Kershaw examines ten choices that changed the world between the spring of 1940 and the end of 1941. Each of them could have been different (though Kershaw shows that the alternatives, usually lengthily and therefore somewhat repetitively rehearsed, were not very appealing, and sometimes not even sensible), and had they been different, the history of the Second World War and of the world following it would of course have been very different, too.
The first choice Kershaw examines is that of Britain refusing to negotiate with Hitler after the fall of France. The decision to fight on alone was taken by the inner war cabinet of only five men. Among them only the Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, argued strongly for exploring possible peace terms. The others (and the members of the outer cabinet whom Churchill briefly addressed rather than consulted) were won over by the new prime minister's charisma.
The British refusal to negotiate surprised Hitler. He believed that the British were holding out only because they hoped that the United States would eventually come into the war (which Hitler also believed) and that the Soviet Union might act against Hitler. The second of the choices was Hitler's conclusion that therefore he needed swiftly to attack and defeat the Soviet Union (which he thought would be `child's play') before he could force Britain to make peace and thereby also prevent US intervention. Kershaw stresses that Hitler had no cabinet meetings after February 1938, and all major decisions were essentially his own, often in defiance of even his military advisers. The plans of the German navy to force Britain to make peace by attacks in the Mediterranean were briefly considered by Hitler as a supplement, but not as an alternative, to the invasion of Russia. Kershaw believes that from Hitler's point of view, the attack on Russia was logical.
There is a fascinating chapter on the choices made by Mussolini: to enter the war in 1940 against the pessimistic warnings of the military, of his foreign minister Count Ciano, and of the king; followed by the even more fateful decision to attack Greece in 1941, this time egged on by Ciano who wanted to extend his quasi-fiefdom in Albania, but against the advice of the military and against German attempts to restrain him. Three times as many men were sent to Greece as were then in the Italian army in Libya. Had they been sent to Libya instead, the outcome of the African campaign might have been dramatically different.
Then there are the fateful choices made by Stalin: the emasculation of his armed forces in the purges of 1937; his pact with Hitler in 1939; and his refusal to the very last moment to act on intelligence information that Hitler would attack in 1941 rather than, as Stalin had anticipated, in 1942 at the earliest. Here again Kershaw is careful to examine alternative choices that could have been made, concluding that actually Stalin's choices narrowed greatly after the Purge.
Two chapters plot in great detail the slow but steady involvement of the United States in helping Britain with Lend-Lease, underlining Roosevelt's anxiety to do everything short of war to support Britain, even though Lend-Lease was likely to make American entry into the war almost unavoidable. Although public and congressional opinion supported these measures, Roosevelt dared not ask Congress for a declaration of war, fearing that at worst he would be defeated there, or at best that he would take a divided nation into the war. In all the other chapters decisions were made essentially by one man (in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union) or by a small elite (in Japan - though with much debate within that elite -, and, in the first chapter, by Britain). Roosevelt was the only leader whose scope of action was restricted by democratic institutions. Only Pearl Harbour and Hitler's declaration of war on the United States resolved this dilemma for him.
Two chapters trace the choices was made by the Japanese. The first had been to attack China. China was too big a morsel to swallow whole, but enough to set Japan on a collision course with the United States. The second choice was to take advantage of the defeat of France and the expected defeat of Britain by planning for an expansion towards the south, deliberately running the risk that this was likely to bring the United States into the war. The debate inside the Japanese armed forces about this policy will be unfamiliar to most readers, and continued almost up to Pearl Harbour.
Immediately after Pearl Harbour, Hitler chose to declare war on the United States. Kershaw finds that decision more explicable than most other historians do, on the assumption that, sooner rather than later, the United States would have declared war on Germany even while at war with Japan. It seems to this reviewer the least convincing argument in the book.
The last `choice' Kershaw examines is the destruction of the Jews of Europe. This had always been in Hitler's mind, especially since he saw the Jews as responsible for Germany's defeat in the First World War and as steering the policies of Germany's two main enemies, the United States and Bolshevik Russia in the Second. The only question was how this destruction was to be accomplished. Hitler's choice was of course fateful for the Jews; but, unlike all the decisions described in the other chapters, it did not affect the outcome of the war; and the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, which sanctioned the `Final Solution', also falls just outside the period in the book's subtitle.
Only this last chapter lacks that tension of decision-making which gives the rest of the book such compelling quality.