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Quote of the Week: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." - Will Durant, American historian (1885-1981)

Could the British Empire have Remained to the Modern Day?

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Chirios
PostPosted: 2012-08-24 10:04am 

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Assuming one or more POD (points of difference) before WWI, would it have been possible to restructure the British Empire such that it survived to 2012?
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Borgholio
PostPosted: 2012-08-24 10:18am 

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Well much of the reason why the empire failed is because all of it's colonies wanted independence. There's no way to prevent that aside from posting an army in every single colony, which could not have been done, especially considering how the army was needed to fight Napoleon in the early 1800s. So they only way to preserve the empire would have been to voluntarily free most of the colonies and hang on to the best ones. Quality over quantity.
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Spoonist
PostPosted: 2012-08-24 10:24am 

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As one country or several in a union?
Do you mean the whole empire? Or parts of it?
etc
I'm going to guess that USA is not part of it since you mention WWI, but still... Nova Scotia is 1850s something isn't it? So the process was already starting there.
And the british north american thingie wasnt that by the 1860s, so both foundations for dominions ruling themselves and their desire to do so is well established before WWI.

You have to be much more specific and elaborate a bit more unless you want this to be punted to off-topic or testing.
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Chirios
PostPosted: 2012-08-24 10:35am 

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Spoonist wrote:
As one country or several in a union?
Do you mean the whole empire? Or parts of it?

etc
I'm going to guess that USA is not part of it since you mention WWI, but still... Nova Scotia is 1850s something isn't it? So the process was already starting there.
And the british north american thingie wasnt that by the 1860s, so both foundations for dominions ruling themselves and their desire to do so is well established before WWI.

You have to be much more specific and elaborate a bit more unless you want this to be punted to off-topic or testing.[/quote]

Fair enough.

To be more specific, I was talking about the entirety of the Empire as it existed in 1850's. I was thinking it could've remained similar to the Imperial Federation proposal that was described in 1897; where the colonies would remain self-governing but be part of a Federal Union governed from Westminster.
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Ziggy Stardust
PostPosted: 2012-08-24 12:55pm 

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I guess it would be theoretically possible with some degree of liberalization and progressive reformation in the Imperial Office and limited self-determination for colonies/territories to have "preserved" the Empire in some form or fashion, likely one that would resemble the Commonwealth today but with more formal links with the Crown. Honestly, I can't see a way for it to develop much differently than it did unless major changes elsewhere in the timeline prevent World War I and II.
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Simon_Jester
PostPosted: 2012-08-26 11:34am 

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Right.

Here are the big forces in play:


1) The 19th century British empire was stunningly racist by modern standards. It was taken as a granted that anyone who wasn't white was barely capable of governing themselves. As long as this continued, colonial administration wasn't going to move out of white hands. In most of the British colonies, it never did- not until local movements drove the British out entirely. Even after WWI and WWII, colonial government stayed in white hands; in places like Hong Kong that lasted clear through into modern times. The dominant rule of pre-WWII British imperialism was set by Victoria- I'm having trouble digging up the quote, but to paraphrase: "I think it unwise to give up what we hold."

Even in countries like Ireland, where the population was white and British rule was overwhelmingly hated, the British didn't give up without a fight in 1916-21.


2) The state of colonial rule was never satisfactory to British colonies as a whole, with a few exceptions. Except for the 'dominion' nations that were outright British colonies dominated by transplanted Britons (Canada, Australia, and so on) no one was content to be ruled from Britain. Even the Irish weren't, and they lived right next door- because they had been on the receiving end of British colonialism since the 16th century.

So simply having Britain surrender local control over colonial government, while dominating foreign policy and so on, would not have been a stable solution. Something like this was tried in Egypt and a number of other places, and it didn't work. It was very obvious to local populations that their rulers were in thrall to Britain, even when theoretically all the law enforcement and tax collection was done by local officials.


3) Britain achieved world pre-eminence in the 1800s by being the first nation to industrialize. But other countries were close behind it. France remained a peer competitor the whole time. Germany, the US, and eventually Russia began building up power bases. Even relatively weaker powers like Italy and Japan had enough strength to compromise British interests in their own backyard. That had two consequences.

It meant competition for colonies, but that was a minor issue. It also meant that sooner or later, war in Europe was going to change the rules as Britain knew them. We could imagine a combination of factors preventing World War Two, or delaying World War One. But can we imagine all the social and political forces on the continent churning away without a major war breaking out? Britain came out of the Napoleonic Wars with a able to dominate the tone of events in Europe. By 1900 they were just one power among many.


4) The British Empire could not easily survive a major, exhausting war between equal powers. Imperial power depended on keeping military expenses limited, and avoiding large, open wars that would drain the nation's treasury and manpower. World War One had this effect; the British came out of the war in debt. And many of the bright young men who 'should' have gone into colonial administration (would have ten years earlier) were either dead or shell-shocked into pacifism. Other countries not involved in the war (like the US and Japan) started moving into the power vacuum.

Granted, the British hung onto their domains in the years after the war, by inertia, improving communications, and technology (using chemical weapons against hostile tribes). But their grip was a lot weaker; it's interesting to wonder how well the Empire would have held together if there'd been another war the size of the Boer War or the 1857 Indian Revolt. Would popular sentiment in the 1920s and '30s accept enough military effort to put down the rebellion? Or would the British people start saying "Hell no, we won't go!" Vietnam-style?


So there you have it. (1) conflicts with (2): Britain won't start 'giving up' its colonies much before World War Two. But nothing else is going to be tolerable to the colonized peoples, so there will still be anticolonial revolutions and guerilla movements popping up just as in real life.

And (3) conflicts with (4): Britain can't remain the strongest economic power in the world past 1900 or so, it has equals after that. But in a serious war between equals, the British Empire becomes unstable because it burns up resources Britain needs to hold onto the empire.

Solve those contradictions and you might get a stable British Empire. But it wouldn't look very much like the one that really existed, at any stage of its development.
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Mr Bean
PostPosted: 2012-08-26 12:01pm 

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What about the crazy idea of Code Geass where in the British Empire movies it's seat of power to the Americas and begin a much larger breeding program of it's Royals to put a Prince in charge of every colony and letting them rule as they see fit with local limits? Part of the problem for the British Empire was simple distance and colonies always resent being ruled from afar so if the King has a son or daughter there as the face of the Empire who concentrates on being loved by the people with the governor concentrates on the official in public ruling business.

I don't think anything's really possible unless your talking about totally blindly loyal followers among the British to pull of anything sane.
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Thanas
PostPosted: 2012-08-26 12:16pm 

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Queen Victoria had a lot of children to start with. Having more would simply have been impossible. Nevermind the fact that moving the seat of power to the americas is nonsense as it would mean giving up that which had made Britain great and possible to hold on against France and Russia in the first place - industry. Besides, the vast majority of British like living on the islands.


Also note that the Spanish and Portugese tried something like that. It did not go that well for Portugal once the local Prince decided "Well, I want to be an independent king" - that is how Brazil got its independence. And the Spanish local aristocracy was one of the reasons many colonies became independent as they thought they could very well rule alone.
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Mr Bean
PostPosted: 2012-08-26 12:22pm 

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Thanas wrote:
Queen Victoria had a lot of children to start with. Having more would simply have been impossible. Nevermind the fact that moving the seat of power to the americas is nonsense as it would mean giving up that which had made Britain great and possible to hold on against France and Russia in the first place - industry. Besides, the vast majority of British like living on the islands.

What about splitting the difference and just aiming to make the American colonies as big under-taking and doing a pre-America... Americanism where in they go to their other colonies and offer them great jobs if they are willing to board ships and come to America if they don't like being a farmer in India anymore.

Thanas wrote:
Also note that the Spanish and Portugese tried something like that. It did not go that well for Portugal once the local Prince decided "Well, I want to be an independent king" - that is how Brazil got its independence. And the Spanish local aristocracy was one of the reasons many colonies became independent as they thought they could very well rule alone.

Perhaps I should be a little more clear, I was referring to the current role of the British Monarchy, that of figure head, speech reader and tourist attraction. If Queen Victoria sent a kid or two off to a colony with the clear understanding they were to be given tasks but rule would be retained by the Governors, I neglected to split my difference between referencing my Code Geass example where the prince and princesses did rule in the King/Queens name and my actual suggestion which is giving a colony a personal royal to latch on to and love even as the Governor is doing the things like raising taxes and having workers beaten the Royal is there handing out food, visiting the sick and doing the personal things to make people like them.
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Thanas
PostPosted: 2012-08-26 05:21pm 

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I am not sure how that would matter much in the long run.
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Simon_Jester
PostPosted: 2012-08-26 08:20pm 

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Mr Bean wrote:
What about the crazy idea of Code Geass where in the British Empire movies it's seat of power to the Americas and begin a much larger breeding program of it's Royals to put a Prince in charge of every colony and letting them rule as they see fit with local limits?
Monarchies become catastrophically unstable when you start putting independent princes in charge of every province. Also, having royals as provincial governors with any real decision-making power would go strongly against the British tradition of government.

In Britain-descended societies (America, Canada, Australia,...) it would do harm; in other lands it would do no good.

Mr Bean wrote:
Thanas wrote:
Queen Victoria had a lot of children to start with. Having more would simply have been impossible. Nevermind the fact that moving the seat of power to the americas is nonsense as it would mean giving up that which had made Britain great and possible to hold on against France and Russia in the first place - industry. Besides, the vast majority of British like living on the islands.
What about splitting the difference and just aiming to make the American colonies as big under-taking and doing a pre-America... Americanism where in they go to their other colonies and offer them great jobs if they are willing to board ships and come to America if they don't like being a farmer in India anymore.
The shipping cost would be very large, the available land supplies limited, and the rewards minimal. Being a farmer in India in 1750 wasn't that much worse than being a farmer in America.

Quote:
...I neglected to split my difference between referencing my Code Geass example where the prince and princesses did rule in the King/Queens name and my actual suggestion which is giving a colony a personal royal to latch on to and love even as the Governor is doing the things like raising taxes and having workers beaten the Royal is there handing out food, visiting the sick and doing the personal things to make people like them.
Still not likely to help much.

What led to the independence of the Britain-descended colonies was not a sense of disaffection from the monarch; it was a simple matter of distance and practical government issues. And all the other colonies (in India, Africa and so on) weren't really enthusiastic about having a white monarch.
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Coop D'etat
PostPosted: 2012-08-27 12:45am 

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I doubt Empire could be kept together in any case, but if you want it to survive longer the method that is more likely to have actually happened and worked was if the idea of setting up an Imperial Federation took off. For the dominions at least, the compliants weren't so much about being within the Empire, which they by and large supported, its that the Empire was run by London and the British Parliment which they had no say in.

The other bugbear was the systemic racism. Maybe things turn out a little different if the British acted on their rhetoric about a community of nations under one crown if the Africans and Indians were allowed to participate within it as equals. The idea being that if they treated their subjects becoming citizens like the Romans did, maybe they could eventually get the people outside the metropole to consider themselves British like the Mediterranean world eventual saw themselves as Roman.

Neither probably changes much with WW1 and 2 putting the system under so much strain, but these are things that were talked about in the 19th and early 20th centuries as some of the more forward thinking Imperialists saw the problem of what happens when the colonies start demanding to run their own affairs.
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Irbis
PostPosted: 2012-08-27 06:05am 

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Thanas wrote:
Queen Victoria had a lot of children to start with. Having more would simply have been impossible. Nevermind the fact that moving the seat of power to the americas is nonsense as it would mean giving up that which had made Britain great and possible to hold on against France and Russia in the first place - industry. Besides, the vast majority of British like living on the islands.

Isn't it what the Portuguese did, though? Moving capital from Portugal to Brazil? I don't see how that would have affected industrialization, or somehow force Brits to migrate, maybe a bit of population and industry would move but certainly not a significant fraction.
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Thanas
PostPosted: 2012-08-27 08:32am 

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They did not. They were in exile while Napoleon was reigning in Europe.

wikipedia wrote:
After the Portuguese military had successfully repelled Napoleon's invasion, João VI returned to Europe in April 1821, leaving his elder son Prince Pedro de Alcântara as regent to rule Brazil.[47] The Portuguese government, guided by the new political regime imposed by the Liberal Revolution of 1820, attempted to turn Brazil into a colony once again, thus depriving it of its achievements since 1808.[48] The Brazilians refused to yield and Prince Pedro stood by them declaring the country's independence from Portugal on 7 September 1822.[49] On 12 October 1822, he was declared the first Emperor of Brazil and crowned Dom Pedro I on 1 December 1822.[50] At that time most Brazilians were in favour of a monarchy and republicanism had little support.[51][52] The subsequent Brazilian War of Independence spread through almost the entire territory, with battles in the northern, northeastern, and southern regions.[53] The last Portuguese soldiers surrendered on 8 March 1824[54] and independence was recognized by Portugal on 29 August 1825.[55]
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Stas Bush
PostPosted: 2012-08-27 02:12pm 

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Of course Simon and Thanas are raising perfectly valid points.

People are thinking towards reform and reconstruction. I guess that's not going to work.

If you want to see an eternal British Empire, that'd be a heavily fascist one. Sort of like the Japanese Empire. But Britain would have a benefit, all of its colonies were already conquered. More brutality and relentless violence would have crushed resistance in smaller colonies. Large ones, like India, would probably win their independence at some point.
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CaptHawkeye
PostPosted: 2012-08-27 07:14pm 

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I'm not sure how relentless Britain could afford to be after World War 2. The war had bankrupted them in both finance and strength. Military options to keep the colonies are out of the question until the war exhaustion wears off in about 20 years or Britain can convince the US to fight on its behalf. Not likely unless the colony that's about to leave the Empire has Communist leanings. If Britain cannot retain the Raj then the whole Empire will really be pointless, since India is the core of it all.

It doesn't even matter if Britain can prevent her colonies from leaving, if she has to fight to do it than the disadvantages of even having the colonies outweigh the benefits. France fought long, costly wars with her colonies and all that ended up doing was further weakening a country already crippled from both previous World Wars.
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Stas Bush
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 05:36am 

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CaptHawkeye wrote:
I'm not sure how relentless Britain could afford to be after World War 2.

The OP assumed a pre-WWI POD, actually. I guess I was trying to keep the discussion relevant.
CaptHawkeye wrote:
Not likely unless the colony that's about to leave the Empire has Communist leanings.

In pre-WWI environment with Red Scare going strong in the US the British Empire could actually say "here are communists" and quite possibly the US would act. It intervened in the Russian Civil War, you know.
CaptHawkeye wrote:
If Britain cannot retain the Raj then the whole Empire will really be pointless, since India is the core of it all.

Not true. Keeping Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong et cetera might be worthwhile as it is. Naval bases don't come easy.
CaptHawkeye wrote:
It doesn't even matter if Britain can prevent her colonies from leaving, if she has to fight to do it than the disadvantages of even having the colonies outweigh the benefits. France fought long, costly wars with her colonies and all that ended up doing was further weakening a country already crippled from both previous World Wars.

Once again the POD is a pre-World War I event.
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CaptHawkeye
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 08:42am 

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Derp. Anyway, i'm not sure what decisions made in 1910 would have a relevant effect 30 years later except for extremely draconian ones. Ghandi and agitators like him either get assassinated or christen Britain's new gulags in Tasmania and central Australia! If the British are also willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the Empire intact, enabling representation of the Dominions in Parliament wouldn't be a bad first step.

Britain actually might stand a better chance at holding its colonies if it seeks total defeat of Germany in World War 1. Annihilating the German state would remove the threat of it rising to challenge British rule again. So Britain won't have to find itself in the awkward position of asking its colonies to fight for their freedom while simultaneously denying it too. Biggest of all though is that Britain doesn't have to bankrupt itself fighting the Nazis now. Which leaves useful assets around that would have been expended in World War 2.
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Thanas
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 04:01pm 

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The problem is that annihilating Germany was not an option.
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lance
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 06:30pm 

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Could it have been made significantly weaker with a stronger Poland/France with a hostile Italy?
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Simon_Jester
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 06:52pm 

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Stas Bush wrote:
In pre-WWI environment with Red Scare going strong in the US the British Empire could actually say "here are communists" and quite possibly the US would act. It intervened in the Russian Civil War, you know.
That only happened after there were large bodies of armed men flying red banners in Russia. And it began in the context of the Allies going "holy shit, where did our eastern front just go?" which drew them into Russian affairs and gave them some reason to care what happened in such a large country.

Just pointing and shouting "COMMIES!" when there was no direct US interest would probably just get President Harding or whoever to roll over in his sleep and go "Okay, take care of it yourself..."
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Thanas
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 10:41pm 

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lance wrote:
Could it have been made significantly weaker with a stronger Poland/France with a hostile Italy?


They destroyed the entire German merchant and war fleet, severed the connection between the most important eastern city to the Reich proper, placed said city at the mercy of Poland by demilitarizing it, limited Germany to a token force incapable of serious resistance with no planes, guns or heavy siege artillery, took about a tenth (iirc) of the industrial power including a good chunk of the coal and iron reserves, prohibited Germany from ever developing battleships etc. again and limited it to essentially a coastal navy in the future.

Case in point - France could invade at will at any time (and did during the Ruhrkampf when it occupied the entire Ruhr valley to force German concessions).

That is plenty weak.
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CaptHawkeye
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 10:46pm 

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But that's not annihilation of the German state. I'm talking about straight destruction of Germany proper, breaking its lands, government, and if possible national identity apart and dividing it between the conquering powers. Because despite everything the Versailles Treaty did Germany was back and better than ever in 1939. Hardly an ideal condition for a super draconian British government hellbent on minimizing potential threats.

You seemed to imply though that total annihilation of Germany wasn't feasible. What are the practical reasons stopping the Allies from doing just that?
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Thanas
PostPosted: 2012-08-28 11:33pm 

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CaptHawkeye wrote:
But that's not annihilation of the German state. I'm talking about straight destruction of Germany proper, breaking its lands, government, and if possible national identity apart and dividing it between the conquering powers. Because despite everything the Versailles Treaty did Germany was back and better than ever in 1939. Hardly an ideal condition for a super draconian British government hellbent on minimizing potential threats.


Which nobody knew at the time, so I find it hard to criticize them for it. As long as Germany has more population and industry than France it goes on.

Quote:
You seemed to imply though that total annihilation of Germany wasn't feasible. What are the practical reasons stopping the Allies from doing just that?


Well, there is the practical matter of the German Army. Then there is the fact that the Allies could not maintain an occupation of Germany. The only way this could happen is if the Allies starved the entire German populace into loosing tens of millions and then utterly slaughtering their way through the territories. Neither idea is feasible.

Finally, US support. There was a large group of the USA which thought that Britain was the war criminal party in WWI. The US also has a lot of ethnic Germans. If you start using the above-mentioned methods and display earlier signs of that - and a Government that is basically Nazi Germany of WWII on a larger scale will not be able to temper itself - then chances are the US enter the war on Germany's side or sit it out. Scenario I means auto-defeat for Britain and scenario II means that Britain might not even be able to win the war in the field - and even if the Entente manages that the casualties would be enough to make any attempt at invasion of Germany proper impossible.
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Stas Bush
PostPosted: 2012-08-29 07:37am 

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Thanas wrote:
Well, there is the practical matter of the German Army. Then there is the fact that the Allies could not maintain an occupation of Germany. The only way this could happen is if the Allies starved the entire German populace into loosing tens of millions and then utterly slaughtering their way through the territories. Neither idea is feasible.

Not too infeasible actually. Colonial powers often starved colonies and killing citizens of occupied lands was far more common than people think (e.g. the US slaughter in the Philippines). Breaking up nations isn't too infeasible either, Germany was quite young and breaking it up into shards again is a task which could be accomplished.
Thanas wrote:
Finally, US support. There was a large group of the USA which thought that Britain was the war criminal party in WWI. The US also has a lot of ethnic Germans. If you start using the above-mentioned methods and display earlier signs of that - and a Government that is basically Nazi Germany of WWII on a larger scale will not be able to temper itself - then chances are the US enter the war on Germany's side or sit it out. Scenario I means auto-defeat for Britain and scenario II means that Britain might not even be able to win the war in the field - and even if the Entente manages that the casualties would be enough to make any attempt at invasion of Germany proper impossible.

After Germany is defeated and signs a capitulation, and British forces occupy the cities, why would the US do anything at all? The US would not enter the war on German side either. And super-Imperial Britain isn't "Nazi Germany", it lacks a coherent Nazi ideology. Not to mention the US hardly gave a crap about Germans slaughtering everyone in E. Europe in WWII, it got involved due to Axis-Allied confrontation and geopolitical matters (war with Japan made Germany declare war on the US, if it hadn't not sure the US would even openly declare war on the Reich).
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