I was working on a story project some years ago which featured a highly alternate near future in which, among other things, a 3-way cold war had spread across the solar system. There were many other F&SF aspects mostly irrelevant to this question, so I'm not (necessarily) asking for why space travel developed faster in this world. The issue is...

What could lead to a post-WW2 world where Western Allies, Communists and fascists are locked in a three-way standoff?

The real WW2 featured a team-up of the "West" and "East" Blocs against the "Central", which broke down into a conflict between the winning alliance. Axis victory scenarios typically lead to a Cold War, but of the variety "East loses, standoff between West and Center"; the USSR is conquered, or reduced to a rump state that's no longer a great power.

My first idea was "A plot to kill Hitler succeeded." Post-Hitler Germany was then able to secure a truce, USA-USSR relations break down without a common enemy, all 3 sides develop the atomic bomb, an unconquered Germany is first into space... I don't think that's a good answer, though. It ignores that Axis =/= Germany. Germany (almost) alone can't come close enough to matching the industrial power of the other two blocs, thus can't credibly sustain a cold war with them for generations. So I'm asking for something better.

No, "WW2 didn't happen" isn't an acceptable answer, even though the desired "present" situation bears some resemblance to the pre-WW2 situation. Some kind of major war has to have still happened circa 1940.

Clarification: The story expected / required that the "present" situation have USA, UK (and at least preferably also France) in the Western bloc, Russia/USSR and at least part of China in the Eastern bloc, Germany, Japan (and at least preferably also Italy) in the Central bloc. This means your answer has to allow all the powers to remain in (or get back into) place after the war.

(Different situation from Could Nazi Germany, Surviving WWII, Survive the Cold War? , I think.)

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    $\begingroup$ Didn't you read 1984? They had exactly this. But a three-way fight will be dynamically unstable at best unless there is collusion between the states. Totalitarian rulers seeking to maintain power would fight, but more symbolically (like a cold war) so your three powers might pay lip service to victory, but really conspire back and forth to maintain a constant near equality. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ until it had always been an ally of Eastasia. OR was that the other way? Regardless, just keep your mouth shut and do your job... $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus Hi there, citizen! We here at MiniTrue are happy to clarify that Eastasia has always been our ally. If you have any more <strike>reasonable doubts</strike> memory lapses, please contact our support department at 1-800-MINILUV. If a phone proves to be unavailable, just speak into one of those handy-dandy telescreens. Have a nice day! $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus Right, 1984 actually highlights by accident why a three-way cold war would be difficult to maintain. What would happen is eventually two of the powers would gang up on the third and take them out. The reason the cold war was such a stalemate and a...cold war for so long was because there were only two superpowers, and as such no third parties around to disrupt the status quo. An unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2021 at 2:10

4 Answers 4


The key to your scenario is the phrase "stand-off". In the real world, that two party stand-off was created by the presence of nuclear weapons and the threat of mutual insured destruction. There is no reason that this proven source of stand-off couldn't be spread across more participants.

You are embracing an alternative near-future which already involves accelerated technological growth. Why not start that acceleration a little earlier by allowing all three of the would-be super powers to master weaponized nuclear fusion at approximately the same time. If within a few weeks of each other, each of the major powers proved their nuclear capacity by annihilating an enemy city, they might very quickly find themselves equally motivated to negotiate for peace. And once peace is achieved, a three-way cold war can smolder on slowly for as long as your story needs.

So the question becomes, how do you justify a simultaneous scientific discovery to your readers? Personally, I would use spies.

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    $\begingroup$ Germans keep their nuclear physicists despite the awkward "Race" thing. Some defect with their knowledge, accelerating both groups A-bomb programs, but the Soviets don't share. After WW2 reaches a hostile but negotiated settlement, the Western allies discover the Soviet withholding (when Stalin sets off a bomb) and declare the USSR in violation of the treaties ending the war. Then everyone hates everyone (the human default position). $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ UK was third. France was fourth. However, after the "Sino-Soviet ideological split in the late 1950s" and China became the fifth in 1964, it decidedly became a three-way. Nuclear arms race. Also, "socialist is something you call yourself, fascist is something you call others" What specifically is the difference between Socialism and Fascism? $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura If only there was a way to send that link to everybody in ANTIFA... $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ "Within weeks" and "all three" sound overly restrictive. I think it can be done with only two (US, DE) given that the real Cold War started without SU having the A-bomb yet, and given the late-war Allied advantage IRL, the Axis getting the bomb more than a few weeks ahead of the Allies could still lead to a standoff, I expect. But the general concept is sound. In particular, this kind of scenario offers the easy "out" for JP: the war can still have turned against them, but DE can then say to US, "If you invade Japan, we drop the A-bomb on Britain," forcing an end to the Pacific War. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 15:25

Britain falls, US fights Japan but not Germany

It is hard to imagine an alternate history where Germany defeats the US. But imagine Britain going under in 1940 or early 1941. The mechanisms for that might include

  • more credible preparations for Sealion from 1935 onwards (high numbers of channel-crossing LCMs being built instead of useless capital ships, better subs to screen them),
  • a less drastic Blitzkrieg in France and the Low Countries, lasting a few months longer and drawing in a greater proportion of the British Army,
  • followed by a more complete Dunkirk debacle (perhaps they fell back to Le Havre or Cherbourg, and the subs mentioned above closed the channel).

The US is denied a staging base close to the continent, and anyway they have been grievously hit by the Japanese. Again going on a limb, Japan realized that simply bombing Pearl Harbor would enrage America but not cripple it, so they gambled to add an invasion force to the mix. (Closer possessions like the Philippines were to wither on the limb once Hawaii fell.) The US still wins, but it is clearly Pacific First for them.

Meanwhile, the Nazis concentrate on the Russians. The fight goes slightly better than it did historically, with no lend-lease for the Soviet Union and more of the limited German manpower. The Nazis still get bogged down in the vast eastern steppes because

  • the Soviet Union had a larger population and a large industry,
  • they managed to withdraw much of their industry behind the Urals,
  • German actions in the occupied territories trigger a fierce partisan resistance, and each mile eastwards increases the need for lines-of-communications troops.

Imagine a costly stalemate, with Stalingrad repeated in Kazan, Samara, Moscow, Perm. Both sides bleed each other dry.

It is hard to imagine that the situation above would lead to Korean-style armistice negotiations, but perhaps they do. Replace both dictators by more reasonable men at a late stage?

All three sides had nuclear programs from 43 or 44 onwards. The American one was the most advanced, but still severely limited in the number of bombs they could produce. One or two dozen would not enable a transatlantic invasion, and the US didn't have more than that until the East Front armistice. Both Nazis and Soviets were in the single digits. They might have used them on tactical targets, or not, either way they failed to break the stalemate. Neither side had air forces to reach the enemy industrial centers.

  • $\begingroup$ In this scenario the Germans treat the UK well and the UK sees sense in cooperation. The military might of the UK is added to that of German and used against the USSR. Regardless of Europe I see the US ,much less inured by war and very much on top in this 3 way cold war. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk, with the UK it could go either way. Their industry might be pressed into service, as it was with France, but troops look iffy to me for the immediate war years. The US is clearly leading, at least for the first decade or two. After that, the author can justify any one superpower on top. We'd like to think that democracy, capitalism and apple pie will win, but that isn't inevitable. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ Alternate worlds with Nazis on top has been done done done. But a world where the UK / Germany combination evolves to a partnership of equals creates an entity with real world conquering potential. As opposed to other warring sides it seems to me that even at war UK and Germany had mutual respect for each other and the two cultures have similar strengths. For a fiction, a postwar hybrid entity would be an awesome fascist power and would be great to write. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 18:41

Nuclear war.

The USSR now is Siberia and Soviet central Asia. The capital of the US is now Shreveport, LA. Neither country is now a super power.

Fascism however is alive and well in South America, and Argentina now occupies the entire continent up to the Panama canal, with the exception of a small remnant Brazil. Allied with Argentina is Franco's Spain as well as a confederacy of West African nations.

Communist china made the same mistakes it did in our timeline but now has gotten its act together. Absent containment by the US and USSR, China began aggressive expansionism and has acquired Japan, Korea and is in the process of doing the same for Southeast Asia.

Europe also suffered in the nuclear exchange with the UK suffering a fate similar to the US. Central europe fared better and with the fall of the USSR the EU acquired many nations once in the orbit of the USSR.

None of these countries are the formidable powers that the US or USSR were in their heydays and so this scenario is 2 steps away from what was. Mixing it up more means less constraint from actual history, while still keeping the fun elements of actual history.

  • $\begingroup$ Completely not what I'm looking for. The whole point was to be bound by history, to make a setting that, while alternate, felt almost "more real than the real world", if you get the point. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2021 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ I was trying for something more creative. Nazi Germany sticking around past WW2 has been done done dun dun de done. Soviets not quite as much but almost. But nothing wrong with either one for a good story! Maybe if you want a real life 3 superpower scenario you can set your story in the spring of 1939. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 14, 2021 at 21:38

Well, a cold war in an era where humans have spread around the solar system is rather easy because wide access to WMDs (big rocks) is available. Provided you know where the enemy is, you can accelerate some asteroids and set up their trajectories in a manner where they would be extremely difficult to block. Big rocks falling from space onto planets, moons, or into space stations would be far more destructive than nuclear weaponry.

Because of this, I personally doubt the assertion that Germany wouldn't be able to hold a multi-generational cold war. If they have access to WMD's (nukes or asteroid impactors), they can "play at the big boys table" even from a position of weakness for an extended period of time.

As for WWII, this is my personal opinion on how you could accomplish this (but keep in mind I'm not a historian):

First, the superpowers that end up are the "West", Germany, and the USSR. While Japan in WWII had some unmatched advantages such as their unbreakable morale and superior aircraft at the beginning of the war, I'm of the opinion that their war against the USA and the other Allied nations was always doomed to failure. Their cultural attitude towards the war blinded them towards strategies that eventually led to their defeat and they simply didn't have the resources or economic umpf to not get simply stepped on by the USA once their wartime production got into swing. Furthermore, their allies in Germany and Italy were too far away to really assist and while there is some unusually high cultural compatibility with the Germans and the Japanese of the time, the only reason they're on the same side (in my, non-educated opinion) is that they're so far apart. Japan wanted Imperialism and Germany was far enough away that they'd never need to fight each other.

As for how to prevent Germany from losing the war? Easy, just make it so that when Hitler ascends to power, he's unable to install his party as leadership too. For some reason (this can be really minor like one politician who's more charismatic or one person who dies at the wrong time), his coup of the German government fails, and while he becomes a popular figurehead and chancellor of the German people, he ends up not in charge of the military strategy. WWII still happens though, because it's generally popular among the high-politics of Germany at the time. The difference is that Germany "wins" though: Instead of having Hitler in charge, competent generals and politicians decide on military strategy and avoid things like fighting the war on two fronts (maybe only engage Russia minimally) and they also avoid the atrocities like gas chambers (which were Hitler's pet project). The Reich still ends up Nationalistic and Hitler's antisemitism is still popular, but things don't get bad enough that the countries get their knickers in a twist over moral indignation. Germany ends up conquering most of central Europe up to the Spanish border, and controls basically everything as seen in this map except maybe not so far to the East because they avoid conflict with Russia:

German Reich

Once Germany has control over basically all of continental Europe barring Spain and Turkey, instead of fighting Russia and the UK, the competent leadership decides that enough is enough and the nation turns to fortifying and concentrating their control over their new nation. With this much land and so many people under their control, there's no reason that the German Nation wouldn't be a superpower to rival the USSR and the Allies.


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