History of the Second Great War
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made his 18 December 1916 offer to mediate an end to the Great War, Germany initially rebuffed his request for terms. Under pressure from their chief ally Austria-Hungary, desperately needing peace, the Germans relented a few days later and presented a huge list of demands, ranging from the annexation of Belgium to the acquisition of Madagascar.
Austria-Hungary presented a far more modest list, needing an end to combat operations almost as much as the defeated Russians. Italy would make a handful of minor border corrections along the Alpine frontier and pay a war indemnity. Serbia would be placed under a protectorate, allowed only police forces under strict supervision, with the parts of Macedonia seized by the Serbs during the Balkan wars going to Bulgaria. Albania would receive similar treatment, but noticeably more relaxed. Romania would yield up the southern exits of the Carpathian passes to Austria-Hungary and grant 99-year leases on the Romanian oil fields to Austrian firms. Montenegro would be annexed outright.
Wilson strove mightily to craft acceptable peace accords. Having made his offer just as Germany prepared to unleash unrestricted submarine warfare (which all knew would end any hope of a negotiated settlement), he had but one opportunity. American banks had lent heavily to the British and French governments, and now faced catastrophic losses should the Allies be defeated. As would be the case a century later, the federal government believed that bank failures – even those brought on by foolish actions of the banks themselves – would endanger the American economy and must be prevented by government action (and as would also be the case a century later, bank profits would remain with the banks). If Wilson could not extricate the borrowers from defeat by diplomacy, he would have to do so by intervention. And Woodrow Wilson, who had just won re-election a month earlier on an anti-war platform, did not wish to take his country to war.
An armistice went into effect on New Year's Day 1917, and by springtime, Wilson had a set of treaties to offer that left everyone vaguely dissatisfied. Grudgingly, all belligerents put their signatures to paper. The war was over.
Though touted as a “peace without victory,” a few outright annexations resulted. Japan acquired the German colony at Tsingtao in China. Britain refused to return the Turkish vilayets of Basra and Baghdad in Iraq. Austria-Hungary picked up some sparsely-inhabited woodlands at the southern exits of the passes through the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, while Germany added the uninhabited Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic and received Zanzibar and the Solomon Islands from Britain.
Otherwise, territorial change is the result of plebiscites – votes by inhabitants of the affected areas. Most of Alsace-Lorraine remains with Germany, while Luxembourg joins the Reich as well. Russia loses Poland, the Baltic areas and the Trans-Caucasus. Italy fails to gain any former Austro-Hungarian lands, while Serbia loses Macedonia and Kosovo. Turkey loses Armenian lands in eastern Anatolia.
Over the next two decades, the Central Powers become a powerful economic bloc. The Great Depression, lacking the precursors of German reparations and Weimar hyper-inflation, is only a serious recession. This is a much richer world than the one we know, though economic disparities build resentment all the same. Right-wing politicians in France, Italy and Russia seethe with bitter anger over their “stolen victory.” Fascist regimes in Italy and France, as well as Russia’s Tsar Alexei, prepare for a new war to overturn Wilson’s Peace, turning to new technologies and tactics to make the difference.
That’s the background of our Second Great War alternative history. Imperial Germany is economically powerful, but reliant on older methods and weapons. Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire are still around and much more stable, with Russia in particular a military and economic powerhouse.
Woodrow Wilson actually made the offer up above on the date cited, but in the actual case Germany refused to even reveal her demands. The German government had put together a list in November, but chose to believe the Navy's assurances that unrestricted submarine warfare would bring outright victory. Wilson, taking the refusal as personal insult, became hardened toward the Central Powers and led his country into war as soon as Germany gave him a reason. Numerous historians have pointed to this moment as one of the most tragic in human history, a real chance to end the war before millions more died, even more destruction ensued and power politics became hardened into the pattern that would lead to depression, Holocaust and tens of millions more killed.
And while that’s likely true, it would not have instantly removed the causes of war: that ambitious politicians would still find in armed conflict a powerful means by which to excite and inflame their populations. And once war began, a government would then have the excuse to arrogate even more power to itself. War would not – and will not – end as a means of state policy until the reasons not to fight outweigh the reasons to fight.
In our alternative history, there remain many reasons to fight. Our series of Second Great War at Sea books has so far looked at the fighting in the Mediterranean, North Atlantic and South China Sea in this different history, and will look at many more regions in the future. It will likely even embrace areas not covered by Second World War at Sea games. As a fictionalized history, it also allows us to shape the story to suit our game design desires; for example, the battleship has a much more prominent place in this struggle than in our world, because we wanted battleships to get a lot of action on your game table.
While the series is intended to mirror Second World War at Sea, we’ve touched on a couple of other game systems with limited-edition supplements for the Gold Club. Panzer Grenadier: Land Cruisers brings the Second Great War to the French invasion of Germany in September 1940, with the Germans deploying their top-secret giant armored mobile fortresses to slow down the French tank divisions. Alsace 1940 uses Alsace 1945, a regimental-level game of ground campaigns, to present a fun little game of the French drive across Alsace to capture Strasbourg. And we have plans for a related Great War at Sea story arc.
This alternative history stuff has turned out to be a lot more fun than I’d ever imagined. Hang on for a wild ride.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.