. I actually have found my copy again, and will try to read it through. Still after a brief climpse, I have the feelin the war starts actuallay more with a polish attack, after the unrests in Danzig.
Wells also seems to use some handwavium with his plague, which should explain why society collapse after the war. Propably this is the reason why he doesn´t mentioned the Spanih flu, because it shows that society could rather easily srvive such a epidemic.

Nader said...

You're right; I erred about the start of the German-Polish hostilities, and have since corrected the text to reflect that.

And the plague does, admittedly, seem rather extreme. Nonetheless, the effect of the disease in the '50s, compared with the Spanish flu, is stronger in part because of the degree to which society had been weakened and disorganized.

Anonymous said...

Wells seemed also to assume, that Hitler would need more time to take full controll of Germany. He mentioned that between 1932 - 1936 30000 people in Germany are killed and wounded through unrest and political murder. Actually a lot of german emigrants were surprized how fast any resistanz againt Hitler faltered, especially by the communists. From the POV of 1933 it may have been actually unrealistic unrealsitic to assume, Germany would be 1940 already the dominant military power of Europe again.


Nader said...

It was certainly a longshot from the POV of 1933, especially given his not unreasonable expectation that every state would continue suffering economic decay and increasing internal disorder. And that's partly the point here: that his predictions were not so unreasonable as some might think today.

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