Unpredictability is the bane of economists, meteorologists, political pundits and sportswriters. They are always in danger of having their discredited forays into futurology flung back in their faces. Yet when reading a historical work it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that events could have taken only one path — that what happened must have happened. Writing with the advantage of hindsight, historians tend to depict an inexorable march of events leading up to the present.
To challenge this teleological tendency, “counterfactual” history has become fashionable lately, with historians speculating on paths not taken, in books with titles beginning “What If?” Ian Kershaw doesn’t go quite that far in “Fateful Choices,” but he does attempt to show how one of the most consequential events of the 20th century — World War II — took shape, and why it might have turned out differently.
A professor at the University of Sheffield in England and the author of an acclaimed two-volume biography of Hitler, Kershaw focuses on 10 important decisions by Axis and Allied policy makers in the early years of the war. His contention is that the “fateful choices made by the leaders of the world’s major powers within a mere 19 months, between May 1940 and December 1941,” largely determined the course of future events — not only the outcome of World War II but also the shape of the postwar world.
These are the turning points he chooses:
1) The decision by the British War Cabinet in late May 1940, led by the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, to fight on after the fall of France and not to pursue, as some suggested, a negotiated settlement with Nazi Germany.
2) Hitler’s decision in July 1940 to attack the Soviet Union the following year, ensnaring Germany in a war it could not win. 3) Tokyo’s decision in September 1940 to join the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany and to occupy French Indochina. This led to an American embargo on the export of iron and scrap metal and brought conflict with the United States one step closer. 4) Benito Mussolini’s decision in October 1940 to focus the bulk of his war effort not on North Africa, where the British were vulnerable, but on the invasion of Greece, which turned into a debacle that tied down German troops and eventually led to his own downfall. 5) The decision by Franklin Roosevelt in August 1940 to send 50 old American destroyers to Britain, followed by Congress’s approval of the Lend-Lease deal in March 1941, symbolically committing the United States to the anti-Axis cause by (as Roosevelt put it) all “methods short of war.”
6) Stalin‘s failure in the spring of 1941 to heed numerous intelligence reports warning of an impending German invasion — a mistake that cost the Soviet Union dearly when Germany’s Operation Barbarossa began on June 22. 7) Roosevelt’s initiatives in July-August 1941 to embargo oil shipments to Japan, extend conscription, draw up the Atlantic Charter of war aims with Churchill and provide armed escorts to merchant shipping in the western Atlantic — all steps that drew America into an “undeclared war.” 8) The decision reached by the Japanese cabinet and emperor between September and November of 1941 to embark on the southern strategy of grabbing European colonies in the Pacific, beginning with a pre-emptive strike on the United States Navy. 9) Hitler’s decision, in the days following Pearl Harbor, to declare war on the United States, thus sparing Roosevelt the necessity of persuading his countrymen to fight the Nazis as well as the Japanese. 10) Hitler’s decision in the summer and fall of 1941 to begin the mass extermination of European Jewry, making the Holocaust a major feature of the conflict.
Kershaw’s focus on these areas is defensible but not entirely convincing. Notably downplayed are the major moves that launched World War II in the first place: the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and of the rest of China in 1937, and the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and of Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1940. Kershaw might have chosen other turning points as well — for example, the Nazi repudiation of the Versailles Treaty in 1935, which could have led to Anglo-French military action but didn’t. And there were monumental judgment calls later on that Kershaw fails to examine, like Roosevelt’s decision to invade North Africa in 1942, forgoing a second front in Europe until 1944. It’s not clear why Kershaw slights such important events except that they don’t fit into his questionable conceit that the key decisions of the war were made in 1940-41.
Yet he provides ample room in his own account to doubt how pivotal some of the decisions he does examine actually were. After devoting many pages to Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941, he concludes that, even without it, “an American move to full-scale, all-out conflict at some point in the coming months, if not straightaway, would have been well-nigh unavoidable.” But if, as he writes, “Germany and the United States would soon have been at war,” declaration or no declaration, then why does the genesis of the declaration deserve a chapter of its own?
But if his choice of subjects is open to debate (not necessarily a bad thing in a book that presumably seeks to provoke discussion), Kershaw’s treatment of the individual decisions is unquestionably superb. Although he does go on a bit long in some cases, needlessly repeating himself (the phrase “as we have already noted” makes far too many appearances), he offers patient readers a nuanced, sophisticated understanding of how the world looked through the eyes of disparate leaders.
Kershaw expertly explicates the inexplicable — for instance, Hitler’s mad gamble to invade the Soviet Union and Stalin’s equally demented refusal to prepare for the onslaught. He traces the origins of the German plan to a combination of Hitler’s ideological obsessions — gaining Lebensraum to his east while smiting the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy that supposedly ran the Kremlin — and his reckless underestimation of Soviet military capabilities. “A campaign against Russia would be child’s play,” the Führer confidently declared.
That his prediction seemed to come true at first, with the Wehrmacht advancing to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad, was due to the foibles of his adversary. Stalin initiated a self-defeating purge of his officer corps in 1937-38, and then refused to mobilize in 1941, even when his secret agents obtained a preview of the German war plan. How to explain a paranoid like Stalin seemingly trusting in Hitler’s assurances of friendship? Kershaw argues that Stalin knew a showdown with Hitler was coming but didn’t want to risk any hostile steps that might precipitate a German invasion before the end of 1942, when Soviet rearmament would be completed.
“Fateful Choices” is not quite as stimulating or engrossing as the best analytical studies of World War II, my personal favorites being Richard Overy’s “Why the Allies Won” (1996) and Eric Larrabee’s “Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War” (1987). But Kershaw does an excellent job of synthesizing a great deal of scholarship and thereby helping to further our understanding of this epic struggle — as well as of the role of contingency in the making of history.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.