In the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a temporarily insane Doctor McCoy passes through a time portal. The landing party sent to retrieve him discovers that it has lost contact with the orbiting starship Enterprise. Implacably, the guardian of the portal explains, “Your vessel, your beginning—all that you knew—is gone.” McCoy had somehow changed Earth’s history, with catastrophic results.
In desperation, Kirk and Spock go back in time to find McCoy, determine how he changed history, and stop him. Eventually Spock discovers that history pivots on the moment when McCoy saves a remarkable woman, Edith Keeler, from a fatal accident. Keeler went on to found a pacifist movement so powerful it delayed U.S. entry into World War II, allowing Nazi Germany time to develop the atomic bomb first. “With their A-bombs, and with their V-2 rockets to carry them,” Spock explains, “Germany captured the world.”
This imagined possibility provides one of the most compelling moments of the entire Star Trek series—and has provoked the imagination of many a history buff as well. But a determined spoilsport can poke a number of holes in it. To begin with, the Nazis never seriously pursued an atomic weapon. Even had they done so, limits on the production rate of fissionable material meant that at best, it would have required several weeks to manufacture a single atomic bomb. The massive rain of atomic bombs implicit in the Star Trek scenario was therefore out of the question. In any event, V-2 rockets could not have carried the immensely heavy early atomic bombs. The Nazis did not have a bomber with sufficient lift to carry them, either.
Moreover, if the Nazis had somehow reached cities in England and Russia, that would not necessarily have compelled these adversaries to surrender. Two atomic bombs barely sufficed to defeat Japan, and then only after the Japanese had suffered irreversible battlefield defeats and the fire-bombing of most of their cities. In telling contrast, historically the Red Army—although buffeted by disaster upon disaster—eluded strategic defeat and eventually assumed the offensive. Underscoring Soviet resilience was the fact they suffered 20 million dead—the equivalent of 200 Hiroshimas—and still continued to fight.
Yet another questionable assumption is that a German bomb would have been equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb. It could easily have been much less. India’s first nuclear test in 1974, for example, yielded only four kilotons (versus the 20 kilotons of the Hiroshima bomb).
It is also a virtual certainty that the shock of a German bomb would have shaken the United States from its pacifist reverie and sparked the launch of the Manhattan Project. Shielded from Nazi attack by the Atlantic Ocean, America would have eventually developed a bomb of its own, and used it either to deter further Nazi gains or, from bases in Britain or the Soviet Union, rained destruction upon Germany.
Thus it is impossible, even in the Star Trek universe, to imagine a plausible scenario by which Nazi Germany would have “captured the world.”
The probability of German victory through use of atomic bombs diminishes still further when one considers events as they actually unfolded, with America’s entry into the war in December 1941. Even granting Nazi acquisition of the bomb in July 1943—two years before the United States achieved this feat—and arbitrarily giving the Germans a bomber with a range and payload comparable to Britain’s Lancaster heavy bomber, the Third Reich would have faced not a single adversary comparable to 1945 Japan, but rather three nations firmly on the offensive and demonstrably winning the war. In such circumstances, a handful of atomic bombs would scarcely have compelled the Grand Alliance to surrender. Given that reality, how could Germany have best wielded its newly acquired weapon?
The most obvious approach, the destruction of cities á la Hiroshima, was in fact problematic. An attack on American cities was out of the question. The phenomenal capacity of the Soviet Union to absorb destruction would argue against the efficacy of simply destroying Russian cities. (Historically, the Siege of Leningrad claimed eight times the number of civilians killed in Nagasaki.) In any event, not even a Lancaster-like bomber could have reached the Soviet industrial centers beyond the Ural Mountains. London and a few other British cities might have been leveled, but would this have caused the British government to make a separate peace? Even had this occurred, would the United States have withdrawn from Britain? Or would it have taken the course adopted historically by Germany when Italy surrendered in 1943: assume de facto control over its former ally and use it as a platform on which to continue the fight?
A better approach, considering the numerous reversals of Germany’s fortune on the battlefield, would have been the tactical use of the bomb against enemy armies. For ideological reasons, the Nazis would have been tempted to target Soviet forces: from the outset, the Nazis had regarded Bolshevism as a menace that must be totally eradicated. But the fact that the Soviets had continued fighting despite the destruction of entire armies ought to have suggested that even nuclear attacks would not have stopped the Red Army.
The Western Allies would have made better targets, since they could only get at Germany via amphibious landings. Of necessity, such landings had to be geographically concentrated, making them ideal targets. German’s mere possession of an atomic bomb would therefore have rendered D-Day and a second front out of the question. Faced with this reality, it is just possible that the Soviets might have negotiated a separate peace with Germany.
What becomes highly probable, then, is that a protracted stalemate would have settled over Europe, finally disrupted when the United States acquired the bomb in July 1945 and employed it against Germany. World War II, not a hypothetical World War III, would thus have become the first nuclear conflict.