Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941
by Ian Kershaw
Reviewed by Doug Brown
As Ian Kershaw was having lunch one day with Laurence Rees, Rees mentioned that if he were a historian he would write a book about 1941, as it seemed that was a very pivotal year. Pondering it further, Kershaw elected to extend his reach back into 1940, and concentrate on several specific decisions made by leaders and governments. Were these decisions inevitable or avoidable? What information was available to the decision makers, and what is known about their deliberations? The result is an in-depth analysis of a crucial two-year period in 20th-century history.
These are the 10 decisions that Kershaw chose to examine, pretty much in chronological order:
1. Britain deciding to continue fighting after Dunkirk, instead of suing for peace
2. Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union
3. Japan deciding to aim south toward the Dutch East Indies instead of north toward Russia
4. Mussolini deciding to enter the war and attack Greece
5. Roosevelt deciding to proceed with Lend-Lease
6. Stalin's decision to ignore the evidence that Hitler was about to attack
7. Roosevelt's decision to have the Navy escort ships across the Atlantic, thus waging undeclared war on Germany's U-boats
8. Japan deciding to declare war on the United States
9. Hitler deciding to declare war on the United States after Pearl Harbor
10. Germany's decision to exterminate the Jews
Each decision is dealt with in its own chapter. The chapters all begin with a brief overview of the decision and its consequences, and then go into a detailed examination of the chain of events and discussions that led to the decision. This is followed by an analysis section that examines the constraints on each decision, in regard to other options being open. The close of the chapter then discusses consequences of each decision, which usually leads to the next chapter and the next decision. While this structure allows for thorough examination of each decision, it does result in some repetition within chapters. However, given the complexity of the issues involved, some readers might appreciate the reiterations of information already presented.
Kershaw makes it clear from the outset that he isn't interested in counterfactuals, a point he repeats in the "Afterthoughts" section. As to the alternative options that may have been present for each decision, he states, "A rich variety of imaginary 'what if' scenarios might be constructed on such a basis -- a harmless but pointless diversion from the real question of what happened and why. For the preceding chapters have shown in each case why these alternatives were ruled out." Each chapter does offer brief suggestions of how things might have subsequently changed (or not) had key decisions been made differently, but these short diversions rarely stray far from the main issue at hand.
World War II buffs know Kershaw primarily for his monumental two volume biography of Hitler. His scholarship is exemplary -- the text is followed by almost 100 pages of notes, and the list of works cited is another 20 pages. Fateful Choices may not be light reading, but it offers a fascinating look at the choices that led to global war and the utter destruction of two nations.