The two “what if”s of September 1939


Eighty years ago, Germany invaded Poland from the west, the north and the south, starting World War Two. Seventeen days later. the Soviet Union invaded from the east, completing the encirclement, an action described by the British “Daily Worker” newspaper in its page one headline as “Soviet Union strikes a blow against Nazis”*. Together, the two totalitarian powers proceeded to dismember “the monstrous child of the Versailles treaty” (Molotov’s words). The rest is bloody history, nearly six years of it, with tens of millions of combatants and civilians dead, from the icy waters of north Atlantic through the outskirts of Moscow and deserts of Libya to jungles of the Solomon Islands.

Contrary to deterministic thinking, nothing in history is preordained or inevitable; only our hindsight makes it so, as accustomed as we are to being the legatees of one particular path of events. It’s easy to think of a number of alternative scenarios for September 1939, though far more difficult to conceptualise their consequences, as the world today would be vastly different as a result.

The first “what if” is a reasonably well know one: what if, after declaring war on Germany on 3 September, Britain and France, instead of sitting on their hands, actually attacked Germany? This counter-factual applies more to France, since it had its troops on the ground, lined up along the border, but the Brits could have in any case assisted with their air force. Instead, Europe settled in for seven months of the “phony war”, allowing Germany to digest its conquest, rearm and turn West against Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and finally France. The last opportunity was lost to unseat Hitler at a relatively low cost, at least in comparison to what actually happened.

It’s quite well accepted that Germany was very vulnerable all throughout September, with the bulk of its armed forces engaged in Poland. In fact, some 85 per cent of the German military machine (including 90 per cent of its air power) at the time was committed to Case White, as the invasion had been codenamed. The Reich itself had been denuded of troops and equipment, with the French border being garrisoned with inferior reserve units. Virtually no tanks and only 300 guns faced several thousand of each belonging to the French army. The French had in fact planned an invasion of Saar with 40 divisions to relieve the Polish Army; in a little known incident of World War Two, eleven divisions actually crossed the German border on 7 September and advanced up to 8 kilometres, meeting only sporadic resistance. There the matters stood, with more typical inactivity, until the French troops were ordered back to the Maginot Line on 21 September, there to stay until being fatally outflanked in May and June 1940.

As Alfred Jodl testified during his unsuccessful defence at the Nuremberg Trials, “if we did not collapse already in the year 1939 that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign, the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions.”

The second “what if” is somewhat more speculative. In late August, the Soviet Union signed the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact with Germany, effectively green-lighting Hitler’s invasion of Poland a few days later. The secret protocols attached to the pact stipulated for the division of Central Europe between the two powers, with the Soviet Union being rewarded for its cooperation with the Nazis with the gift of eastern Poland, the Baltic states and Bessarabia, or the north-eastern Romania (as well as, it transpired later, the German non-interference during the Soviet invasion of Finland).

The Soviets were not naive (even if Stalin discounted all the indications of the coming German attack in 1941) to believe in a long-term friendship with Nazi Germany. There are strong indications that the Soviet Union intended to attack Germany, perhaps sometime in 1942, but Hitler beat it to the punch. The official Russian justification for the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact has certainly always been that the Soviet Union needed to buy itself extra time to prepare for this eventual showdown, since in 1939 it was still nowhere near ready (not least because of Stalin’s decapitation of the Red Army’s top leadership during the Great Terror a few years before).

But what if that was Stalin’s greatest miscalculation ever? By 17 September, when the Red Army crossed the eastern borders of Poland in accordance with the secret partition agreement, it was pretty clear to all that Poland was close to a military defeat (it would have hold on for longer, of course, without the Soviet stab in the back, but this would not have changed much without the Western allies’ military involvement, which never eventuated). While the German armed forces were winning, they were also overcommitted and overstretched. The German high command expected a quicker and easier victory and were taken aback by the ferocity of Polish resistance, despite clear German superiority in armour, air power and logistics. By the second half of September, some ammunition stocks were beginning to run low (particularly bombs) and motorised equipment, from tanks to trucks, has been significantly degraded through a combination of attrition and significant wear and tear in Polish autumn.

So what if the Red Army, instead of eventually coming to a halt along the previously agreed demarcation line, kept going west? There was no significant Polish military force to take into account and German army was tired and weakened after three weeks of hard fighting (losing a third of its tanks and 25 per cent of its air force in the process). While Wehrmacht had numerical advantage on the ground, this was only because the Red Army chose to invade Poland with half a million men, which was certainly enough to subdue the thinly-held eastern marches, but should they have needed it, the Soviets had reserves to draw upon to even out the field against the Germans. Even with their 33 committed divisions, the Red Army had a significant advantage over the German armed forces in the Polish theatre in terms of armour and air power (two to one for the former).

Who would have triumphed in this 1939 clash of the rival totalitarian war machines? We don’t know, of course, except that at the time of the invasion of Poland, Germany was militarily at its weakest point it would be until the final months of World War Two. Should the Red Army have proven victorious in September and October 1939, it would have likely ended up in Berlin in a matter of weeks, instead of years it eventually took. It’s a reasonable guess that Great Britain and France, faced with the Soviet invasion of the Reich and the looming defeat of Hitler, would have overcome their initial inertia and moved into Germany from the west so as to prevent having the communists proverbially water their horses in the Rhine. In this scenario, we would have ended up with a divided Germany and a divided Europe (though without much of the rest of Central and south-Eastern Europe in the Soviet camp) some six years earlier and without the tens of millions of dead, a ruined continent, and the Holocaust that accompanied World War Two as it actually unfolded.


* by denying Germany the control of Ukraine. This is perhaps not as silly as it initially sounds; had the Germans conquered all of the pre-war Poland without the Soviet assistance, in 1941 they would have had less distance to travel to Moscow. This might have been the decisive factor of World War Two.