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FATEFUL CHOICES by Ian Kershaw

FATEFUL CHOICES

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Review by Dennis Showalter

Kershaw, best known for his magisterial two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, scintillates here in another context: his presentation of the 10 interfacing decisions that moved the European war of 1939-40 into a global conflict by December 1941. What might have been a routine narrative of events becomes under Kershaw's touch a tour de force analysis of contingency's role in shaping history.

Kershaw's 10 crucial decisions are:

1. Britain's decision to continue the war after the fall of France.
2. Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union.
3. Japan's decision to go after the colonial empires of Hitler's European victims.
4. Mussolini's decision to join Hitler.
5. Roosevelt's decision to support Britain.
6. Stalin's decision to ignore warnings of a German attack.
7. Roosevelt's decision to wage undeclared war.
8. Japan's decision for war against the U.S.
9. Hitler's decision for war against the U.S.
10. Hitler's decision to annihilate Europe's Jews.

Each decision can stand alone as a model case study, based on impeccable scholarship and shaped by a career's worth of insight. The chapter on Hitler's declaration of war against the U.S. is particularly distinguished by its compelling argument that Hitler as early as autumn 1941 entertained thoughts that Germany's gamble for world power had evaporated with the collapse of the original plan for the conquest of Russia. Given Roosevelt's increasing support of Britain, war with America seemed inevitable in any case. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Hitler characteristically decided to regain the initiative through the kind of bold move that had worked so well since he assumed power.

Each of Kershaw's decisions had alternative options. Britain might have offered peace feelers in 1940. Mussolini might have been overruled by the King and the armed forces. Even the destruction of the Jews might have been postponed. Individuals are not detached from the forces that condition their actions. The men at the center of Kershaw's presentation, Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, and the others, were not ciphers. They had an input not reducible simply to representing abstract forces and structures. Their choices were made because of who they were as people. But the choices were not made in vacuums. They reflected the synergy of leaders with the systems they governed.

Fascist-style authoritarian states made the most dynamic, but ultimately the most disastrous decisions. These highly personalized regimes imbued with vital ideologies lacked constraints, direct and indirect, on their leaders. In Russia, too, the ruler's personality determined in detail the course of the entire system—often disadvantageously. In Britain and the U.S., by contrast, long-established, well-structured bureaucratic machinery framed policy choices, allowing little scope for arbitrary, all-or-nothing decision making. Behind them was public opinion: of major importance in the U.S., and not to be ignored even in wartime Britain.

During the two years presented here vital considerations were constantly at stake; vital risks were involved, in rapidly changing circumstances. By considering the options actually chosen in the context of both their alternatives and their matrices, Kershaw makes a major contribution to the history of World War II, and to our understanding of decision-making in crises. 480 pages • 6" x 9"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ian Kershaw is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield.

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