Would Hitler Have Used Nuclear Weapons?
In the middle of World War Two, a team of Norwegian resistance fighters embarked on a mission so dangerous, they took cyanide capsules with them in case they fell into the sadistic hands of the Gestapo. Their target was a remote power plant which produced heavy water – a component which could be used by the Nazis to create nuclear weapons.
The audacious, death-defying plan worked, and the plant was dealt a heavy blow, hampering production. But what if they’d failed? Would Hitler really have found himself in possession of the most apocalyptic weapon on Earth, and would he have used it? Here are five different ways things might have panned out…
1. The weapons are never developed anyway
Say the raid has failed. It’s entirely possible the Nazis still don’t go on to develop atomic weapons. For one thing, the Reich simply can’t compete with the Allies in terms of sheer scientific talent. In the years leading up to the war, there had been a severe brain drain as the top German and Austrian physicists, including the likes of Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger, fled the ominous tide of anti-Semitism.
On top of that, the Nazis’ nuclear project is far less well organised than the Allies’. And – by the time of the raid on the plant in 1943 – resources and finances are becoming increasingly stretched as the war turns against Hitler. It might also be argued the Fuhrer himself lacks a real understanding of the significance of nuclear power. In the words of top Nazi Albert Speer, Hitler was “filled with a fundamental distrust of all innovations which, as in the case of jet aircraft or atom bombs, went beyond the technical experience of the First World War generation and presaged an era he could not know.”
2. The weapons are developed but can’t be used
In this reality, Hitler has the weapons but can’t actually put them into use, for purely logistical reasons. After all, it’s a historical fact that the Luftwaffe simply didn’t possess the kinds of vast, heavy bombers needed to transport a bomb on the scale of Little Boy, which would destroy Hiroshima. The nearest thing the Luftwaffe had was the He 177, a notoriously accident-prone plane which German pilots called “flaming coffins”.
It’s also unlikely the Germans could have developed nuclear warheads small enough and tough enough to be deployed in their V-2 ballistic missiles. As a result, even in a scenario where the Nazis develop nukes, the war just carries on as in our reality.
3. Hitler decides against using the weapons
Given Hitler’s genocidal mania, we take it for granted he’d have wasted no time dropping atomic bombs on his enemies. But there’s an argument to be made he wouldn’t have done, even if he could. For example, historians still debate why Hitler held off from using chemical weapons in combat, even though the Nazis had stockpiles of the stuff. Could it be that, despite the gassing of millions of innocent people in the Holocaust death camps, Hitler was somehow morally against using poison gas in combat?
Some would argue his own experience of being gassed in the trenches of World War One meant Hitler was dead against using weapons of mass destruction on the battlefield. The other theory is less charitable towards Hitler, and suggests he didn’t use chemical weapons simply because he feared the Allies responding in kind. Either way, in this admittedly unlikely scenario, Hitler feels similarly squeamish about deploying nuclear weapons, and decides to carry on the war with conventional weapons.
4. Hitler uses them but loses the war anyway
It’s more likely Hitler WOULD have used his nukes if he had the capability to do so. After all, he rained down indiscriminate destruction with his so-called “vengeance weapons”, the V-1 and V-2, killing thousands of civilians. A nuclear bombardment, using hastily created heavy bombers, is the next logical step. But, contrary to doom-laden, dystopian visions, this may not be enough to win the war.
Even if Hitler reduces targets in Britain and the Soviet Union to radioactive craters, the war may just carry on regardless. The US, being safely out of range of any German bombers, takes over emergency control of the stricken UK (much like the Nazis really did in Italy after Mussolini lost power).
Over in Russia, production of armaments continues in various far-flung sites across the vast nation, and the Red Army simply carries on fighting. It’s worth noting that, in our real-world timeline, many, many more Soviet soldiers were killed at Stalingrad than civilians died in the Hiroshima bombing. And yet the Soviet Union still defeated the Nazis.
5. Hitler uses them and wins the war
Finally, the worst possibility of all. Hitler obliterates London and various Soviet targets, and – while the deaths themselves may not necessarily deal a mortal blow to the Allies – the shock to military and civilian morale is immense. The world wakes up to a terrifying new reality in which a belligerent, genocidal dictator has an unthinkably immense weapon in his hands. And all confidence and patriotic spirit falls to pieces.
The threat galvanises high-ranking figures in the US and UK who had always called for appeasement, and very nearly got their way before the war was declared. Now, they argue, is the time to lay down arms and prevent further destruction. A truce may be declared with Roosevelt and Churchill (if the latter has even survived the atomic attack on London), allowing Hitler to divert all his forces to the Eastern Front to either defeat the Soviets, or force a new non-aggression pact with Stalin, leaving the Nazis to reign supreme as a nuclear power across most of Europe.