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Fateful Choices, Ian Kershaw 15 March 2014

Kershaw examines ten choices made during the years 1940-1941 that, in his opinion, substantially affected the course of the Second World War.

Kershaw defends his thesis on two fronts: that these were in fact choices, i.e. that the people making them might conceivably have done something else, and that they were fateful, that those other options would have led to the war's having taken a substantially different course. Unfortunately, as an historian, Kershaw is sensitive to accusations of excessive speculation particularly on counterfactual paths, so he doesn't explore the latter as much as I'd like.

The decisions are:

  • Churchill and the British War Cabinet, to fight on after the defeat of France in May 1940. This was not as inevitable as Churchill's memoirs would have it, with desperate appeals going out to Mussolini and Roosevelt, but in the end there seems to have been no hope of a negotiated peace being any better than what would be obtained by fighting on.

  • Hitler, to attack Russia in 1941. One possible alternative was to sweep the Allies out of the Mediterranean, but this would have needed strong coordination with Italy and Vichy France (and probably Spain too), and attacking Russia had always been Hitler's principal objective.

  • Japan, to seize the "Golden Opportunity" and turn south for resources, treading on the toes of the colonial powers now fighting Hitler. The only alternative for Japan was to un-wind the Chinese occupation and knuckle under to the Americans, accepting a permanent second-rate power status.

  • Mussolini, to join the war on Hitler's side in the hope of a quick settlement and a share of the loot. With Mussolini's stock still riding high from the Abyssinian victory, this is less a decision than an inevitability, given the nature of the man in charge.

  • Roosevelt, to lend a hand to England; this is really tied up in American domestic politics, and Kershaw paints Roosevelt walking a line between the isolationists and the hawks, when to support either wholeheartedly was to alienate the others completely. Naturally, matters eased after Roosevelt's re-election late in 1940.

  • Stalin, to ignore warnings of Germany's imminent invasion of Russia, essentially wishful thinking on a grand scale (an invasion in 1942 is one we will be able to counter, therefore the invasion will not happen before 1942) combined with nobody in a position to give bad news to Stalin, and Stalin's own concern that the Allies were trying to drag him prematurely into a war with Germany. It didn't help that Stalin's own purges had put the Soviet Army into a position where it couldn't do much even if alerted.

  • Roosevelt again, to wage undeclared war on Germany; this feels much like an extension of the earlier chapter, and deals with the gradual escalation of what were frankly acts of war against the German navy — and again the vital importance of public opinion. A matter of particular interest to me is the effects of Churchill's speeches on public opinion in the USA. There was the ongoing problem of 70% of the public wanting something done about Hitler, but a partly-overlapping 70% wanting not to get involved in military action…

  • Japan, actually to attack the USA rather than to go north against Vladivostok, or to push harder for a diplomatic accommodation with the USA; even those who doubted that the war was winnable seem to have been prone to feel that it had to come anyway, since the alternative (of continued American domination without even trying to fight) was worse.

  • Hitler, to declare war on the USA after Pearl Harbor; this is often held up as one of the great madnesses, but the situation as it stood was to Germany's disadvantage (being attacked by American ships and rarely able to retaliate), Hitler regarded war as inevitable anyway and wanted to have a crack at American coastal shipping before the defences were solidly in place and American war production was fully effective (expected some time in the next year), and there was a certain amount of national pride involved in being the power to declare war rather than the one against which it was declared.

  • Hitler, to kill rather than deport first the Soviet and then the German Jews. Kershaw admits that this isn't as much of a decision as the others: like the invasion of Russia, some means of removing Jews from Nazi society was on the cards from the beginning, and the logistical requirements of a deportation were insuperable.

I don't know enough to argue against any of Kershaw's theses, but the research is excellent, and I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in the period.

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