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If Hitler had fallen in 1918 - or defeated Stalin in 1941

It would have been easy for Pontius Pilate: nothing compelled the Roman governor of Palestine to sentence the alleged rebel Jesus of Nazareth to death.

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If Hitler had fallen in 1918 - or defeated Stalin in 1941

It would have been easy for Pontius Pilate: nothing compelled the Roman governor of Palestine to sentence the alleged rebel Jesus of Nazareth to death. Although the high council in Jerusalem had demanded severe punishment, Pilate was not bound by it.

He could just as well have banished or even acquitted the accused. Pilate was completely free to decide. But what would have happened if Jesus had not been crucified on the hill of Golgotha?

Nobody can answer this question with certainty. All reasoning about hypothetical history is speculative. Nevertheless, such thought experiments are not useless. Because who and what was really important can only be determined by trying to “think away” people and events and play through the effects. If another person had stood in the position of Federal Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, the consequences would have remained manageable. If, on the other hand, one tries to "delete" Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt or Helmut Kohl, the Federal Republic of Germany as it is today can hardly be imagined.

However, speculative history is not limited to “thinking away” people or events. It is also interesting to see which alternative decisions would have been possible for the people involved in a specific situation. From December 9, 2022, the German Historical Museum will be showing the exhibition “Roads not Taken. Or: It could have turned out differently”. The show was inspired by the historian Dan Diner - she uses key dates in German history from 1848 to 1989 to examine what other turns there could have been.

Quite independently of the DHM exhibition, one can formulate criteria as to how it makes sense to think about alternative courses of history – and when it does not go beyond pointless speculation. Because unfinished history has absolutely nothing in common with the infamous “Alternative Facts” of former US President Donald Trump.

The foundation for serious work was laid by the Berlin ancient and cultural historian Alexander Demandt, who since 1983 has repeatedly asked the question "What would have happened if..." at a high level. In his 2010 book “It could have been different” about “Turning Points in German History”, he played through these findings using concrete examples. But other historians also dealt with "alternative history", for example in 1994 at the Leipzig Historian Day, the Kiel professor Michael Salewski in a separate section.

The most important insight: In order to be able to think about historical alternatives with the prospect of gaining knowledge, you have to stick to a few rules. Furthermore, thorough historical knowledge is more important than imagination. A writer's art of storytelling is of no help, but a scientist's sobriety is very helpful.

Demandt shows that one can only deliberately change one single and only one concrete historical event. For example, it is useful to consider the consequences of Pontius Pilate's acquittal of Jesus. On the other hand, the attempt to deny his very existence is doomed to fail: does one only delete the person of Jesus of Nazareth? Then perhaps another of the then frequent lay preachers would have taken his place, for example John the Baptist. Or is it assumed that about two millennia ago there was no need for religious renewal in Palestine? Then you would have to rewrite the entire intellectual history of antiquity - a project with little chance of success.

It is also not possible to meaningfully speculate about every historical event. There must always be enough references to realistic alternatives. Far too little is known about John the Baptist and his teachings to assess the potential appeal of his preaching to broad sections of society if Jesus Christ had not existed. No viable network of arguments can be woven from such a thin rope.

In addition, the further one moves away from the original "change" to the real course of events, the more uncertain the considerations become. Whoever thinks seriously about historical alternatives must therefore always describe all relatively probable courses of history instead of restricting oneself to just a single line of speculation. Had Jesus not been crucified, pagan antiquity might have lasted a few more centuries. But then oriental mystery cults could just as easily have gained spiritual dominance over the Occident. All possibilities are of course more or less likely.

One of the most popular objects of historical speculation is Adolf Hitler. In 1999, military historian John Keegan said he was the “perfect example” for thinking about alternative histories. What would have happened if Private Hitler had died on the western front on October 13, 1918 instead of just going blind for a short time? Or if the “Führer and Reich Chancellor” had been overthrown in September 1938 by generals around Ludwig Beck who were unwilling to go to war? If Claus Stauffenberg's bomb had reached its target on July 20, 1944? After all, what would the world be like if the Third Reich had won the war?

If Hitler had not survived the First World War, the democratic Weimar Republic would probably have failed anyway. There would have been no NSDAP, but certainly another right-wing radical mass party. Like the Italian fascists, they would have called for a “strong state” and fought communism with brutal methods. A right-wing government would probably have started a war, at least against Poland, perhaps also against France, in order to undo the Treaty of Versailles. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine the world war and the murder of millions of Europe's Jews without Hitler's madness.

On the other hand, if the “Führer and Reich Chancellor” had been overthrown and killed before the Munich Agreement in 1938, a new government under Hermann Göring would probably have been content with the status quo. The war would have failed because the revision of the Versailles Treaty had largely been achieved. Hitler, however, would be considered one of the greatest politicians of all time; the downsides of his “successes” – including anti-Semitic politics and the concentration camps – would have quickly disappeared from general awareness.

That would not have been so easy if Hitler had been assassinated by Claus Graf Stauffenberg in 1944. There would inevitably have been a civil war between the Wehrmacht and the SS, the outcome of which would have been open. But even after a successful coup, Germany would have had to capitulate unconditionally. The empire would have been occupied and divided. The Western Allies tried to anchor democratic principles in their zones. But post-war Germany would have had to bear a heavy burden: a "stab in the back" legend like that after the First World War would have found many supporters in Germany and endangered democracy. As brutal as it sounds, it was probably better for Germany that July 20 failed.

Fatherland is a film adaptation of Robert Harris' novel of the same name. The Nazis won the war in it. As SS-Sturmbandfuhrer, Rutger Hauer investigates a murder case that reveals a terrible secret.

Finally, what would have happened if Hitler had won World War II? Not much was missing: Less rain in the fall of 1941 would have made it possible to storm Moscow. If Stalin had subsequently been overthrown or murdered, which is quite conceivable, the Third Reich could have established its reign of terror throughout continental Europe. Great Britain would have had to give in at some point, mainly because the USA would hardly have entered the still largely European war with all its economic power.

What would the consequences have been? Presumably, Albert Speer would have expanded Berlin into the "world capital of Germania", including the "Great Hall" at approximately the location of today's chancellery. However, it is disputed whether this 290 meter high monster could have been technically erected at all. The feature film "Fatherland" (1994), based on the novel of the same name by the British Robert Harris, translates this gloomy vision into fascinating, frightening images.

The example of Hitler also shows that everything could have been much worse. The paradoxical consequence: maybe it's a good thing that the past is as you can read about it in thousands of books.

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