What if Operation Barbarossa had never happened?

German general Heinz Guderian (centre), commander of Panzer Group 2, on 20 August 1941

It’s said that 'Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it', a point that is well proven by Adolf Hitler when he ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. During the same month 129 years prior, Napoleon had crossed the border into Russia with similar lofty ideals of conquering the Red Army. That invasion famously ended in catastrophic failure, as would Hitler's a century later.

Operation Barbarossa, the codename for Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, has gone down in history as one of the greatest military mistakes ever. It is estimated that during WW2, 80% of German casualties came on the Eastern Front, equating to more than three million lives. Hitler’s two-front war proved too much for his fascist state and ultimately the decision to invade the Soviet Union cost him the conflict.

But what if Hitler never went east? What if Germany’s military generals had convinced the Führer not to invade? How might the war have turned out differently?

Diving into the world of alternate history is a fascinating and explorative endeavour that opens up a multitude of possibilities. However, there is a gleamingly obvious tether surrounding our question, limiting the number of realistic avenues that we can consider when it comes to answering this particular question.

Simply put, Hitler always planned on invading the Soviet’s as communism was the natural ideological enemy to fascism. Hitler intended to conquer the country, enslave or exterminate the ‘subhuman’ native Slavic people, exploit the country’s vast resources and ultimately provide his ‘master race’ the Lebensraum (‘living space’) they needed.

So for us to consider a world where Operation Barbarossa never happened, it would have to be one that didn't include Hitler. A more realistic approach to this question should therefore contemplate the scenario of Barbarossa being delayed and how things might have turned out had that occurred.

During planning for Barbarossa, Hitler’s generals attempted to convince the Führer that such an operation would likely be a vast drain on Germany’s economy and resources. Hitler ignored them but let’s pretend that in this new timeline he accepts their words of caution and temporarily puts a halt to the planned invasion of the east.

Where might he turn his attention to instead? By mid-1941, Hitler had all but given up on any plans to conquer Britain after losing the Battle of Britain. Could he possibly turn his attention back towards Blighty? The argument 'for' is a strong one considering the amount of manpower and resources that went into the Eastern Front. Without such a drain, efforts could be effectively piled into Operation Sea Lion, Germany's codename for the planned invasion of Britain. However, the argument 'against' is perhaps even stronger.

Germany's military might was in its army; it was a land-based force that could not compete against the might of the Royal Navy. For any invasion across the Channel to be successful, Hitler needed to not only control the skies but also the waves. Hitler would have had to significantly bolster and upgrade his navy (the Kriegsmarine) if any amphibious assault on Britain was to occur.

Even if they had done this, Britain still had its RAF intact as well as American Land-Lease support. Hitler also had no real drive to conquer and invade Britain. Ultimately, he just wanted Britain out of the war so he could focus his efforts eastwards. He never intended on fighting a two-front war, in fact, he always hoped Britain and Germany could be allies.

So after postponing Barbarossa, Hitler would be more likely to use the time to squeeze Britain further, tightening the noose and forcing them into a peace treaty. To do that, Hitler would probably turn his attention to the Mediterranean and North Africa.

In our reality, Hitler didn't give the North African theatre the kind of attention and resources it required to secure a Nazi victory. However, in our altered timeline resources are now not going east, in fact, supplies are flooding in from that direction as agreed in the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact signed in 1939. The Führer now decides to send his men and might southwards. Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps receive reinforcements, aiding them in their push across Libya and Egypt towards the Suez Canal, which they capture in late 1941/early 1942.

With the Suez now under Nazi control, the British have lost a major logistical supply route and their position in the Middle East has been compromised. With his economic and military might still in the west, Hitler then conducts successful invasions of Malta and Gibraltar putting further pressure on the British. The Brits are then either forced to the negotiating table or at the least hampered from making any efforts that might cause Hitler significant concerns in the west.

With British capabilities now limited, Hitler perhaps provides assistance to Japan in South East Asia, aiding its ally's attempts to control the region. If successful, and it is a big 'if' considering America still had interests in the area, it would leave Japan in a promising position to open up another front against the Soviets when Hitler decides to invade them.

The gains in North Africa and the Middle East have provided Hitler with the oil resources his Wehrmacht so desperately crave. One of the key parts of Operation Barbarossa was the capturing of the Soviet oil fields in the Caucuses. Without the pressure for a fuel supply, Hitler's new invasion east would take on a different look, one that is perhaps more effective.

The next question to ask is whether Hitler declares war on the Soviets or whether Stalin gets there first and declares war on Nazi-Germany. In our reality, Stalin was completely unprepared for Hitler’s invasion in 1941. In the first few days of the assault a demobilised and disorganised Soviet army, still reeling from Stalin’s purges, was caught on the back foot and forced to retreat hundreds of miles.

However, in this altered timeline, Hitler’s delayed invasion gives Stalin time to bulk up his forces as well as ramp up the war economy, which begins to pump out numerous tanks and planes. Like Hitler, Stalin was always under the same belief that the two ideologies would be forced into a fight eventually. The pact they signed in 1939 was meant to last ten years, whilst that was always a stretch, the idea was to give each other enough time to prepare for the coming war.

With the USSR now better organised for the fight, Stalin could well be the one to instigate it and order the invasion of Germany, especially after witnessing Hitler’s gains in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Would the better-prepared Soviet’s eventually conquer Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe or would Hitler’s gains in the south be enough to drive through a victory for the Wehrmacht? Or would it all end in a stalemate, with the two sides carving out a new geopolitical landscape in Europe? Or would the American atomic bomb still have something to say about things?

We’ll let you decide.