This is essentially a short history of the 20th century from the point of view of HBD realism and the maxim that “population is power.”
This century turned out to be an “American Century.”
But it wasn’t obvious that it was going to be that way – while the United States was almost predestined to play a primary role, several other countries – primarily, Germany and Russia – had the potential to emerge as true peer competitors. And China took a surprisingly long time to emerge out of its slumber.
Why did things turn out the way they did?
Hopes of the Great War
Germany in 1914 was the single strongest Great Power in Europe – had Great Britain or Russia not entered the war, it would have almost certainly crushed France “by Christmas”. Germany had more than 150% of the population of France (65 million to 40 million), more than twice as many men of conscription age (Germany’s TFR was at 5 children per woman during the 1890s, while France’s hovered at 3 children per woman), and to top it all off, its troops consistently had 25% more combat effectiveness than the French and British. France wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Germany’s war aims involved annexing large chunks of France, levying massive indemnities on the losers, annexing or controlling Belgium, converting the western parts of the Russian Empire into German vassal states, and making a continental economic association dominated by Germany. This would be the EU on steroids, under German political suzerainty. It would consequently speak on equal terms with Britain on naval and colonial matters.
Probability: Benefit of hindsight and all that, but had the Schlieffen Plan been carried out as originally intended, without weakening its outermost wing, and if German divisions hadn’t been panickedly redirected towards the Eastern Front, there’s a good possibility that France might have been knocked out in 1914. And had France lost, then Germany would have almost certainly crushed Russia in 1915. As it was, the French held, and for the next two years, no side in particular could be said to have been winning, though the situation on the home front in the Central Powers was deteriorating at a faster pace due to the British naval blockade. The critical turning point came in early 1917, when unrestricted submarine warfare and Zimmermann’s extraordinary blunder helped coax the United States into the war. After that, the odds shifted sharply against Germany, Russia’s revolutionary troubles and the French mutinities after the Nivelle Offensive regardless. The collapse of Russia gave Germany a reprieve, and a second chance to seal the deal before American reinforcements made themselves felt. But after the Second Battle of the Marne it was all over; a bloodied, strangled, and mutinying Germany could not hope to resist the more than 100,000 new American troops pouring into the European theater every month.
Consequences: A victorious Germany would have been a strong challenger to the United States, but its position would have been fragile nonetheless – the major loser states of Europe (France, Italy, Russia) would have been resentful, with France and Russia in particular coveting their lost territories; Britain would be deeply hostile, its natural reaction to any continental hegemon, and doing its utmost to foment new coalitions against Germany; and Russia in particular, despite being shorn of much of its territory, would still be developing much more quickly and healthily had it not been hobbled by Communism. Germany’s geostrategic position would remain precarious.
Had France won on its own terms, Germany would have been basically finished as an independent Great Power: Alsace-Lorraine and the Saar would have been re-annexed, the West Rhineland would have been demilitarized for the next 30 years at best if not occupied for the indefinite future, and there were ideas about breaking up Germany into its constituent states altogether.
However, France itself obviously would not had the demographic weight or momentum to dominate the 20th century. Moreover, Britain was not going to be much more supportive of French and Russian territorial expansionism than they would have been of German.
The country that would have prematurely emerged as a superpower – in the late 1910s, as opposed to 1945 – would have been the Russian Empire.
Russia was neither winning nor losing in WW1. Geographically, it was winning strongly against Turkey and Austria-Hungary, but only holding the line against Germany. Despite initial difficulties with shell production, the Russian Army by 1916 was a well-supplied and well-fed force capable of successful large-scale offensives. The Russians, for their part, did not consider themselves to be losing; the Budenovka had been designed and mass produced for the victory parade in Berlin and Constantinople.
The February Revolution, which only occurred by a fluke of weather and miscommunication, portended massive problems for the war effort. Even so, though much is made of desertions in 1917, it’s worth pointing out that Russia was unique in having issued edicts abolishing the death penalty in the military, allowing soldiers’ soviets, and allowing Bolshevik agitators free reign to demoralize the Russian armies. Most of these radical and insane measures were getting revoked after the first half-year of the Provisional Government’s rule, with accompanying improvements in morale and offensive capability. Certainly holding out for another year – probably even less, since the Germans would not have had access to Western Russia’s resources and would have not have been able to release troops for their final western offensives – would have been perfectly feasible. But as it was, a further series of incredible mistakes and flukes led to the Bolshevik coup and the collapse of the Russian as the Bolsheviks unilaterally demobilized Russia’s 7 million man military.
Romanovs, not Hohenzollerns, would have headed the kingdoms of Poland and Bohemia (which was highly Russophile at that time); Romania and Serbia would also be allies; needless to say, the Ukraine would remain in the Russian Empire. The only country that could be expected to be unhappy with this arrangement is Poland. Germany itself could be expected to be resentful at its territorial losses, but these would sooner (conveniently) be directed towards Poland. Finally, the Turks would have been bottled up within internal Anatolia, with Constantinople (Tsargrad) going to Russia and Western Armenia forming a land bridge all the way to the Holy Land. With control of the Bosphorus, the Mediterranean gradually becomes a Russian lake as the Great Naval Program is resumed post-1918. In this scenario, it is plausible that a Cold War would develop between France/Great Britain and Russia.
Much of this became moot in 1917. The Provisional Government denounced annexations, and in any case, the United States’ entry into the war meant its rhetoric about national self-determination would also need to be honored to some extent. Russia’s territorial gains after this point would have likely been limited to just Galicia, but then again, it hardly needed more territory. This may well have been the most stable postwar configuration. There would be no cause for a Cold War between Russia and the West. Germany would remain resentful – if not as much had the more maximalist territorial ambitions of France/Russia been met – but Russia would have had no cause to cooperate with it as the outcast USSR had to, and Nazis would not have come to power in Germany without the Bolshevik menace.
Russia Shoots Itself in the Foot
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Bolsheviks lost Russia its century, and in all likelihood its future for all time. This is a point made all the more painful by the fact that it was largely self-inflicted, whereas Germans could at least reconcile themselves with the thought that they made two “honest” attempts to achieve world supremacy.
Demographics: No Bolshevism means no Russian Civil War, no famine, no collectivization, no Great Famine, no Great Terror, no World War II because they left the job unfinished in the first one, no post-war famine to mark Stalin’s “gratitude” to the Russian people, no alcoholization epidemic. It would not have had a population of 600 million, as Dmitry Mendeleev (yes, that one) projected for the end of the century. But it would be vastly higher than today.
One massive study headed by Russian demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky calculated that without the demographic catastrophes of the 20th century, the population just within Russia’s borders would have constituted 282 million by 2000 – that’s almost exactly twice its actual figure.
Not to get into an extended debate about the Ukraine Question, but it also seems obvious that a Russia whose brand was pumped up by victory in the Great War (or at least not tainted by defeat), which was not forcibly identified with Bolshevism and divided up into ethnic republics with artificial borders, and which didn’t create man-made famines in the Ukraine in the 1930s would have remained quite solidly unified. Since the Ukraine and Belorussia had even higher demographic losses than Russia due to Soviet tyranny and WW2 German depredations, respectively, their end of century populations can also be safely doubled. Adding in Russian settlers in Southern Siberian (northern Kazakhstan), you would have a population of 400 million 100 IQ Slavs.
The question of whether Finland, the Caucasian states, southern Central Asia, and the Baltic states would remain is more questionable. If so, that would be another 100 million.
Economics. With primary enrollment above 80% by 1914, and projected by the Education Ministry to reach 100% by 1925 – in the event, the Civil War postponed that to 1930 – full literacy was “locked in.” A Russian economy that didn’t lose out on more than a decade of economic development, only to be consequently burdened and distorted by central planning, would have converged to broadly West European living standards, like East-Central Europe was doing prior to the Soviet occupation, and as the Mediterranean states progressively managed to do after WW2.
Culture/Science. It is equally obvious that a country with Europe’s second largest number of university students in 1914 after Germany, which was spared “philosophers’ ships,” the abolition of university entrance exams in the 1920s, Lysenkoism, Stalin’s mass murders, sharashkas, and subsequent decades of ideological orthodoxy would have generated much more science, culture, and soft power.
What could have been: A half-billion population continental superpower with a GDP comparable to that of the United States producing vast amounts of science and culture.
What the Bolsheviks created: A 145 million population rump empire with a GDP comparable to that of Germany (if measured on a PPP-basis; otherwise, Spain) producing as much science as the University of Cambridge; in the long-term, probably destined to be a mere resource appendage of China, with little more than the sight of Germany “doing away with itself” and an America turning into Greater Mexico to console itself with.
De Tocqueville had forecast a bipolar world dominated by the United States and Russia. While American military planners were writing of them being the last two superpowers before WW2 had even ended, by dint of “geographical position and extent, as well as vast munitioning potential,” as Paul Kennedy points out in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, “of the two, the American “superpower” was vastly superior.” In 1945, the US accounted for half the world’s manufacturing output; the USSR was a military giant with feet of clay. While it slowly gained on the US up until the 1970s, the legacy of its demographic bloodletting and economic inefficiency precluded true parity from ever being achieved – up until the point its own historyless elites sold it down the river.
Germany’s Missed Opportunity
Germany’s plans for WW2 victory are relatively well-known: Apart from the total extermination of Jews within Europe, it would also gobble up Lebensraum in Eastern Europe. Generalplan Ost called for the genocide of most of the European Slavic populations through a threefold approach: Outright extermination; helotization; and selective assimilation of the more Aryan-looking Slavs into the German race. Moscow and Leningrad would be wiped off the surface of the Earth. Some Russians would be expelled into a rump USSR behind the Urals. In Robert Harris’ Fatherland, the post-war Nazi regime wages an unpopular Vietnam-style campaign against Soviet partisans around the Urals in order to build character and patriotism amongst its conscript soldiers.
Probability: I think the objective chances of German victory in 1941-42 were high. They made three critical meta-mistakes:
(1) Declaring war on the United States.
In that case, there be no American Lend-Lease, which was critical for making up deficiencies in Soviet production (e.g. copper wire, aviation gasoline). There would also be no “second front” in the form of the bombing campaign, which put a crimp on German production when they did start to ramp it up. The Soviets would have never enjoyed air superiority, and the resources invested into AA defense would have gone into more tanks and artillery.
(2) Treating the peoples of the occupied territories and POWs extremely harshly.
They could have always just promised them everything, then drawn out the daggers once the USSR was definitively defeated. I guess it doesn’t pay to be prematurely nasty.
(3) Waiting too long to go into full economic mobilization.
German military production peaked in 1944, when the air campaign was at its peak and the Allied armies were already closing in.
Consequences: With France and the European USSR occupied, Germany would dominate the entirety of the North European Plain, making it truly strategically secure. Germany was behind in the nuclear program, but massively ahead on missile technology; a rapid victory over the USSR would have also allowed it to reassign production points into air defense and a heavy bomber force. It would also embark on a bigger buildup of its U-Boat fleet, which might enable it to force Britain to sue for peace.
The idea of a Nazi German superpower is the topic of countless alternative histories from The Man in the High Castle to Wolfenstein. Their economic system wasn’t the best, but it was still far more efficient than central planning. German population perhaps at around 150-200 million today, comparable to the White population of the United States, and of similar quality. It would also form an economic association with 200 million other Europeans, with itself at the center. There would be resentment against its hegemony, but Nazi Germany would also be far more ruthless in crushing it than its Wilhelmine Germany. In this scenario, I would sooner bet against the United States.
The results for Europe’s non-German nations would be pretty glum, ranging from various degrees of extermination to mere subjugation. In all fairness, there were many power centers in Germany (what some historians call “polycratic chaos”), with different ideas about what to do with the occupied territories. Perhaps there would have been no extermination of the Slavs, but merely their breakup into small, German-dependent entities such as the Lokot Autonomy, with mentions of Russia rigorously suppressed/replaced with terms such as the “Muscovite state” (funnily enough, this sort of historiography live on amongst Ukrainian nationalists). The Germans allowed prostitution and abortion to flourish in France while suppressing it in Germany, in the belief that they would accelerate France’s “race degeneration” into demographic irrelevance; on the other hand, Himmler once suggested killing 80% of the French population. It’s hard to tell what would have happened. One might also point out that Hitler was in ill health by 1944, and unlikely to live past 1950. The successor would have played a large role in determining what would later happen, e.g. a hardcore ideologue such as Himmler, the more practical German military, or the hedonistic and corrupt, but not very ideological Goering.
The American Singleton
The US unambiguously won the war – it accounted for something like 50% of world manufacturing production by 1945. It dominated all the markets. From the late 1940s, it effected a blisteringly rapid buildup of nuclear arms. The USSR, in contrast, had been economically hollowed out by the war. Some 40% of its military-aged male population was gone, and a good part of the rest was incapacitated. Its nuclear deterrent would not become credible until 1955 or so.
In the late 1940s-early 1950s, if it had really wanted to, the United States could in theory have conquered the entire world and/or instituted a one world government.
In this scenario, the USSR/Russia would probably have been ended as a world power forever. A good percentage of its top cities would have been nuked, resulting in the deaths of perhaps 10-20 million further Russians. Its non-Russian territories would have been detached, and it would have been occupied and vassalized by the US as surely as was Western Germany. Its population today might be around 120 million, though having transitioned back to capitalism much earlier, it would be quite a lot richer.
There were several groups of people calling for preemptive nuclear war on the USSR. The first group were some more hardline American generals, such as Patton and MacArthur. Another surprising proponent was John von Neumann. The common thinking was that nuclear war was inevitable, so the US might as well launch it now, while it still had vast preponderance and the capacity to emerge largely unscathed. In all fairness, they had a point from a purely rational perspective, especially one that privileged their own countrymen’s (future) lives over Russians.
However, in the event they were all overruled, so an American singleton didn’t come to pass.
Another interesting scenario suggested by commenter Thorfinnsson is what would have happened if the USSR had signed a separate peace treaty with Nazi Germany in 1943.
I don’t think this was really politically realistic, even for a totalitarian regime like the USSR. And it was perfectly understandable for Stalin to think that he might as well finish the job and seize the eastern half of Europe, now that half of the job was done.
With the Wehrmacht having its hands untied in the East, D-Day would no longer be feasible. However, the Manhattan Project would not be going away, with the result that a campaign of democidal atomic attrition against the German population would begin from 1945.
The Nazis are not limp-wristed like the Kaiser or even Hindenburg/Ludendorff and will hold onto power as German city after city gets wiped off the Earth.
At some point, Germany will be sufficiently weak for an Allied invasion to be possible, especially considering that there would have been years to prepare for it. Obviously, at this point, the USSR could use the opportunity to scavenge. Even the East Europeans will be less of a problem at this point, having been subjected to 2-3x the degree of democide by the Nazis as they were historically. There would be fewer of them, and they’d hate the Germans even more.
The USSR could have used the armistice with Germany to refocus on science spending and turbocharge the nuclear program, developing it earlier and having a credible deterrent by 1950 instead of 1955 – so no Operation Unthinkable in principle. On the other hand, spying might have become much more difficult, since the Western Allies would be highly hostile to the USSR had it unilaterally quit.
Once the Western Allies finished atomically deconstructing Germany, having reduced its population by perhaps 10 million and subsequently occupied it, they would have turned their attention to the USSR. Hopefully it had used its 5 year window wisely.
The Maoist Swamp
China during the first half of the 20th century was too disunited, too illiterate, and too agrarian to entertain any superpower pretensions.
That said, it could have emerged into the limelight a lot sooner if not for the economic idiocy of Maoism, which even made Soviet central planning seem rational.
Here is a typical series of anecdotes from a textbook on the Chinese economy:
The government assumed direct control over all urban hiring: From the early 1960s onward, the government assigned 95% of high school or college graduates to work and took the authority to hire and fire away from individual enterprises (Bian 1994). Voluntary job mobility within urban areas disappeared, while workers gained protection from being fired. By 1978 voluntary quits and fires had become virtually nonexistent: in that year 37,000 workers in all of urban China quit or were fired, about one-twentieth of one percent of all permanent workers. A worker was 10 times more likely to retire and four times more likely to die on the job than to quit or be fired. The state decided your job, and a job was for life. This complete absence of labor markets was an extraordinary feature of the Chinese command economy. In the Soviet Union, workers were rarely fired but they were free to quit. In fact, in 1978, in the Russian Republic, 16% of all industrial manual workers quit their jobs during the year (Granick 1987, 109).
China in 1950 was perhaps 10 years behind Taiwan, and level pegging with the Koreas. By 1990, it was 20 years behind South Korea.
Had China maintained pace with Korea, its economy would have overtaken the US around 1985 in PPP terms (IRL: ~2012) and around 1995 in nominal terms (IRL: ~2022).
Today, Korea is close to Japan’s level in per capita terms, or around two thirds of the US level. So a capitalist China would now be perhaps three times the size of the US economy.
Today, China produces half the world’s elite level science (up from 25% five years ago). But a China at Korea’s or Japan’s per capita level would already be at about 150% of the American level (where it would level off because Mongoloids seem to be consistently less scientifically productive than Europeans, despite higher IQs).
Still, the one good thing about the Maoist legacy is that it did not destroy China’s demographic potential, like the USSR destroyed Russia’s through democide and promotion of national autonomies. The populations of both South Korea and Taiwan increased by a factor of 2.5x from the early 1950s to today; China’s increased by almost the same number. The Great Leap Forwards famine was canceled out by a lagging fertility transition.
And of course the Maoists didn’t try to set up Fujianese Soviet Republics, enshrine their right to leave the PRC in the Constitution, and promote non-Standard Mandarin languages.
A high-IQ, fully literate country with the world’s largest population was always bound for great things. The Chinese Communists didn’t screw things up too much, apart from delaying its emergence by a generation.